Beyond Beirut

October 18, 2020

A third of Lebanon’s population lives in Greater Beirut. However, venturing beyond, one is surprised by the diversity of landscapes and scattering of history in every nook of this small country

Main square of Deir El Qamar. (Photo by author)

In the second week of June, the afternoon sun was really strong and the streets of Baalbek, Lebanon, were mostly deserted. Having spent a couple of hours marvelling at the grandest Roman temples of this ancient city, I felt thirsty and peckish. I walked in the surrounding residential neighbourhood in search of a place where I could address these needs.

Houses on both sides of the street were sand-coloured. At a little distance, a few kids played in the street. From the wicket door inside a brown metal gate of a house to my left, I saw the head of a woman emerge, covered in a white scarf. She shouted after the kids in the street, beckoning them to the house. One of them, perhaps her son, who was riding his kick scooter, came running in her direction. She held open the door for him as he rushed into the house. I was passing by and felt her curious glance in my direction.

Residents of Baalbek must have been used to the sight of foreigners roaming their streets since their city was home to the most impressive Roman ruins south of Turkey. But lately, the tourist traffic had been almost non-existent, as Baalbek was no longer considered a safe place. I used the opportunity to ask her whether there was a place to eat somewhere around. The initial look of inquiry on her face transformed into the softest expression I had seen in a long time. She started to explain the turns in the street to reach the cafe she was sending me to. Without finishing, she paused, either not confident of the clarity of her directions or not trusting my ability to comprehend. She turned inside the door and called “Wael… Wael! The little boy, who had just run into the house, returned to the door, with a piece of bread in his hand. She instructed him to go along with me and show me the café. I said that wasn’t necessary but she insisted that it was not a problem. I thanked her profusely and she responded with a beautiful smile on her bright face. The kind of unexpected tenderness I received from a stranger in that moment still warms my heart whenever I recall it.

Karim, my host in Beirut, had strongly advised me against visiting Baalbek. The city is a stronghold of Hezbollah, a group that has a prominent role in most conflicts in the country. “Don’t complain later if you get kidnapped or killed there,” Karim had warned in a cryptic way. I imagined all the people who had died in wars and conflicts complaining from their graves about not being forewarned about the fatal dangers that took their lives. But then I wasn’t sure if they would have really heeded the warnings, had they received them. In any case, I withheld my plans for the day from Karim, to spare him anxiety about my safety.

View of the Corniche from Sidon’s Sea Castle. (Photo by author)

The magnificent temples of Bacchus and Jupiter in Baalbek have stood there for more than two millennia, withstanding many conflicts before the current one that had just started raging across the nearby Syrian border. In Greek and Roman times, Baalbek used to be known as Heliopolis, meaning “the Sun City”. While that may have been a reference to the solar deity, I deemed its meaning appropriate on account of the heat of midday sun that I felt on my rapidly tanning skin. Similar ancient sites in nearby Turkey are always swarming with tourists. But in Baalbek, the entire temple complex belonged to me, so I could communicate with the souls of the ancient worshippers to tell them that the gods they built those monumental temples to were no longer worshipped in these lands. The sound of azan for zuhr prayers emerged from the nearby mosque-shrine and engulfed the entire temple complex.

Not far from the site of Roman ruins was the shrine of Sayyida Khawla, the youngest daughter of Imam Hussain (with whom Allah was pleased), who according to tradition, passed away when the caravan of the captives of Karbala passed through Baalbek. Historical sources to support this account are scant but when did that ever stop the faithful from attributing sanctity to a place? The beautiful gilded dome and minarets of the shrine shone from a distance. Blue and turquoise tiles with floral patterns and Islamic calligraphy covered the exterior walls. Inside the shrine, walls and ceiling were covered with dazzling mirror work mosaics. In one corner, a large portrait depicting Hazrat Ali (with whom Allah was pleased) was affixed to a stand, holding his legendary double-pointed sword. Under his image, the twelve Shia imams sat respectfully in brown and green robes. By a pillar, I saw a big bullet-shaped object. When I went closer, I realised that there was a slit on one side of it, through which you could throw in donations for Hezbollah. At least not much was left to the imagination about the intended use of donations. Pilgrims prayed at the latticework cage that is believed to house the grave of Sayyida Khawla. This city has been attracting pilgrims for more than two thousand years, but previously they used to pray to the sun god just a stone’s throw from this shrine.

