Tag Archives: islam

• Byblos

Visit: 25th May 2017

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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• Santiago de Compostela (Old Town)

Visit: 30th April 2016

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The weekend straddling April and May 2016 was the first bank holiday weekend of the summer season. I often take advantage of the chance to go away for three days without taking any time off work and this time around I chose Galicia, in north-west Spain.

There are three World Heritage Sites that happen to form a triangle in Galicia, each site about 50 miles apart. These are the Roman Walls of Lugo, the Tower of Hercules in La Coruña and our first destination, the old town of Santiago de Compostela.

Although Natalie lives near Heathrow (and I live in Bristol) we have found that every trip we have planned from now onwards ended up being out of Gatwick. The flight to Santiago departed at the ungodly time of 6.30am, so we stayed the night before in an airport hotel. It was a clear morning when we departed, giving a clear view of Southampton and the Isle of Wight from 20,000 feet.

Santiago de Compostela is a site of special significance in Christianity, for it is the destination of one of the three most important pilgrimages. Santiago translates into English as ‘St James’, and the pilgrimage route is named the Way of St James because it is traditionally held that the remains of St James – one of Jesus’s Twelve Apostles – are buried within the city’s cathedral. There is no single route for the pilgrims who come on foot from all over Europe, but instead a huge network of routes beginning in countries like Germany and Italy, heading through France and then converging at the Pyrenees into a single route through northern Spain to Santiago. UNESCO loves the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, and has inscribed it no less than three times on the list:

  • once for the city itself
  • again as the single route through Spain
  • and finally as the disparate set of routes and churches that supported the pilgrims in France (which I have been to a few parts of but have much yet still to see).

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The symbol of the pilgrimage is the clamshell. Seeing it on a signpost lets pilgrims know that they are on the right route, and if a building displays it that means it welcomes pilgrims to shelter (eg. in churches or private houses). Pilgrims carry clamshells about their person, often mounted on a special wide-brimmed hat. We saw quite a few of them on our trip, including a couple on the flight (skipping the hard part, I thought!) but also many pacing along the roads between Santiago and Lugo. Britain is a source of pilgrims – one of the ways it used to be done was to walk through Cornwall to St Michael’s Mount near Penzance and then take a boat across the Channel to Mont St Michel in Brittany before continuing the journey on foot to Spain. My parents’ house is on the route itself, so we are well used to seeing the clamshell on our Cornish walks. At Easter this year we walked a section of the Cornish route (where it is known as St Michael’s Way) – as you can see from the signpost below.

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Upon arriving at Santiago’s Lavacolla airport we rode a bus to the city. The centre point is naturally the cathedral, which is a grand Gothic building very much in the Spanish style. It was a beautiful bright day, but windy, meaning it was still overall not very warm. They had a no-bag rule in the cathedral (because of the number of backpackers who turn up there) so Natalie and I took turns to go inside whilst the other watched the bags.

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The interior features much gold and finery within the nave and choir. The altar, below, is of course the focal point, and within it is a statue of Christ which pilgrims and regular visitors alike queue up to touch. The pilgrims also wish to touch the left foot of a statue of St James, which signifies that they have finally reached their destination. The stereoscopic effect on the floor of one of the chapels put me in mind of the Silk Market in Valencia.

The medieval streets of Santiago de Compostela date from the tenth century, when they were rebuilt after having been destroyed by the Muslim invaders of the Iberian peninsular. It is said that the discovery of the remains of St James in Santiago around that time gave the Christians the motivation to push the invaders out over the following centuries.

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There is a local almond cake that holds EU protected geographical indication status, known as a Tarta de Santiago. Although this one has been knocked slightly askew, you can make out the cross of the Order of Santiago in icing sugar.

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Convent of St Pelagius of Antealtares

We spent a few hours in Santiago before catching a coach to our next destination: the relatively remote city of Lugo, two hours to the east. This was the first time we had travelled long distance by coach, and I was relieved to find that Natalie didn’t hate it as much as she had feared!