Layers of Lebanon

The map on the airplane seat back showed that we were flying through the “Neutral Zone” somewhere between Iraq and Saudi Arabia. A phrase like that should give comfort, I suppose, when flying into a country where people are currently being killed by their neighbors in Syria. Many people have questioned my sanity when I mention that my next stop on this adventure was Beirut. “Beirut? Aren’t you afraid?” I usually just mentioned that I have friends there, they feel safe and of course, I’ll be fine. The civil war ended years ago.

Still, with things heating up in Tripoli in Northern Lebanon recently, I have had my moments of wondering if this visit was a good idea but the plans were made and off I went. As we flew along the coast, my seat mate, a Lebanese businessman who flies all over the Gulf countries, gave me an airborne tour of the city. Lego like tall buildings worked their way up the steep mountain hillsides, one box like structure stacked up next to its neighbor. The city hugs the sea (the Mediterranean) and every bit of land seemed to be covered with tall buildings except for the green space of the American University of Beirut which is next to the school where Sharon and Michael work. Close to the airport, on the southern end of the city were low lying shack like buildings. My new friend explained that refugees moved here during the 15 years of the war and that a solution to what to do with them was yet to be found.

When we landed after 9 hours of flying and 4 time zones west, the sun gave me a beautiful sunset as a welcoming gift. I could see fireworks from the plane window -another welcome. What a delight it was to get off a plane in a foreign country, go through passport control and customs and see familiar faces welcoming me. It has been a really long time since anyone met me at an airport.

Sharon and Michael are friends and colleagues from home – a teacher and principal who decided to spend two years working in a foreign country. They generously shared their apartment on the 8th floor with me for this long weekend and planned my tour of Lebanon. The first day, though, they had to work so I was on my own to explore the city. Beirut has been called the Paris of the Middle East and indeed, the beautiful walkway along the sea feels very much like the south of France. The stores are filled with designer fashions and an unusual number of lingerie shops (apparently there are some surprises under those women covered in black robes and head scarves). French is evident in the same way as English although Arabic is the primary language.

Since Beirut is still recovering from the war years, there are certain things that make it unique in places I’ve visited. There are bombed out buildings evident in many places, cement structures left empty and scarred, including the Holiday Inn where the “hotel war” of 70’s was fought. I can see the looming hulk of the building from the apartment as well as the street where Terry Anderson was kidnapped. As I spent several hours wandering the city, though, I never felt unsafe. Navigating was tricky as one of the things missing here is street signs and addresses. I knew the general direction I was going as the sea surrounds two sides but I never found the new downtown, totally rebuilt since the war. I saw a few Lebanese police on one corner finally and stopped to ask them to point on my map where I was. He said he didn’t speak English but did speak some French, so I worked through the rust in the French section of my brain and discovered I had walked almost twice as far as I thought south into a Hezbollah controlled area of the city. Maybe the tank next to him should have been an indication that I wasn’t where I thought I was but I later learned he was probably just guarding a special person or place. Still, I made a quick retreat back towards the Hamra area where the city from the war years had been left more or less intact. I was starving after walking for hours and sat myself down in the first restaurant I found.

There is a reason why the Lebanese are known for their delicious cuisine. After all the rice of Asia, I ordered an entirely different meal. I started with tabouleh (a salad of parsley and tomatoes) and mixed grill which is a variety of tasty meats. It was delicious. (and incredibly pricey after my cheap Asian meals). Sharon and Michael helped me to try all kinds of Lebanese meals from the fatoush salad and kibbeh (ground lamb breaded and fried) starters to manaeesh bi zaatar – a flat bread kind of pizza served with an interesting mixture of spices that we bought off the street. By the sea, we also ate the most expensive but delicious fresh caught long skinny fish which we ate with a garlic filled paste that also goes well with French fries, Belgium style.

