Wednesday, February 16, 2011

LEBANON, Land of the Phoenicians

The shouf


Lebanon's location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland has dictated its rich history, and shaped a cultural identity of religious and ethnic diversity. A small country with a large diversity of terrain and population, Lebanon is geographically gifted. Mountains to the East and the Mediterranean to the West, Syria on its Eastern border and Israel to the South. With a population of just 4 million and a diaspora of nearly 4 times that amount across the planet, Lebanese people have conquered the World for centuries and left their spirited imprints in many lands. 

The earliest evidence of civilization in Lebanon dates back more than 7,000 years—predating recorded history. Lebanon was the home of the Phoenicians, a maritime culture that flourished for nearly 2,500 years (3000–539 BC). Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, the five provinces that comprise modern Lebanon were mandated to France. The French expanded the borders of Mount Lebanon, which was mostly populated by Maronite Catholics and Druze, to include more Muslims. Lebanon gained independence in 1943, and established a unique political system, known as confessionalism, a power-sharing mechanism based on religious communities. Riad El-Solh, who became Lebanon's first prime minister, is considered the founder of the modern Republic of Lebanon and a national hero for having led (and died for) the country's independence. French troops withdrew in 1946.

The Ancient port of Byblos is still in use today


I start my driving tour on a bright sunny day of October 2010 by hiring a car with a driver since I am not familiar with the roads in Lebanon. Not that I wouldn't want to learn (I think I could drive anywhere in the World after living in India and driving there without dying) but I had limited time and thought it would be best. 

The road from downtown Beirut snakes around the city towards the South, passing the "unsafe" area of Borj Al Brajne, a sort of favela where Palestinian refugees live. The area is unattractive and reflects the bleak conditions these people live under. A huge contrast to the Beirut I just left of elegant avenues, modern conveniences and Starbucks coffee bars. I am suddenly plunged into a neighborhood planted with large street side billboards portraying Hezbollah commander in chief Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This is the area which was heavily bombarded by Israel in 2006. I pass the airport, entering the highway going South, towards Israel which is a close 50 miles away. The seaside scenery alternates with beaches, modern towns with shopping plazas and rock formations. To the East, extend a mountainous terrain making it look like a sort of forgotten Riviera. 

Looking down towards the Meditarranean

I reach Damour and exit the highway to take the scenic road which will take me to some sites I am excited to visit today. The 2 lanes road climbs the seaside hills through a green narrow valley ascending sharply towards the town of Deir El Qamar (meaning Monastery of the Moon). The freshness of the air fills the car as I open my window and I close my eyes an instant to feel it run on my face. As the climb progressed the temperature drops to a comfortable 70F.

 I reach Deir El Qamar around 9am. During the 16th to 18th centuries, Deir el Qamar was the residence of the governors of Lebanon. It is also notable for its 15th century  historical palaces and administrative buildings. The 17th century Synagogue is also in the village, although closed to the public. During its peak, the city was the centre of Lebanese literary tradition. It was the first village in Lebanon to have a municipality in 1864, and it is the birthplace of many well known personalities, such as artists, writers, and politicians. It was the capital of the Druze Cancimat of Lebanon (1840-1860). One of his sons, Camille Shamoun was President of Lebanon from 1952 to 1958, and one of the country's main Christian leaders during most of the Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990).

The Fakhredinne Mosque in Deir El Qamar

In front of Fakhredinne II Palace in Deir El Qamar

Village of Deir El Qamar

My visit continues towards the famed castle of Beit ed Dine meaning "house of religion".  Local emir Bashir Shihab II who was later appointed to rule Mount Lebanon, started building the palace in 1788 at the site of the Druze hermitage. It took about 30 years to complete. The best craftsmen from Damascus and Aleppo in Syria as well as Italian architects were invited and given much freedom, so its style is a cross between traditional Arab and Italian baroque.

