Friday, 11 January 2008

A trip to Byblos and the Chouf Mountains

The harbour at Byblos, Lebanon

There's no doubt about it, Beirut is a city on a war footing. I've been to many cities before where there are armed soldiers on street corners - starting with the soldiers in Kabul in '78 who looked so young we called them the Gun Monitors - but here it feels serious and the boys of the Lebanese Army are tooled up for action. There are tanks at each roundabout (but now I've been out in Beirut traffic I think a tank is the only safe way to travel). During our travels today we passed groups of army vehicles on the road with guys sitting in the back with sub machine guns and behind the hotel tonight there were more armed soldiers than normal. The reason is that there may or may not be an election here over the weekend, nobody knows for sure whether it will take place or not yet. There are posters on walls everywhere showing the pictures of the major candidates together with the picture of a popular politican who was assassinated a few weeks ago. Photos of today's trip are here.

Beirut has Christian and Muslim areas and during the Civil War these areas were run by various militias who bombed and/or shot at each other. The city was physically divided for years by the Green Line which was a no-go area between the two communities. The Green Line is now a busy road full of trendy shops and restaurants but the residents of the city still cluster in their own areas depending on religion. This afternoon we passed through the edge of a Muslim part of Beirut where I saw posters of the leader of Hezbollah on some of the lamposts. The area we are staying in is a Christian area, not too hard to spot as there are shrines with statues of the Virgin by the sides of the roads, a huge life sized nativity scene in the middle of a major intersection up from the hotel but more omninously, red crucifixes spray painted on the walls of many of the buildings.

Today we started out with a trip to Dog River (Nahr al Kalb) which is a steep gorge, with a small river running through it. Legend has it there was once a dog living in the gorge that barked to warn the local people of oncoming invaders (sort of like the geese of Rome only somewhat more appealing). On the walls of the gorge plaques have been carved detailing the actions of various armies that have passed through there. The oldest plaque is from the 6th century BC and the most recent is that of one of the Christian militias from the Civil War. We were only able to see a couple of them as there was an army patrol there who told us "Mafi soura" (No photos) as they walked past with their artillary pieces on their shoulders and as the helicopters hovered overhead. Our driver Wajdee did some sweet talking and I was able to take some photos inside the remains of the "dancing restaurant" where some of the old videos of Hwyaida Hashem and Samara were filmed.

Next we drove further up the coast to the town of Jbail which in ancient times was known as Byblos. Byblos has in the past been invaded by 17 different civilisations including amongst others, the Egyptians, the Phoencians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Crusaders and the Turks. We went to the Crusader castle which has a spectacular setting on the harbour where we were lucky enough to be guided round the site by a retired professor of history. This made the visit incredibly interesting. The castle was built from stones taken from 3 Greek or Roman temples that were demolished by the Crusaders. The castle is built on top of the remains of the many civilizations before it and over the past 80 or years, archaeologists have uncovered a Roman theatre, numerous temples and outlines of houses. They've also found 9 royals tombs which are unusual in that they take the form of vertical shafts dug into the rock. We were able to scramble down a tunnel into the tomb of a prince from 1,900 years BC named Abi Chemou to see his huge stone sarcophagus which is still in place at the bottom of one of the shafts. To get the stone sarcophagus into the tomb, the tomb shaft was filled with sand, the sarcophagus manouvered on top of the sand which was then removed from the bottom and taken out through the tunnel. Slowly as the sand was removed the sarcophagus was lowered to the bottom of the shaft. After the visit to the castle we walked down to the harbourside where I chatted to some soldiers on guard duty down there. On the way down to the harbour I heard the call to prayer coming from a tiny mosque and I stopped to listen. The muezzin had beautiful voice, I wonder if he would like to move to Satwa? Anyway, as I stood there I noticed that on the wall opposite the mosque was a niche containing a statue of the Virgin Mary. This seemed to bear out what our guide had said that, unlike the rest of Lebanon,in Byblos the Christians and Muslims still live in peace together.

We headed back to Beirut via Jounieh which is a town about 20kms out of Beirut. During the Civil War Jouneih was known as party central for Beirutis. The main street still has a vague French charm but other than that, the party is over for Jounieh.

In the afternoon we headed out to the Chouf Mountains the stonghold of the Druze to see the palace of Beiteddine. We only got a small way into the palace before being turned back as the Army were closing the palace to prepare for the arrival of the new President, whoever he may be, after the election, whenever it takes place. Next stop was Deir al Qamar a beautifully preserved 16th century palace which now contains a rather bizarre collection of wax models.

The final stop for today was back in Beirut at a cliff side area called Rouchi (same name as the Lebanese nightclub in Sydney) to see 'Pigeon Rocks' which are rock arches just off the shore. It was dark by the time we arrived but the rocks which are lit up at night looked spectacular. Damn cold though.

The Lebanese currency is the lira which is known locally as the pound. The exchange rate is an unbelievable 394 Lebanese pounds to the UAE dirham which means, for example, dinner tonight cost 46,000 lira which is about $30 US. Being given a five figure bill for the cost of 2 coffees and a couple of croissants is quite scary too.

Tomorrow we are going out to Jeita Grotto. On Saturday we're planning a longer tip out to the Bekka Valley to the ruins at Baalbeck, then back to Beirut for a midnight flight back to Dubai, all inshallah of course.

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