I returned to Beirut and ventured out the next day to visit Byblos, a city in the north that is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities. It’s a hilly city that slopes down to the harbour. Many buildings have red-tiled roofs that look striking against the backdrop of blue Mediterranean waters. Boats and yachts lined the harbour. I returned south and made a stop at Jeita Grotto, which are two interconnected limestone caves, housing the largest known stalactite in the world. Visiting the caves in a boat is a fun experience. The cold climate inside the cave was a welcome break. Water trickling through the limestone had a soothing sound. The boatman pointed out the resemblance of a few stalactites with animal shapes. Time had acted as a sculptor to create those shapes. Outside the grotto, there was a large statue of a brooding bearded man with large hands, one of which he had placed on a rock in front of him. It was called the Guardian of Time. I stood in front of the statue wondering if the job of this guardian was to stop people from proceeding with life beyond the time they had been allocated. An Iraqi tourist interrupted my thoughts, asking me to take his photo next to the Guardian of Time. I had met the same guy earlier in Byblos where he had asked me to take his photo against the harbour. Occasionally life arranges repeat meetings amongst people who otherwise have no meaningful business to see each other again. The Guardian of Time smiled at my elementary observation.

Sayyida Khawla shrine visible in the distance from the Roman ruins at Baalbek. (Photo by author)

Lebanon has a lot of historical sites, each boasting important ruins from Phoenician, Greek and Roman times. Tyre in the south is another one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. I visited it the next day. It is close to the border with Israel and has some important ruins, including a Roman hippodrome and a necropolis with a Great Triumphal Arch. I couldn’t find the main entrance to the vast site of the ruins, so I found my way in through a gap in the fence. Here again, I had the whole site to myself. Patches of the floor were covered with beautiful mosaics from Byzantine period. There was no one to prevent visitors from picking up a few pieces of the mosaic that were coming apart. I wondered if the site would be plundered if it remained unprotected like that. Then I thought of all the wars and destruction this region has seen in its 2,500 years of existence and marvelled at the miracle of what still remained.

As I was about to leave, the ticket checker came running after me. He was panting from the chase when he reached me. He said I should have entered through the main gate after buying a ticket. But he was sympathetic to my explanation of having looked around for the main entrance in vain, and said, “Okay, but be careful next time.” In saying so, he floated the idea of a ‘next time’ and I took it as a promise to see Lebanon once again.

As I devoured it [the food] with sips of laban, the man and his helper watched me intently. They asked me about where I had come from, how I found their city, what kind of food I ate in my country, whether it had any similarities with their food and in which of the two countries I found women prettier.

From Tyre, I went to Sidon, a city of no less historical importance. History was abundant in Lebanon and scattered at every step. Both cities are located on the Mediterranean coast. The most fascinating aspect of Sidon was its old town. I explored the narrow alleyways, along which all the shops catered to local needs. There were no stores selling souvenirs for tourists, which was evidence of the fact that the city had retained its authentic character. I was the only outsider in the old town that day.

From a small wooden door that was ajar, the aroma of warm tempting food reached my nostrils, and I suddenly realised I was hungry. As I peeked in, a man called out, “Ta’al ta’al, ya shaab” (Come on in, young man). It was a very unassuming cafe. In large metal pots with narrow necks, foul mudammas (fava beans) were being cooked. With a long ladle, the man took out some fava beans from the pot, sprinkled some fresh herbs on top and served them to me in a steel plate, along with warm pita bread and some kibbeh on the side. As I devoured it with sips of laban, the man and his helper watched me intently. They asked me about where I had come from, how I found their city, what kind of food I ate in my country, whether it had any similarities with their food and in which of the two countries I found women prettier. After lunch, I sat for a while on the wooden bench in that restaurant, to chat in my rudimentary Arabic with those living inheritors of the ancient city. When we had nothing more to discuss, I left them to carry on with their day and made my way to the bus stop.