The Castle in Beit Ed Dine

After 1840, when Bashir was sent into exile the palace was used by the Ottomans as a government building, during the French Mandate its role was preserved and it served as a local administrative office. In 1934, it was declared a national monument. In 1943, Bechara El Khoury, the first Lebanese president, declared it the official president's summer residence. During the Lebanese civil war it was heavily damaged. After 1984, when fighting in the area receded, Walid Jumblatt ordered its restoration. Parts of the palace are today open to the public while the rest is still the president's summer residence.

The grand balcony at Beit Ed Dine

Interior salon at Beit Ed Dine castle

Syrian furnishings and ottoman design fireplace at Beit Ed Dine

I tour the castle with an ill informed guide who has limited information on the site. Go figure. It is still very enjoyable to see the well preserved (or restored) castle which is the site of a very well attended yearly Music Summer Festival. Fairuz, Mariah Carey, Elton John, Ricky Martin, Phil Collins, Gilberto Gil are amongst some of the well known artists who have participated in the festival in past years.  The baths are perhaps the single most famous part of the palace of Beit ed Dine. This is a hamman or turkish bath system. You gradually pass from cold to hotter and hotter and steamier rooms, where masseurs knead the dirt out of your skin in a sweaty atmosphere. The baths are still in working order, although they are not normally operating. You can walk through the different rooms and notice that they are lit by small semicircular windows set into the domed ceilings.  

It is now almost 10am. I drive on to Barouk, a short distance from the castle. The village is crowned by "Jabal el Barouk" which stands 1943m above sea level. The mountain has the largest natural reserve in Lebanon, the Al Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve which contains the oldest and most elegant cedar forest in Lebanon, the "Cedrus Libani". That cedar is considered, among with other cedar forests, the real Cedars of Lord "Arz el Rab."

View from Al Shouf Cedar Forest 

Cedar cones
 The cedar is Lebanon's national tree and its pride. It is the symbol of its past grandeur and its hope for a tall and beautifully green future. The Cedar of Lebanon was important to various ancient civilizations. The trees were used by the Phoenicians for building commercial and military ships, as well as houses, palaces, and temples. The ancient Egyptians used its resin in mummification, and its sawdust has been found in the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs. The Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh designates the cedar groves of Lebanon as the dwelling of the gods to which Gilgamesh, the hero, ventured. Hebrew priests were ordered by Moses to use the bark of the Lebanon Cedar in circumcision and the treatment of leprosy. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah used the Lebanon Cedar as a metaphor for the pride of the world. According to the Talmud, Jews once burned Lebanese cedar wood on the Mount of Olives to celebrate the new year.

A walk through the Cedar Forest 

Thew view from the Al Shouf Cedar Conservancy area
Foreign rulers from both near and far would order the wood for religious and civil constructs, the most famous of which are King Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem and David's and Solomon's Palaces. Because of its significance the word Cedar is mentioned 76 times in the Bible, and played a pivotal role in the cementing of the Phoenician-Hebrew relationship. Beyond that, it was also used by Romans, Greeks, Persians, Assyrians and Babylonians.

As a result of long exploitation, few old trees remain in Lebanon, but there is now an active program to conserve and regenerate the forests. The Lebanese approach has emphasized natural regeneration rather than planting, and this by creating the right conditions. The Lebanese state has created several Cedar Reserves or nature reserves that contain cedars, including the Chouf Cedar Reserves, the Jaj Cedar Reserve, the Tannourine Reserve, the Ammouaa and Karm Shbat Reserves in the Akkar district, and the Forest of the Cedars of God near Bcharri. Good for them !

I continue towards the village of Mdeyrej which is on the main road between Beirut and Damascus in neighboring Syria. The road snakes around the mountainous countryside dotted with villages and pine trees. 
As I descent towards Beirut, the green landscape gives way to more and more constructed urban area. The towns roll by as I arrive in Alley, busy suburb of Beirut with a beautiful panoramic view over the city and surrounding areas.

