Criss-crossing the Paris of the East: Part 1 – Beirut & the Bekaa Valley

This is part 1 of 3 in my series about my 2018 trip to Lebanon. For other parts click below:

Part 2 – The North
Part 3 – The South

Background, and general introduction to Lebanon

In April 2018 I had a couple of days off from work, and decided to head to the Middle East for the entirety of my 10 days off. The first 5 days was spent in Lebanon, known as the party central or the Paris of the Middle East for its very liberal and modern stances, making it unique in the otherwise conservative region. After those 5 days I had a flight to Oman, so my time was fixed and limited. Read more about my trip to Oman here. But one thing working to my advantage is the size of Lebanon, since it is an extremely small country, where its possible to traverse the entirety of the country from south to north in approx. 4 hours (when not stuck in Beirut traffic during rush-hour). Despite its small size, Lebanon is absolutely packed with sights and ancient cities, and places of historical importance, given its location on the crossroads between the east and west, and on the road towards the holy land. This location does however also mean that Lebanon has faced a lot of conflict and hardship throughout history, something which still holds true to this day.

Lebanon  has gone through a lot of tragedy in recent decades, suffering multiple bloody civil wars, wars with Israel and most recently taking in over a million syrian refugees while some of the conflicts in neighbouring Syria has at time spilled over the border causing violent clashes on Lebanese territory as well.

In spite of this, the country is still booming, and the religious diversity coupled with a general secular outlook is a mark of proudness for the entire nation. It is split fairly evenly between christians and muslims, but they still manage to live together in peace and prosperity. There’s a rising clubbing scene, young  people from the entire region congregate here for the parties, while at the same time mosques and churches stick up all over the city-scapes co-existing side by side.

The security situation and risk of things exploding at any moment does however leave a mark on the country, and everywhere you go, especially in Beirut, there’s heavily armed soldiers very visible in the streets making sure everything is in order. This does add a feeling that you’re not really in safety, but I didn’t experience any threatening situations even while going to some of the most volatile regions of the country where most governments warns about going.

Lebanon is truly a country of great diversity and opposites, but also immensely interesting both culturally and historically. Don’t let the concerns keep you away. Beirut is mostly very safe, and the other tourist hotspots equally so, and it is a country where you can experience a lot in a short time due to its small size. In spite of its small size, especially its narrow width, it still hosts both roaring mountains, blossoming valleys, great beaches, pristine forests and more in its territory.

That’s enough introduction to the general status of the country! Let’s talk about how my trip actually unfolded!

Day 1: Arriving in Beirut, the first impression

I arrived in Beirut at around 1 a.m., and my first impression, as I drove from the airport in the south part of the city all the way to the north end of the city where my hotel was located, was that this city had a whole lot more skyscrapers than I had ever imagined. They are everywhere! And they are all super tall, and many of them very modern and fancy looking. It really made Beirut appear like a big metropolis – first impression had me heavily sold! I am a sucker for skyscrapers, and sadly we don’t have many of them in Denmark, not even in Copenhagen. Another thing I noticed was all the churches and mosques side by side, lighting up with crosses and half-moons in the night. It was a nice reminder of the big mix of cultures in this city coexisting.

As we drove up to my hotel, which frankly I hadn’t researched too much beforehand, we arrived at the bottom of a giant super modern hotel, and I was like “Oh yeah boy! Score!”.. But sadly my hotel was a tiny one behind the big fancy one. But at least it was located right next to the Corniche, in the fancy end of town, near all the main attractions and the sea. So all in all my base in Beirut was excellent, even if my hotel was very modest.

After sleeping for a couple of hours, in a warm hotel room with a broken A/C, I got up and started the first day of wandering around the north part of Beirut. I had a joyous time walking all along the Corniche, all the way out to what is called the “Pigeon Rocks”, which are a big cliff-formation isolated in the ocean a little bit off the coast of Beirut – it is one of the symbols of Beirut. Walking along the Corniche gave me another good look at the city, with all its majestic buildings in broad daylight. The amount of people walking around enjoying the day was also impressive, and once again the diversity stuck out really clearly. A great mix of christians and muslims in various grades of religiosity (based on dress, from the very liberal showing tons of skin, to the very conservative dressing very modestly), tons of nationalities, tourists and expats all just walking around and hanging out. It was great, and inspirational seeing that it is actually possible to have a successful multicultural society.

Anyways. After reaching the Pigeon Rocks I ventured into the city, first attempting to enter the American University of Lebanon campus (my guide book said it was very well worth a visit!), but the security there is very tight, and tourists are not allowed to wander in unfortunately. The campus is very large and looking very impressive from the outside, and it would also allow one to take quite some shortcut, but sadly it was not to be. In general the amount of soldiers everywhere was still rather overwhelming. Still people didn’t pay any attention to it, here it’s just daily day life.