I boarded a rickety minibus to go back to Beirut. It had been a long day and I had done a lot of walking, so I fell asleep as soon as the bus started moving. When I woke up, I found myself in Tyre again, which was in the opposite direction from Beirut. I protested to the driver why he had misled me by telling me the bus was going to Beirut. He told me not to worry, he was just taking a longer route to the capital by picking up more passengers from the farthest corner of the country before turning around. Thus what could have been a one hour journey, took three hours, giving me time to have a rocking siesta, with my head resting against the window.

My last destination was the mountainous region of Chouf, that Karim simply used to call “The Mountains”. I arrived at a 200-year old palace in a village named Beiteddine. The courtyards, fountains, bathhouses and ornate large halls gave the palace a majestic character. It also had an outstanding collection of Byzantine mosaics that had been pulled from ruins around the country and brought to be put on display there.

Temple of Bacchus in Baalkek. (Photo by author)

From Beiteddine, I proceeded to the town of Deir al Qamar. I noted that in Lebanon they don’t pronounce the Q sound as the rest of the Arab region, so when Karim would mention the place, it would sound like Deir al ‘Amar. The distance to Deir al Qamar from the palace was around 6 kilometres, but there were no taxis or vans to be found. From time to time, I hand-signalled to the passing cars indicating that I wanted a lift. Many passed but none stopped for me. So the only option I was left with was to walk the distance. The panoramic views from the road over the valley were spectacular. The weather was pleasant and as I felt the breeze on my face, I repeated Kahlil Gibran’s words under my breath to make the trek pleasing: “And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.” Though neither my feet were bare nor my hair was the kind anyone would have liked to play with, I carried on.

Deir al Qamar once served as the capital of Lebanon. Today it’s a pretty village in the mountains that Beirutis escape to during their holidays. Most houses there were made of stone and had red-tiled roofs. In a corner of the main square, there was a little shrine to the Virgin Mary (peace be upon her). Behind a glass casing, hung a tapestry showing a crowned Mary with baby Jesus (peace be upon him) in her lap and a rosary in one hand. Above that image, the Arabic caption read “Assalam o Alaik Ya Umm ar Rahmah” (Peace be upon you, O mother of mercy!)

Chouf region is also the heartland of Lebanon’s Druze community. I passed by a khalwa (Druze prayer hall), from which people in traditional attire were exiting. Women were wearing black robes and long white veils covering their heads and chins. Men sported big moustaches and had white flat-top caps on. I knew that Druze religious practices were very secretive, but I thought I would try my luck. I asked a man at the cafe where I had stopped for a Turkish coffee how I could visit the khalwa. He looked at me with a smirk, as if assessing whether I was out of my mind. Druze consider Hazrat Shu’aib (peace be upon him) as their spiritual founder and chief prophet. I asked the cafe owner again if having the same name as the prophet they venerated the most would make any difference. He chuckled and told me to give up.

Later while he offered to light my smoke, I noticed the strong sulphurous smell of burnt hair, not knowing where it was coming from. I touched my eyebrow and realised that the long flame of his lighter had burnt a few strands. I looked at him admonishingly. An apologetic smile, dripping with embarrassment, appeared in the same place where a smirk had been a few moments ago. I returned to Beirut after a pleasant day in the mountains, carrying the odour of burnt hair in my nostril till the end of the day.

The writer is a finance professional based in London and a prolific traveller. He occasionally writes stories about his travels that he shares on his Instagram handle @shueyb1

Beyond Beirut