On the road to Damascus….

Well, my journey’s begun……

Waving Skiathos a fond farewell for another year, I took to the ominously darkening skies (very delayed, in a gale force wind!) and, following a brief overnight stay night in Athens, finally touched down at Heathrow 48 hours later, totally exhausted but happy to be home once again.

Barely unpacked, I just had time to visit at an exhibition of paintings by the late Skiathos artist, Richard Buchanan-Dunlop, in Covent Garden:

where my father and I were delighted to meet his two charming daughters, finally!

Then before I could catch my breath, I found myself, once again boarding a plane and taking off into the blue. This time bound for Beirut. Arriving in the early hours, oblivious to my surroundings during the half-hour drive through the bright lights of the city, on our way up to our home in the mountains, I headed straight for bed and some much-needed sleep.

In the first light of dawn, the panoramic view from our balcony:

which stretches from the snow topped mountains of Lebanon on our left, over of Beirut city below us:

and far out to sea on our right, greeted us each morning and it is truly a breathtaking sight to behold! To sit each morning sipping rich dark arabic coffee and watch the ever-changing vista was a wonderful way to start each day…..

and with a view impossible to tire of, it was tempting to stay put and watch the constantly changing light, unpredictable weather conditions and dramatic cloud formations, till long after the spectacular sunsets:

gave way to the sparkling lights of a city that never sleeps under a blood-red crescent moon:

But there was precious little time to sit and ponder as, 750m below us, an exciting city in a land filled with ancient and modern landmarks, beckoned.

Lebanon is a relatively new country which only gained its independence in 1943 following a mandate that was granted by the League of Nations, to France, for its protection, in 1920. This stretch of the eastern mediterranean, throughout it’s complicated and turbulent history, has been conquered and occupied, in turn, by a succession of powerful ancient civilisations including the Romans, the Ancient Greeks, the Ottoman Turks and the Arabs. It was first home to the Canaanites, known as the Phoenicians to the Greeks, who were notable merchants and colonisers of the eastern mediterranean from the 3rd till the end of the 1st millennium B.C. The Phoenicians exported cedar and pinewood, fine linen, clothes dyed with the famous Tyrian purple (made from the sea mollusc murex), wine, salt, dried fish, gold and metal works and they developed an alphabet script of 22 letters which was used in Byblos as early as the 15th century B.C.

This method of writing, later adopted by the Greeks, is the ancestor of the Latin alphabet.

The richness and diversity of Lebanon’s cultural heritage is reflected in its architecture, its customs, its cuisine and its present day population; a melange of, eastern and western cultures, languages and religions. Christians (Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek catholic, Maronite) Moslems, Druze and Jews, despite the recent 25 year civil war (which all but ravaged one of the most beautiful cities in the world)

continue to live side by side, wary perhaps and weary of war certainly but steadfastly resilient, defiant, nationalistic, proud, tolerant and undefeated.  Readily shifting between tongues (french, arabic and english) They are investing and rebuilding their city: old shell-shot, bullet-ridden buildings:

make way for state of the art glass and steel towers:

at a rate comparable only with the Gulf states!

In the midst of it all,  life goes on, regardless:

Fortunate as they are to be able to swim in the warm waters of the Med. in the morning and ski up in cedars, on the snow-capped mountains, in the afternoon, they continue to enjoy a life-style second to none – and the Lebanese certainly know how to live!

When not following the age-old national pastime of trading, bartering, wheeling and dealing, they’re mostly to be found in their cars, riding the rapidly growing network of super highways (think fair-ground bumper cars gone mad!) shopping in the chic-est of international designer boutiques and fabulous malls, dressed to the nines.

In the in bustling street markets, food is seasonal, plentiful and always beautifully displayed:

Family and community ties remain strong and much of their day revolves around socialising and the all important business of food. Lebanese cuisine, hospitality and generosity are unsurpassed! Come nightfall, the party continues as the fashionable restaurants, cafes, clubs, bars and all night raves (for the young ones anyway!), rock the brightly lit city till dawn and the first call to prayer.

Every meal is a big deal in Lebanon and our days began with a visit to a local street vendor to collect our favourite breakfast fare: hot ‘menaqeesh’ or oven-baked pitta bread, made from at least 2 flours; wheat and corn:

It’s topped with ‘zaatar’ (lashings of fresh olive oil, pungent dried thyme and toasted sesame seeds)

or oozing with melted cheese and ‘baked’ on a traditional cone-shaped hot plate.

Then, suitably sated, we set off to see the sights.

Our first stop was at the Jeita Grotto, currently short-listed and hoping to be acknowledged as one of the 7 Wonders of the Natural World:

In a lush green valley, a short cable-car ride took us to the mouth of the first grotto and into another world; a vast network of beautifully lit caves, of cathedral-like proportions and underground rivers .

Once our eyes adjusted to the light, incredibly beautiful, awe-inspiring sights drew us further and further along the dripping wet walkways and suspended bridges, as we climbed deeper and deeper inside the mountain range. High cliffs and ravines, entirely composed (since prehistoric times and still forming!) of stalagmites and stalactites, makes for a surreal landscape (moonscape, even) that is quite simply breathtaking!