Town of Alley and surrounding areas above Beirut

View from Alley of South Beirut and the Hariri Intl Airport
I bypass the downtown area and drive onto the highway pointing towards the towns of Batroun and Tripoli in the North of the country. The side of the highway is covered with Shops, billboards and road signs like at home in Florida. Mc Donald, Pizza Hut, Burger King, you name it they ve got it ! The unmarked multi lane seems to be the ground for car racing and do it yourself traffic is king. All I can say is that looking at the driver made me dizzy and I promptly ignore the very close encounters we almost had with some other like minded drivers. In a flash, we are in Jounieh, a posh neighborhood of Beirut. Complete with its own casino (Le Casino du Liban), beach resorts and multi story luxury condominiums it looks and feels like the French Riviera. Right above Jounieh is located the basilica of Our Lady of Lebanon in the small town of Harissa at an altitude of 650 meters. The basilica is dedicated to the Patron Saint of Lebanon, the Virgin Mary. The Lebanese Christians as well as the Druze and Muslims have a special devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Maronite Patriarch of Antioch named her the "Queen of Lebanon" in 1908 upon completion of the shrine. One can access the basilica using a lift-gondola from Jounieh.

Lift Gondola climbing to Our Lady of Lebanon
Town of Ghazir/Jounieh

One of the main attraction in Lebanon if you like archeology is the Ancient site of Gebal also known under its greek name of Byblos which I reached 15 minutes after Jounieh.

The Phoenician city of Gebal was named Byblos by the Greeks, because it was through Gebal that papyrus  (bublos; Egyptian papyrus) was imported into Greece. This gave us the word Bible derived from byblos as "the papyrus book". The present day city is now known by the Arabic name Jubayl or Jbeil (جبيل), a direct descendant of the Canaanite name.

Ancient Byblos and modern day Jbeil coexist side by side

Because of the successive layers of debris resulting from centuries of human habitation it is especially interesting for archeologists. The site first appears to have been settled during the Neolithic period, approximately 5000 BC. Neothlithic remains of some buildings can be observed at the site. Byblos has the reputation of being the oldest city in the world, founded by Cronus. During the 3rd millennium BC, the first signs of a town are visible, with the remains of well-built houses of uniform size. This was the early period of Phoenician civilization.

Phoenician Alphabet at Byblos

The Phoenicians were the first state-level society to make extensive use of the alphabet. The Phoenician phonetic alphabet is generally believed to be the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets, although it did not contain any vowels. Through their maritime trade, the Phoenicians spread the use of the alphabet to North Africa and Europe, where it was adopted by the Greeks, who later passed it on to the Etruscans, who transmitted it to the Romans.

The ancient site was rediscovered in 1860 by the French writer Ernest Renan, who made a survey of the area. In 1921-1924 Pierre Montet, a French Egyptologist, began excavations which confirmed trade relations between Byblos and ancient Egypt. Maurice Dunand began his work in Byblos in 1925 and continued with various campaigns until 1975.

A modern construction sits on top of 3000 years worth of debris at Byblos. 

View from the Citadelle of Byblos

The Citadelle was built during the Crusades
The Phoenicians were amongst the greatest traders of their time and owed a great deal of their prosperity to trade (interesting similarity with modern day "Phoenicians", the Lebanese !). The Phoenicians' initial trading partners were the Greeks, with whom they used to trade wood, slaves, glass and powdered Tyrian Purple, used by the Greek elite to color clothes and other garments and not available anywhere else. Without trade with the Greeks they would not be known as Phoenicians, as the word for Phoenician is derived from the Ancient Greek word phoínios, "purple".

The ancient port entrance
I am certainly looking forward to do a follow up trip to this one. I fell in love with Lebanon, its culture and traditions. I do hope the political situation becomes more stable which would benefit the Lebanese people rather than foreigners who have had their eye on this beautiful land for centuries. 


  1. Very nice pics, thank you for such beautiful places, just need some money and time to get there, but thanks to your petit globe trotter, I feel a little bit like a tourist in Lebanon, visiting only beautiful areas, thank you Olivier !