Thursday, August 28, 2014
Out on a Limb in Lebanon
This is one that I would never have pictured myself writing about, but here it goes. Lebanon is dead center of the volatile western area of the Middle East. It sits between Turkey, Syria, Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. It's a rough neighborhood. It's been the center of it's own civil wars, terrorist attacks, radical situations, international incidents, and one really well known mass kidnapping. It's not on the current list of top ten most desirable locations to take a vacation. But, you wouldn't believe the wealth of historical sites that the world is missing out on because they don't want trouble while they're on vacation. I've decided to share some of those today. Let's remember that Anthony Bourdain won an Emmy for "No Reservations" for his episode where they got stuck in Beirut because of an incident. It did happen, but I don't remember him saying that he regretted the trip. It's all part of what makes the place so interesting. It might just be worth it to say that you went to this amazing place and saw amazing things. Oh yeah, and most likely, nothing will happen.
Beirut is by and large the only well known place in Lebanon. It's a sprawling metropolis, home to over 2 million people. It's modern, it's old, it serves several religions, it has amazing architecture, it has great shopping, clubs, restaurants, and hotels. Unlike some other countries in the region, you can drink alcohol here. There are also notable populations of people practicing religions other than Islam. Most Lebanese people are very forward thinking and educated. This is not your ordinary Middle Eastern Country like you hear about on the news. The people in Lebanon are friendly and outgoing. They like tourism, as it is a significant part of their income. That sounds a little weird for a country that's at the epicenter of so many crossroads of the unstable world. So, with all the stuff to do in Beirut, why would I mention Lebanon as a whole?
It's the history that's the adventure here. There are many historic ruins sites in Lebanon. Not only have they survived the recent bombings and civil unrest, but they have survived thousands of years and are still around to be looked at. From the Phoenicians to Alexander the Great to the Romans, these cities have seen a lot of action and history. There are three that are particularly of note. Byblos is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. It dates back to as long ago as 8,000 BC. That's old. It sits right on the coast and is still in use as a city. The ruins are a massive collection that are open for viewing. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These ruins have been being excavated and studied since the 1920's and a wealth of information about the time periods and the peoples have been found. There are many things to see there from the Byblos Castle, to medieval walls. There is the Great Temple, Baalat Temple and the Temple of the Obelisks. It's an amazing place to visit, and since the city is still in use, you can stay, eat and play as well.
Tyre, or Sour as the Romans called it is another ancient city. It's modern parts make up the country's fourth largest city, at around 175,000 people, even though that's only a guess. It lies south of Beirut along the coast, and is one of the biggest port cities. It's industrious but more cultured and reserved than Beirut. The main population in this city is Shia, but there are other groups in the city. Tyre was part of recent wars, and the working city has suffered some damage. The ruins, however, may last forever. Tyre was also a Phoenician city, and was ruled by the Romans. It's most notable piece of architecture is the world famous Hippodrome where public events were carried out. It is a day trip from Beirut and has amazing sea views as well as miles of ruins from Romans and beyond to see.
City number three is the one that fascinates me the most. Baalbek is currently home to just over 100,000 people and has all the modern amenities you need. It's a lovely place to visit. Unlike the other two cities that I mentioned, this one sits on the Eastern side of the country in a desert region. Baalbek is home to some of the best preserved ruins from Roman times including the Jupiter Temple, one of the largest remaining Roman temples in the world. Once believed that this city was first settled by Romans as part of the spice trade with the east, it has recently been discovered that there may be a connection to the Phoenicians. Baalbek is still being excavated and researched and is one of the largest areas of ruins in Lebanon and one of the more interesting. It's well worth the day trip from Beirut, and an amazing site to see.
You never know what you'll find until you go out there and look. Lebanon is a scary place if you've ever watched the news. If you're like me, and have friends who grew up there and go to visit their families every year, you may have had the chance to hear a more realistic view of that amazing country. They aren't all radical Islamists. They aren't all packing guns and hand grenades. They don't wear Kevlar vests around the countryside or the city. They are perfectly wonderful folks with a beautiful country that everyone should see. Take the chance, take a trip to see the amazing history of Lebanon.