Letter of Love to the Land of Cedars
Lebanon. It’s filthy, frustrating, and a nightmare to get anything done. It’s claustrophobic, threatening, chaotic, and all rules go out of the window. But that’s also why I love it. And why you should go there.
Yes, the traffic is an abomination. The environment and the history play second fiddle to the big money men and their faceless development firms. There are squads of military personnel armed to the teeth and ready for action on what seems like every corner. In one of the districts you go through you’ll see that all the banks are defended by walls of sandbags. You pass quickly through this place. But despite the hilarity of it all, despite the sheer insanity of this place, it’s thoroughly wonderful. I even got married here, in an ancient port town called Byblos, a short distance north of the capital, Beirut.
Beirut. It’s a name that struck fear into many people I spoke to when I said I was moving there. Yes, the country was decimated by civil war. But that ended long ago – in 1990. And yes, there have been surges in violence from time to time. But generally, you know where to go, and where not to. It’s the same as anywhere. You can find problems in peaceful Canada if you know where to look. Don’t let that put you off life. It certainly doesn’t put off the majority of Lebanese I’ve met. There seems to be a rich vein of living every day to the full with Lebanese. They work, they party, they love life. They live, love, Beirut.
The cradle of civilisation
For the history buffs out there, you can’t get much better than the Middle East. After all, this region is the cradle of civilisation. Lebanon was mentioned time after time in the Bible. The famed Lebanon Cedars, the symbol of the country, which adorn the Lebanese flag, are a treasure. They were used to build Solomon’s Temple in ancient Jerusalem. They were exported to ancient Egypt. They were used to create the ships that built the Phoenician Empire. The Romans harvested them.
Even Queen Victoria was there to ensure that the Lebanon Cedars were preserved. Centuries of deforestation had seriously threatened these trees, so Queen Vic sanctioned a wall to be built around the Forest of the Cedars of God – up in the snow covered peaks of northern Lebanon at the top of gorgeous Qadisha Valley, where you can go skiing and snowboarding in the winter, by the way. The place is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’m no tree hugger, but these evergreen beauties are well worth seeing.
The land of modern day Lebanon was conquered, ruined, decimated, rebuilt, over and over. As a result, you’ll find hallmarks from all civilizations. The ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek, a rickety bus ride away from Beirut that takes you over Mount Lebanon, flanking the now defunct Ottoman-era railway line and down into the Bekaa Valley, is a taste of life 2,000 years ago.
The gargantuan columns, the olive groves, the Temple of Jupiter. Built in the local stone typical of the Roman Empire, it’s a majestic sight, on the flanks of the Qalamoun Mountains, marking the border between Lebanon’s historic neighbour, Syria, which were once one territory. I will always take a trip up there when time allows, and sit on top of one of the city walls in late afternoon, watching the low sun shine through the olive groves below, the farmers and goat herders tending to their flock, as they have done for centuries. It never gets dull. And neither do all the local traders, peddling knock-off Hezbollah merchandise outside the ruins.
Getting away from the capital
In the south of Lebanon, things get more interesting once more. The two largest cities south of Beirut, Saida and Sour, are a world away from the insanity of the sprawling capital. I once got completely lost in the old Souk of Saida, fortunately post-shawarma sandwich and avocado smoothie. The famed sea castle from the time of the Crusades, when Christian knights swept down from Europe to the Holy Land, sits opposite the entrance of this ancient market.
Wandering around there, through the alleyways, narrow stone arches, nargile cafes converted from ancient cellars, tiny dwellings, you feel like you are in a time warp. Going back hundreds, if not thousands of years. The architecture has remained largely unchanged for generations, save for the wild mesh of electrical cables that covers the entirety of the country. This is a nod back to the civil war, from when the electrical infrastructure was ruined. It still remains partly so, and the hum of generators remains, whenever the power goes out.
