Visit: 25th May 2017
One of the best aspects of my year at business school has been the new friends I’ve made and the diversity of their nationalities. So when two of my coursemates from Lebanon offered to show a group of us their country I was intrigued. I think it’s fair to say that this is not a country I would have gone to off my own bat, so when I heard there was a trip on it was clear that I should seize a rare opportunity to visit this region with the aid of local knowledge.
So about a dozen of us booked flights to Beirut and 5 nights in an Airbnb. Our hosts, Bassam and Hala, arranged for us a minibus and a programme of sightseeing/partying. Byblos – the only World Heritage Site we were able to visit – came early on in the trip. It is located on the Mediterranean coast about and hour’s drive north of Beirut. We travelled there via a beach and a fantastic winery, where we had a classic Lebanese lunch including fateh, hummous and batata harra.
That’s not our whole group there because
amusingly unfortunately Jason, Walter and Dayo had missed our flight out the previous day after leaving too late for the airport and getting stuck in traffic. They were able to talk BA into letting them onto the next day’s flight for no extra cost, but it was a shame they missed out on this first day.
We got to Byblos in the early evening and walked in along an ancient entrance route lined with Corinthian columns. When I mentioned this was an old city, what I meant is it has been continuously inhabited since the Neolithic era (7 or 8,000 BC), making it definitely one of the oldest cities in the world. It was under the Phoenicians – a Mediterranean civilisation centred around modern-day Lebanon – that it rose to prominence. The name Byblos comes not from Phoenician (in which it was called Gebal) but from the contemporaneous Ancient Greeks. Meaning ‘book’, the name’s origin comes from the importance of the city in trade with Ancient Egypt, from which it imported large quantities of papyrus paper.
The picture above is of the citadel in the heart of ancient Byblos. This dates from the Crusades, when it was built by the Christians using stone from the remnants of the Roman garrison that had previously been set up here. This area, on an outcrop sticking into the sea, has not seen modern building work on top of it. The currently-inhabited part of the city is visible in the background, rising up into the hills that run down the length of the country.
Lebanon is a complicated nation, governed by a constitution that delicately ensures an even distribution of power among the various ethnic and religious groups who were so violently opposed to one another during the country’s civil war in the 1970s and 80s. From its independence from France in 1943 until the outbreak of war in 1975 Lebanon was a glamorous destination for the internationally mobile. Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando used to take their yachts into Byblos harbour and Beirut was the Dubai of its day. Since peace was restored in 1990 the country has never managed to restore its allure to the outside world, which of course is a shame because it has much to offer.
Lebanon contains the largest remaining community of Christians in the Middle East, and they coexist peacefully with the Sunnis, Shia and countless smaller sects such as the Druze. This boy, celebrating his first Communion, was a good reminder of that. The country has seen more conflict since the Civil War ended, when Israel severely bombarded it following rocket attacks in 2006, but the system did not fall apart.
Beirut, many of its buildings still scarred by bullet holes, was a charming city to spend most of our time in. Although it has its no-go areas (in particular, the Foreign Office warns against travel into the southern neighbourhoods controlled by Hezbollah), it has plenty of nice parts. We toured the campus of the American University of Beirut (set up by Americans but no longer run by them), the marina, the student neighbourhood of Hamra and the bars of Gourard Street.
Beirut’s main Sunni mosque is an exquisite building, particularly on the inside. Since Islam does not permit depiction of the human form Islamic art focuses instead on geometric patterns and Arabic script.
Our other day’s excursion Hala took us far up into the hills to track down Lebanon’s national tree. The cedar features on the country’s flag and its banknotes, and has long been prized for its properties as a building material. The tree flourishes in cooler, damper conditions than prevail down by the coast – which is why it is quite often seen here in England too, nowadays.
Like when I visited Madeira last December it was hard to believe, up here in the cool mist, that it had been warm and sunny only a few hours earlier down by the coast. Our guide in the cedar forest showed us ‘the actual tree’ upon which the flag design is based, though I was a little sceptical myself when I saw it.
When all was done we felt sad to have to leave Lebanon. The country had been very hospitable and fun to spend time in, and all excellently organised by Hala. Lebanon has four other WHSs, but unfortunately they are in areas that are a little riskier for Western tourists (though Bassam would contest that!). If the war in Syria is ever resolved and the region becomes a little less volatile I would love to return to Lebanon and see the rest of it – but for now, I have seen plenty enough to know that I like it.