Bonjour!” Ali Abdalla, our driver, greeted us at the airport. We did a double-take, hardly expecting a French hello in Beirut.
As we often do on our travels, we asked Ali for dining suggestions. Without skipping a beat he recommended Em Sherif Café for the evening. “Great food, sir!” The food indeed was great, but what we did not expect was the raucous crowds at 10pm. As we downed a humble salad, the women around us in leather tights took deep puffs of their flavoured shisha, drink in hand. Lebanon’s energy was already too contagious.
Through our 15-minute walk from the café to our Airbnb apartment near midnight, we could see both young and old thronging eateries and bars. The initial do-we-Uber-or-do-we-walk hesitation dissolved into exuberance as we walked along the festive atmosphere.
Lebanon is a land of surprises. This tiny country, one of the smallest in Asia, has so much to offer its visitors. But for a country with a history going back some 7,000-8,000 years, what is remembered, unfortunately, is the civil strife from 1975 to 1990. It left the country bruised and battered; you can still see the heavily- shelled and damaged Holiday Inn at the swanky Zaitunay Bay in Beirut.
Lebanon’s six million citizens belong to as many as 18 recognised religious groups. Just over 50 per cent of the population is Muslim, and some 40 per cent Christians of various denominations. This gives rise to complex political and social situations. However, they are not enthusiastic about identifying themselves with any sect to a non-Lebanese. Like Ali told us, “I am Lebanese.” On probing—he had become a friend by now—he said that Lebanon had enough serious sectarian turmoil in the recent past and wished to forget about it.
Our Lady of Lebanon, at Harissa, struck me as a great symbol of unity among all communities. It is a Maronite Catholic shrine, but is venerated by members of all denominations. A 15-tonne, nearly nine-metre-tall bronze statue of Mother Mary is mounted atop a platform above the basilica. I climbed up, nearly to the top, to discover two devotees, eyes closed, heads down, in deep prayer. I decided to leave them undisturbed and made my way back down the steps.
Quick quiz: What do Salma Hayek, Shakira, Omar Sharif and Nassim Nicholas Taleb have in common? They are all of Lebanese descent. Somehow, more Lebanese live outside Lebanon than in the country.
What’s striking about the people is their friendly and helpful nature. Take for example, Christ Anandin, the gloriously moustachioed, 73-year-old Lebanese-Armenian jeweller at Anjar. While my wife disappeared into his shop to “have a look” at the jewellery, Christ regaled me with stories of the past. At one point he even gently admonished me for smoking. “If I can quit after 40 years of smoking, so can you!” My wife, in the meantime, was convinced by Christ’s wife to spring for a silver necklace.
Our guide, the young and vivacious Josiane Tannous, all of 26, welcomed us at the coastal city of Byblos. Her youth was in stark contrast to one of the oldest, continuously-inhabited cities in the world; since 5000 BCE. It was here that the world’s first alphabet was created by the Phoenicians, the great ship builders and sailors. Over time, their alphabet became the basis for many modern-day languages.
Over millennia, Byblos saw continuous waves of civilisation, each of which left their own impression behind. When archaeologists began digging the site in 1920, they saw structures built on top of each other. The only way to preserve these was to rebuild at alternate locations within the site. The 12th-century Crusaders Castle, shared the same plane as the 218 CE Roman Theatre. The Temple of the Obelisks (1500 BCE) on top of the L-shaped temple of Resheph (2700 BCE), now neighboured each other. There you have—so to speak—a two-dimensional representation of the march of time.
Another intriguing historical site was the Baalbek Temple Complex, the grandest-ever built by the Romans. We started our Baalbek tour from a stone quarry a kilometre away from the complex, at the ‘Stone of the Pregnant Woman’. This colossal stone, still attached to the bedrock, is estimated to weigh a thousand tonnes.
The complex is built on a plinth of such large stones. The largest of these temples is the Temple of Jupiter. Much of it is now destroyed due to the ravages of time, and looting by invaders. The columns are made of polished pink Egyptian granite from Aswan. Who transported them, and how, remains a mystery. The temple itself is destroyed, with only six columns remaining.
The Temple of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, fertility and agriculture, is smaller than the Temple of Jupiter. But, it is one of the best-preserved Roman temples anywhere in the world. The temple’s interiors are accessed by a staircase. This is where the statue of Bacchus would have been. Now, it is just an open platform. I scampered up the steps in excitement and offered my own little prayer to my favourite god (the one of wine).
Lebanon, however, is not all history, conquests and violence. There are also places of intense natural beauty. Take for example, the astonishing Jeita Grotto. What mother nature lovingly created over millions of years was discovered only in 1836. The cavernous upper storey has one of the tallest stalactites in the world (8.2 metres) along with various formations like columns, curtains, and draperies.
It is the lower grotto that takes your breath away. There is a full-fledged river here, which supplies fresh water to the one million residents of Beirut. The only way to explore this grotto is by a short boat ride. Our boatman, Charbel, pointed out the exquisite formations like ‘kissing lovers’, ‘cauliflower’, and the ‘Leaning Tower of Pisa’. Speaking of nature, cedar wood has been used over thousands of years for ship building, construction, furniture making and handicrafts in the country. The cedar tree is the symbol of Lebanon and appears on the nation’s flag. Thanks to this wide usage, cedar trees have been chopped indiscriminately. The mountains of Lebanon were once thick with them, but now, only small, closely protected groves remain.
We had travelled extensively across this wonderful country and, yet, we felt we could have seen and soaked in so much more. One day we surely will, and who knows, we could even be invited to someone’s wedding ceremony and take part in the thumping dabke dance, a gift from the good old Phoenicians!
There are no direct flights from India to Beirut but there are plenty of one-stop options via Dubai, Bahrain, Kuwait, and Sharjah. Visa is required for Indians, and takes about 8-10 days to process.
Where to stay
Beirut is a great base for your journeys in Lebanon. Most places of importance are within a two-hour drive, with the option of day trips as well. Stay at Studio 44 (from $65) on Hamra Commodore street, Ramada by Wyndham (from $70) in downtown Beirut, or the well- appointed Four Seasons (from $280).
What to do
>Visit the archaeological sites at Baalbek, Byblos, Anjaar, Saida (Sidon) and Tyre.
>Sites at Harissa, Maghdouche, and Qadisha Valley are great for religious tours.
>The Kahlil Gibran Museum at Bsharri is great for literary enthusiasts wanting to explore the author’s life. The National Museum of Beirut, Cedars of God, and the gorgeous Ksara Winery are also must-visits.
Where to eat
>Try Beirut’s highly-rated Em Sherif (emsherif.com) for a fixed- menu meal or its more informal avatar Em Sherif Café for an a la carte option. >Try Abd el Wahab for some authentic grub.
>Al Rifai (alrifai.com) is the place to pick up nuts and kernels,
dried fruits, confectionary and chocolates.