In this souk, though, you’ll find everything from kitchen equipment, to antiques, to butchers, to falafel stores. It has everything, and an incredible atmosphere. Once, we bought a huge Arabic styled rug and a coffee table. In a tiny, enclosed square, surrounded by old Lebanese men drinking tea and smoking nargile, three friends and I borrowed some stools, set up our own living room with our new purchases, bought Arabic coffee, and sat down for an hour to relax. It was perfect, quiet, memorable. I’ve never had a bad time in Saida.
The city of Sour, further south, and in sight of the headland of Lebanon’s southern neighbour, Israel, is another piece of historic majesty. Sitting down by the Roman ruins there, ones that overlook the Mediterranean, you can imagine how beautiful it would have been, watching the sunset back in biblical times. The Romans certainly had the idea of picking the right location down to a fine art.
Sour, also known as Tyr, was the centre of the seagoing, Phoenician empire. The city was once on an island, but Alexander the Great built a causeway from the mainland, before sacking the place and taking it over. Now, Tyr incorporates a beautiful, tiny fishing harbor, where you can eat your fried fish and watch the local fisherman fix their nets, while the local street cats loiter around, hoping to score a scrap or two from your lunch, or from the day’s catch. In my opinion, the best beach in Lebanon is located on the southern reaches of this small city. A good half mile in length, golden sand, quiet, beautiful. It’s about as perfect as a beach can get in this country. And it’s one of the few public beaches left in Lebanon. So hopefully, it remains that way.
Partying in Lebanon
Had enough of history? Want to party? That is absolutely no problem. Beirut is one of the focal points of the party scene in the Arab world. People from across the globe come to Beirut to party, particularly from the Gulf states. It’s their playground. You’ll see luxury cars from UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, all over Beirut. Want to go out to a bar on a Monday night? No problem. You’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s actually Saturday. Places are still packed. The Lebanese love to have a good time, the vibrant mix of locals and expats alike makes for a fantastic experience. You’ll find an interesting person leaning against every parked car, usually a double, or triple parked car, drinking an Al Maza, on every street. This is particularly evident in funky Gemmeyzeh, or Mar Mikhael. I spent some time working in a bar there. It was by far the most fun filled, whisky fuelled job I’ve ever had.
Going north, Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli, is again unmissable. On your way, you’ll pass by Byblos, continuously inhabited since 5000BC, and the origin of the name of the Bible. The quaint, café-lined fishing port and old souk is a world away from the buzzing highway a few hundred metres up hill. Tripoli though, is a hive of activity. Having been spared as much damage during the civil war as Beirut, the city, also known as Trablos, feels older than most of modern day Beirut, with its narrow alleyways, beautiful central square, clock tower, French colonial architecture, and fleets of classic Mercedes-Benz taxis floating around. The towering citadel, once a Crusader fortress, dominates the city, and is extremely well preserved. It’s a must-see if you are in Tripoli, before wandering through the labyrinth of streets and markets to the harbor, where you can rent a bicycle that looks like it’s been pulled straight out of the Mediterranean, or smoke nargile rented from an old VW hippy bus.
Really though, Lebanon is the perfect place to spend a few weeks. Or a few months. It basically has everything. The food: endless kebab, falafel, hummus, moutabel. The drink: fine beer, high quality wine, amazing avocado smoothies. The history: Phoenician, Crusader, Arabic, Roman, Umayyad, French, Ottoman. The weather: Mediterranean, warm in the winter, hot in the summer, the cool mountain air. And the sheer insanity: the noise, the traffic, the intensity, the excess.
It is a land of sheer excess, a land of beauty, disgust, wonder, frustration. You’ll hate it. But you’ll love it. You’ll want to come back. I do, every time I leave.
About the Author
Ben Allen is a freelance writer from Northamptonshire, England. In 2008 he relocated to Vancouver, Canada, after wanting to make a change in his life. Not happy being in one place, Ben has just been on the road undertaking a hitchhiking trip around the Middle East. Now he's returned to North America where he's thinking about the next step. You can follow him on Twitter @ballenuk and read more about his adventures at www.benallen.ca.