After lunch, I found my way to the coast where I saw two huge rocks in the sea known as the Pigeon Rocks. I walked down the hill, past the military with their guns and razor wire, past the amusement park and past young children with their robed grandmothers playing in the ocean. With some navigating difficulty, I finally found my way to Sharon and Michael’s school. In Sharon’s 4th grade classroom, I was the living geography lesson describing my travels briefly and answering their questions. As this is an international school, children wanted to know if I had visited their home countries from Russia to Holland (and no, I don’t know if I passed one girl’s grandmother’s house in Amsterdam). On the way back, I explored a little museum filled with antiquities. My mouth dropped as I realized that some of this pottery and even glass was from over 7000 years ago.

That evening we enjoyed dinner and drinks with a couple of colleagues. I learned more about the lives of these international educators, some of whom travel to postings for a few years in different countries around the world. We ate dinner in the new downtown, a Disney-like place with its brand new buildings not yet having achieved much in the way of character. The area is built around a French-type Place d’Etoile (star place) but with ancient Roman ruins, a rebuilt ancient mosque and an old Christian church all next to each other. There is a bullet scarred monument called Martyrs Statue, all that’s left of an area which used to be a tree-lined beautiful park.

Michael and Sharon had rented a car for the weekend so I could see more of this Connecticut sized country. In looking at the map, they showed me the route that they had hoped to share with me. Unfortunately, because of the unrest, they had been advised to stay away from one road where we might become kidnap victims. Instead, they asked if I was comfortable visiting a place about 10 miles from the Syrian border where we would be safe but if the proximity was too unsettling, we could go elsewhere.
I’m glad we went.

We drove a couple of hours up and over steep mountains, through various military checkpoints and past Bedouin settlements to Baalbek, an ancient town. My brain tried to synchronize all the layers of the people that inhabited this place from the Phoenicians (founders of our alphabet) to the Romans, each leaving their mark. There was evidence of people living in this area over 7000 years ago and we could still see the foundations and walls of their buildings! The largest Roman ruins in the world remain standing here including a temple with some ceiling portions still intact. A guide took us through the huge area pointing out the carvings, the huge stone columns, and explaining the multi-layered history of the ruins. Imagining the thousands of slaves who cut the giant stones, moved them for miles and were able to create these huge structures without machinery was mind-blowing. To think that they have withstood earthquakes and warfare and still be so intact was amazing.

On our visit to Byblos the next day, the sense of awe remained. Right next to the beautiful blue-green waters of the Mediterranean, was the same harbor that the Phoenicians used in their trade and the Romans used to put their mark on this place. There was a castle from the Crusaders, a theatre from the Romans and a temple built in 3000 BC by the Amorites. We clambered underground to see the tombs that have been there since 2000 BC and climbed up to peek into the windows of a 18th century home. We did our own acting on the theatre stage and just settled into the beauty of a perfect blue sky day, clear enough to see Beirut about 25 miles south down the coastline. Bright pink flowers added another layer of color to the palette and added to the charm of this quaint seaside town.

As we settled into our harborside restaurant seats to enjoy more Lebanese food (this time freshly caught fish), we watched bride after bride, carry her huge wedding skirts to be photographed by the sea. Parties of families ventured out past the harbor wall in sketchy open boats where we could hear their shrieks as the big waves bobbed them up and down in the open water. Here was the place where the alphabet was created and so many thousands of years later, people were still coming to enjoy this beautiful spot. In the meantime, just up the coast another 15 miles or so, soldiers were trying to keep the fragile Lebanese peace from exploding into violence yet again.

I remember learning about the Fertile Crescent in junior high and hearing about the war in Beirut as I was becoming an adult. I never really understood all the ancient history and couldn’t pass a test on the prehistoric eras or all the things happening in the Middle East right now. Still, being here has been not only an education but a delightful time filled with sunshine, good friends, good food and a whole new set of experiences. I’m glad the Syrians didn’t scare me away.















Leave a comment


  1. Connie G.

     /  May 21, 2012

    Wow, Ellen, what a change from your previous locale! It sounds fascinating to have the layers of history visible. Great photos!

  2. How amazing to be able to see so many places we only hear about in the news. I’m glad you had fun, and hope the next part of your journey is just as wonderful.

  3. Candice Stein

     /  May 21, 2012

    Really stunning photos. And quite a surprise. Not the images we have been bombarded with for sure. And how great to have such wonderful friends/ tour guides there.


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