Back out in the fresh air, a short train ride took us to the second (lower) grotto, where we boarded small boats and glided silently and serenely through the crystal clear turquoise waters of a network of natural underground lakes and rivers:

What an experience! A wonder of the natural world? Most definitely! They’ve got my vote (and if you’d like to vote too, please visit: www.N7W.com)

Witnessing such jaw-dropping beauty in wet, almost sub-zero temperatures is hungry work! Thankfully it was soon time for lunch. Wherever you go in Lebanon, whether up in the mountains, in the heart of the city or next to the sea, tables groan with a ‘mezze’ that can comprise over 150 small dishes of mouth-watering delicacies such as tabbouleh (parsley, mint tomato and cracked wheat salad):

stuffed vine leaves:

dips, such as m’tabbal (aubergine with tahini) and hommos:

a huge assortment of tiny cheese, spinach or meat pies:

platters of pickles, fresh herbs and crudities:

many varieties of cheese, natural or fried:

and that’s just for starters! Once cleared away, the main courses follow, anything from grills, stews and roasts such as this one of lamb, served on a bed of rice, toasted almonds and pine nuts:

If lunching by the sea, fresh fish and all manner of seafood will be on the menu, including Sultan Ibrahim (red mullet):

and crab:

It can all be washed down with copious amounts of Arak (a local favourite, not unlike ouzo) or a fine local wine from the vineyards of Kefraya, Ksara and Chateau Moussar, amongst others (which are presently enjoying a world-wide following) and just when you think you can’t manage another mouthful, out come the desserts! These too are incredibly delicious!
The choice is endless. The textures, flavours and aromas, delicate and exotic, sweetened as they are by orange blossom or rose-water syrups. They’re sprinkled with spices, such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves and topped with chopped nuts; almonds, walnuts and pistachios. They can be light and creamy as in muhallabiah, a delicate, milk pudding:

or rich like Aishta (a type of clotted cream)

which is served alone (or wrapped in a light filo pastry or pancake) drizzled with honey and garnished with pistachios and pine nuts or quince preserves:

Then there are the cakes! These come in the shape of small baklava (layers of filo filled with nuts) crumbly pastries (ma’ammoul) filled with nuts or dates or towering gateaux, oozing with either fruit, chocolate, custard, sweet cheese or cream (and yes, sometimes all five!) Finally (well almost!) creamy ice creams, flavoured with mastic and exotic fruit sorbet clear the palate.

If you can stand up at this point, you may be invited to transfer to second table where literally a mountain of fresh and exotics fruits, all beautifully presented, awaits.
After this final course, tiny cups of hot, thick Arabic coffee or glasses of hot sweet tea (often with fresh mint) are served.

With lunch over, the desire to sleep is all-consuming so a short siesta is usually the order of the day. Upon waking more hot sweet coffee (and unless you have a will of iron, cakes too) helps you find the energy for the next item on the to do list – usually a visit to relatives – before exploring the city and ( hardly surprisingly) a very light dinner, before heading for bed.

I had the chance to meet up with a very dear friend and one time neighbour from my days in Saudi Arabia – over 30 years ago! Helena, a women of great talent, skill and creativity and to whom I owe so much……..

Another highlight of our stay involved a 3 hour journey up and over the majestic Lebanon mountain range which separates the port towns and coastal plains from the fertile Bekaa valley, once known as the ‘Granary of Rome’.

We were on our way to visit the fabulous ruins of the City of the Sun, ‘Heliopolis’, as it was known in ancient times, or ‘Baalbek’ as it is known today, a World Heritage, UNESCO site, built on the highest point of the Bekaa valley, 1000m above sea level and on the road to Damascus:

Once we arrived it was hard to believe we almost had the whole place to ourselves!

Apart from the odd camel, that is:

and a few street vendors selling, the usual souvenirs; gaudy belly dancing costumes and ‘genuine’ Roman and Greek coins!

It was even harder to believe that barely 15 kilometres away, just over the border in Syria, there was fighting and bloodshed…….

Our excellent guide, Mohammad, shared his wide knowledge and recounted in-depth the history of the fabulous ruins that lay before us:

He told of how the first sanctuary was built on this site and dedicated to the semitic god, Baal Haddad, by the early religious, pagan cults. Baalbek was then conquered by Alexander the Great and after his death, was ruled by the Ptolemites (301 B.C) during which time Baal, the Sun god was identified with Zeus and the city was called Heliopolis (the name it kept for the following thousand years). Around 200 BC the Seleucids, under Antiochus the Great, took possession until the Roman General Pompey occupied the city in 64B.C and the Romanization of the area began with the construction, in the 1st century, of the Cyclopean wall to make the huge podium, followed with the Temple of Jupiter:

The Great Courtyard of the Altars:

The Propylaea:

the Hexagonal Courtyard:

the Temple of Bacchus:

(where I spotted graffiti on the walls dated 1872!):

 and the Temple of Venus:

 The Temple of Mercury was constructed on the nearby Sheikh Abdullah hill.

