Thursday, April 5, 2012

Lebanon Holiday March 2012 Day 1


Pigeon Rocks - the symbol of Beirut
Washing on the porch - Apartment on side street Beirut

March-April 2012
Lebanon Day 1

After hearing great reports from friends who had been to Beirut Joy and I decided that a trip to Lebanon was an ideal for the end of trimester 2. We used the agency, Atlas Tours, we'd used when we went to Jordan.

We arranged a tour taking us around Lebanon for six days from Beirut through Sidon and Trye, to Baalbeck and the Ksara caves , the Dog River, Harrissa and Bylbos and then on to the Qadisha Grotto  and Faraya finishing off with three days to explore Beirut by ourselves.

Lebanon certainly lived up to the reports we' d had from our friends in Abu Dhabi, with its long and eventful history of continuous human settlement and its geography that allowed us to experience all weathers from sun, to drizzle, to thunderstorms and snow all in one day!

The ruins of The Hilton Hotel in Beirut.
Burnt out and bombed during the Civil War.

Our hotel in Beirut, The Charles, was basic but centrally placed near the corniche and within easy walking distance to the town centre. It was also very close to the Hilton Hotel which exists now as an empty bullet and missile pocked ruin over looking what was once the Green line killing zone during the Civil War and Israeli invasion that ran from 1975 through to 1989. From what I could see from the hotel window the empty Hotel across the road had also been a target for snipers from the Hilton as there were a series of bullet holes stitching their way up the face of the building.
A reminder of the Civil War (1975-96)

We took the opportunity to wander along the Corniche in the evening to watch the passing parade of those with a mania for fitness, those whose purpose in life is to be seen walking an expensive dog, the couples in earnest contemplation of each others eyes and the weather beaten fishermen and mahjong players enjoying the evening light.

Our driver-guide, Waleed, picked us up early in the morning to begin our tours of the country. This took us to the south of the country ... To the ancient Phoenician port cities of Sidon and Trye. These cities are a treasure trove of the history of invasions and rebuilding that characterizes the country. The crusader sea castle built in 1228 on top of a Phoenician temple with building blocks scavenged from the Roman ruins that dot the town dominates the harbour and provides a link to the old town with its souqs and remains of Ottoman caveransi and trading points.

Souq- Sidon
In the souq The Khan al-Saboun  a  building which has been in constant use since the 13th century but since the 17th century has been a soap factory. Introduced us to the tradition of soap making. Here, the different materials to make the natural soap were bought together and processed in a giant vat until everything had fused together and could be poured out and smoothed into smoothness and made ready for cutting into hard blocks of soap.
Sidon Souq butcher shop

Bread making in the street Souq Sidon

From the factory we wandered through the Souq, watching the bakers pounding dough and baking batch after batch of Lebanese breads, the wrinkled and bearded old carpenters assembling stools and tables or turning piles of wooden spoons and the women haggling over the price of large, incredibly red and sweet strawberries or lush vegetables with the stall holders, until we emerged on the fore shore and the Khan Al-Franj or caravansi which was the centre of trade and hospitality from 1610 until the mid 19th century.

From Sidon we headed for Tyre, a city originally built on an island by the Phoenicians in the 3rd millennium BC and which withstood numerous sieges until 323 BC  Alexander the Great built a causeway from the mainland to wheel his siege engines across to smash the walls and, after killing the inhabitants, rebuild it to suit his purposes. After Alexander the city was taken by successive waves of invaders who all added their buildings and cultures.
Now the excavations have revealed the ruins of  Roman Tyre with its market and huge bath complex.
Victory arch marking beginning of Roman Necropolis Tyre
Byzantine Necropolis - Tyre

Outside the city a sprawling necropolis filled with sarcophagi from the Byzantines through to the Romans leads to the largest Roman Hippodrome in the world. It, apparently, could seat 40,000 keen supporters of the Blue and Green teams who, judging by the carvings on the doorways, raced their chariots around the tight hairpin turns of the track.

Already the archeology of Lebanon was proving to be more than we had seen in our travels around the Mediterranean and Middle East. But the most impressive was to come when we headed into the Beeka Valley and on to Baalbeck.

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