Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Ancient Phoenicia and Modern Lebanon

New Year Eve at Le Gray
Lebanon had been on my Must-Visit list for ages, since I had already been to many of its neighboring countries: Syria, Jordan, Israel, Turkey, and Iran etc. My love for this region was founded on my long-held interests in the origin of human species and cultures, thanks to a marvelous world history teacher at Beijing No. 50 High School. Each time I thought of going there, however, Lebanon would be in some sort of turmoil.
Ski Mzaar Lebanon

It was therefore a relief that I finally made it, despite a near-miss due to delayed arrival back to London from Beijing caused by the snow.
Our first stop in Lebanon was Mzaar where we ski-ed for a few days. We were lucky that the resorts opened ahead of schedule due to early snow this year and the slopes were unexpectedly ski-able. Further there were far fewer crowd than many ski resorts in Europe I have been to, particularly around this time of year.

1200 ton Stone of Pregnant Woman
Our next stop was the famous Baalbek, whose famous Roman ruins and the 1200-ton "Stone of Pregnant Woman) have been beckoning me for years.

Hotel Le Memoir was a charming old hotel, recently refurbished. But it was cold. The young man working at the hotel told us heating would only come at 9pm. The heating did come punctually but the shower was not warm. I was

Hotel Le Memoir in Baalbek

Hotel Le Memoir in Baalbek

looking forward to next morning for the hot shower, but only discovered that the plumbing was broken and there wasn't even cold water. The hotel employee was extremely apologetic about all the inconveniences. At least the day looked bright outside and pleasant, but it weren't going to last long.

Baccus Temple in Baalbek

Tigerli finally in Baalbek - happy me!
After we emerged from the museum inside the impressive Baalbek ruins- (Temple of Jupiter and Temple of Baccus) in mid-afternoon, the weather changed dramatically and cloud covered the entire sky. It drizzled and showered.

We had by then realized that there were VERY few tourist
establishments in terms of cafes and restaurants, AND we had planned WAY too many days in Baalbek. Our hotel was booked for 3 nights but we had almost finished visiting the archaeological sites in the first afternoon, except the famous 1200-ton stone. How were we going to kill the rest of the time?!

Baalbek's Butchers
We had tried a local Shawarma joint for lunch and found out there seemed to be only one real restaurant -Scheherazade in Baalbek. The view from Scheherazade was beautiful-overlooking the Temple ruins, but the place itself was bare and cold. One bizaar thing about Baalbek was that the electricity came on and off. We found out later that Baalbek had only limited municipal electricity supply and most businesses had to supplement their power with generators. The reason? We were told the central government in Beirut does not like the Hezbollah party which controls Baalbek so tries to starve it off through such measures.

Arcada owner making my pizza

We took this inconvenience in stride and the next day made ourselves at home at the Cafe Arcada, the only good looking cafe with a hot fireplace in town-a blessing on an unseasonably cold day (we were told this was the coldest in 15/20 years). The friendly owner Mr. Awada turned out to have lived in Paris and Manchester some twenty years ago and made us very welcome.

Abujula Bakery offered me so many freshily backed and spinach cookies and refused to accept money 

The hospitality of Baalbekans was remarkable. I had been offered food to taste by a lady in his Cafe earlier in the morning. When we took a walk in the old town to see how locals lived, I had to learn to stop showing any curiosity in the locals' food after being offered a huge pile of spinach cookies freshly out of oven at the Abujulal Bakery! My belly felt like a balloon at the end of the day.

Little girl fluent in English and whose father has been to Guangzhou Trade Fair
We made friends with young locals who showed me how to smoke the water-pipe and told us about the reformed former-Hashish-farmer-turned-iman who was driving a huge SUV. We chatted about current politics and who was responsible for the assassination of former Prime Minister Hariri (there seemed to be no consensus on this). I don't even want to pretend that I know Lebanon's history - it reads just so complicated with the constant changing political landscape and SO many different permutations of alliances among the 18 official religious groups.

Mr. Awada took us to see the 1200-ton stone in the Roman quarry in his own car to avoid us walking in the cold rain. So in the end the long stay in Baalbek turned out to be very interesting and I even missed it when we finally bid good bye.

Remnants of Civil war in Beirut

Little chapel in Beirut

Christmas in Byblos
 Weather in Beirut was also unseasonably cold and rainy. Evidences from the civil war dot around the city, ranging from bullet holes on building walls to abandoned decrepit buildings.. Beirut is famous for its night life, and Lebanese are remarkably nonchalant about bombs and bullets, hardened by years and probably centuries of instability. In fact, if one looks back at its 8000 years of history, the ancient cities in this region have witnessed so many changes and have had as their overlords the Akkadians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and etc. Like any ancient cross-roads, it is a salad bowl of cultures and religions that would inevitably lead to conflict. Just look at another example- Afghanistan.
Roman Period Stone Coffin
Beirut National Museum

Byblos, the oldest city with continuous human inhabitation for 8000 years is further such testament. Its archaeological excavations showed the earliest human dwellings, Roman temples and crusader citadels all on the same spot.

Master of the God Baccus

Beirut from Le Gray

3000 year old Byblos Stone Coffin
In fact, every few years one or another political figure would be assassinated and Lebanon appears to be under constant tension of conflict. But the Lebanese do not let this affect their optimism and possess a joie-de-vivre unmatched by many.