There followed a succession of Roman emperors who set out to construct, at Baalbek, the greatest temple complex ever conceived, a feat of monumental architecture which had no rival in the Roman world. Julius Caesar established a colony here named after his daughter Julia and in 36 B.C. Marc Anthony gave Baalbek and the rest of the Bekaa to Cleopatra as a gift.

In in 440 A.D the Greeks arrived and the Byzantine era at Baalbek began when Theodosius restored Christianity and built a basilica in the Great courtyard, dedicated to St. Peter, by tearing down the temple of Jupiter and re-using the stones.

 and 2 great earthquakes, in 526 and 551 A.D completed the devastation:

The acropolis was then freely used as a quarry for ready-cut stones but fortunately the construction was so gigantic that it withstood any pillage and many stones lie today, just where they fell:

Of the many hundreds of statues that once adorned the niches and pediments of the temples, few remain on site. Many were destroyed or carried off by invading rulers and in the 18th and 19th centuries, many were removed to the museums of Europe. The few that remain can be found in the museum:

Next came the Arabs in 636 A.D when, under the reign of Caliph Omar el Khattab, general Abu Ubeida Ibn el-Jarrah invaded the city. They transformed the acropolis into a huge fortress to house their garrisons and dug a deep moat around it. This was done with the least regard for the classical buildings but ultimately contributed to their preservation by protecting the temples from further plundering. Successively Baalbek passed under the rule of the Omayyads, the Abbasids of Baghdad in 751 A.D., the Fatimids of Egypt in 969 AD, the Seljuks in 1100 A.D the Ayoubite Kurds of Saladin in 1175, the Crusaders of Tripoli, under the leadership of Raymond St. Gilles in 1176 and then recaptured by the Arabs. In the 13th century the city was devastated by the Mongols and in the 14th century fell into the hands of the of the Memluks of Egypt. The Ottoman Turks occupied it in 1516 and held it until the end of World War 1.

Since Baalbek was brought out of oblivion by the detailed descriptions and romantic etchings and watercolours of intrepid Victorian European travellers, it has become an important destination for tourists. The annual cultural open-air festival (at its peak in the ’60’s when world-famous artists; singers, musicians and stars of ballet and opera performed there) has, since the end of the civil war, been revived.

Whew! Did you follow all that? Well there’s plenty more but I think you’ll have got the general idea by now, of just how important Baalbek was – and continues to be. It’s certainly a unique, interesting and stunningly beautiful destination –  well worth a visit!

Hopefully, a tour can soon, once again, include a trip over the border into Syria, to  the fascinating souks of Damascus – renowned for their beautiful cabinetry work with inlaid mother of pearl – it is somewhere I have always longed to visit……

Meanwhile, a trip to the oasis town of Zahleh, for lunch, on the way home is a must!

A series of riverside restaurants, cut deep into a ravine, offer the dusty traveller not only food second to none in quality (and quantity!) but a chance to sample their famous nougat – great slabs of the soft chewy sweet dotted with pistachios, rolled into lengths (the thickness of my arm!) and wrapped in a coating of either apricot preserve, nuts and sugar or rose petals – Delicious!

Our last port of call was the ancient sea port of Byblos:

The world’s oldest continuously inhabited city with its ancient fortress:

and natural harbour lined with colourful fishing boats and seafood restaurants:

Beautiful stone architecture:

and old souk:

Lebanon and in particular, Byblos, has a timeless quality where one instantly feels a tangible connection to the countless generations who have lived and worked here since time immemorial. It’s a humbling experience to know our time here is so transitory. People will, as they have done for centuries, come and go and yet these ancient stones remain….
It’s a place where time somehow stands still…..

and there’s a sense of security in the knowledge that even after we’re all long gone, mankind will find a way to survive, regardless of colour or creed……

With still so much to see; the majestic cedars, the palace of Beiteddine, the ancient ports of Tyre and Sidon, to name just a few, it was hard to leave behind this beautiful country and head for home – but family and work commitments beckoned.

Besides, I honestly don’t think my waistline could have coped with another day! Nope, it’s definitely bread and water for the next few weeks now…….as Christmas will too soon be upon us – and not only the goose is getting fat!!

For further reading and clarity on Lebanon’s political situation, particularly the conflicts that sparked the civil war, I can highly recommend David Gilmour’s excellent book: ‘Lebanon: The fractured Country’, which is available at Amazon

8 thoughts on “On the road to Damascus….

  1. Thankyou Yvonne for a fascinating blog,it sounds an amazing place.The food looked gorgeous,i could almost taste and smell it!!

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  2. Yvonne, another marvellous and not to say mouth watering blog!
    There was I today in Oxford Street considering texting to say if your home, please come meet me for coffee when all the time you were having a much more exciting time!!
    I love your pictorial captures, those colours you have captured in the souk are particularly wonderful.

    Lots of love my friend X

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  3. Yvonne, what a beautifull written blog! We are ready to jump on the next aeroplane!!
    Lots of love, Cristiana.

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