After a siesta at the hotel, I headed out again. This time to the old part of the town, where the impressive Mohammad Al-Amin mosque with its beautiful blue domes and sandstone colored exterior is standing tall, right next to a multitude of old churches, with a big belltower sporting a big cross right next to the actual mosque. At the foot of the mosque, there’s an old excavation site. The Mohammad Al-Amin mosque is relatively new, having been finished in 2008, but it sits in a beautiful old part of town. The mosque was funded by former prime minister Rafic Hariri, a very highly regarded and  beloved guy in the country, for his role in rebuilding especially Beirut after the civil war. A little distance from the mosque is the martyrs square, where a monument to the victims of the civil wars is. The monument portrays several people and children with bullet holes through them, letting through beams of light. It is a solemn, simplistic but powerful memorial to the people who lost their lives in the conflicts.

In fact, the city still has visible scars from the previous civil wars, as multiple skyscrapers still have big visible holes from bombs and gun shots, some towers are entirely deserted and left standing empty etc. But slowly the city is licking its wounds and rising from the ashes like the phoenix.

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I finished the night off with a local dinner, and strolling along the Corniche, but also getting to bed early to get up for the next days tour.

Day 2: Bekaa Valley – Anjar, Baalbek and Ksera winery

This day was reserved for a day tour with a company out to the most famous and impressive site in all of Lebanon – the Baalbek temple ruins. But before we made it there, we had a stop in the Armenian town of Anjar, which also hosts old ruins from the Umayyad caliphate from the 8th century. Compared to Baalbek, these ruins are however not an impressive sight, and what I found a little more interesting here, is how close to Syria the city of Anjar is actually located. We were at one point a mere 5 minutes drive from the border crossing. If it weren’t that the border between Lebanon and Syria is formed by the ridge of a small mountain range, we would’ve been able to stare directly into Syria, with Damascus being just around an hours drive away.

This close vicinity to Syria does also mean that there’s a lot of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, and especially here in the Bekaa valley. In fact, we drove through endless camps of make-shift tent houses, and saw an endless stream of refugees. It was by no means a pleasant sight, and the Syrian conflict and its human cost suddenly came very very close.

After an hour or so visiting the ruins of Anjar, which slowly filled up with other tourist groups and school classes on expeditions, we drove on through the valley, and past many more Syrian refugees. Eventually as we closed in on Baalbek, the Syrian refugees make-shift tent-camps was replaced by permanent city-quarters of Palestinian refugees instead. Lebanon truly is a country of great human suffering, but also a kind heart, taking in millions of refugees despite having a population of just about 4 million themselves.

Baalbek is hard to accurately describe in words, because it is so massive and impressive, that it doesn’t even make sense to attempt to convey its grandeur in words. But to put it into perspective; The temples here are almost 2000 years old, the biggest temples rose up over 55 meters, and were built entirely out of granite and polished limestone. These blocks weigh many many tons each, and there’s thousands of them making up the entire complex. The biggest rocks making up the foundation of the temples weighs over 1000 tons! And all of this was made by human hands over 2000 years ago. It blows the mind how it would be possible, even today with modern machinery and heavy cranes it seems like an undertaking of absolutely epic proportions. It must also be mentioned that it took over 300 years to complete the site. But still.

The main temple, was the Temple of Jupiter, which rose up over 55 meters. Today, what’s left of this temple is 6 of the columns. They are still standing erected, but during our visit they were undergoing restoration and conservation efforts, which meant they were covered up in scaffolding. The other temple here is the Temple of Bacchus, which is almost entirely preserved. It its smaller, at just 20 meters height, but since its mostly intact, it is much more impressive – and 20 meters is still very tall. Again, it is hard to really convey how grand this building is. Pictures do it more justice than my words ever could.

While we were walking around the site, we were approached by local school classes out on excursions to meet tourists, for a chance to practice their english, and so we ended up meeting and talking to a lot of local kids which was really amazing, they were very interested and sweet, and were really burning for a chance to talk to foreigners. One of my little funny anecdotes here is that while I was walking away from the group on my own, I was approached by 2 boys and a girl, asking if they could each get a photo with me. Being very flattered I readily agreed. When it was time for the girl to get her photo, she was visibly very shy and a little embarrassed, and boys will be boys, so one of the boys jokingly yelled for me to put my arm on her shoulder (rather than just standing there passively), and so I did – and the girl and boys both just bursted out into laughter, the girl clearly blushing quite a bit – they had clearly not expected me to actually do it. It was a fun little experience.

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After finishing up in Baalbek we headed to the main town of the Bekaa valley – Zahlé, where we had a late lunch of traditional lebanese dishes accompanied with lebanese wine and beer. From there we headed out to the oldest and most famous winery in Lebanon, the “Ksera winery” (pronounced Aksera), where we first had a guided tour through the cellars and museum before we had a small wine tasting. Truth be told, I didn’t like the wine too much.

Back in Beirut, after having had a big downpour while driving back, the air was now cooler and cleaned off from the previous days warmth, and I used this opportunity to go for a small run out to the Pigeon Rocks and back to the hotel again (approx. 6.5 kms total). After a shower I headed out to get some dinner, which I got in the al-Hamra district of town, which is the youthful party-hub of the city, in which the streets are lined with pubs and restaurants. I settled down at a small relaxed restaurant and had some traditional food while engaging in people watching the rest of the night. A good finish to a long day of exploration.

This is part 1 of 3 in my series about my 2018 trip to Lebanon. For other parts click below:

Part 2 – The North
Part 3 – The South
 

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