Living Large in Lebanon

Short story: Lebanon is awesome.

Long story, part 1: In 2011, I was in Spain with about two million other travelers from all over the world. Some of these people I met were from Lebanon. I’ve kept in touch with a few of them over the years – so how could I NOT go see them while I was in the Middle East? In addition to wanting to visit some friends, Lebanon is an incredibly intriguing place. 

There are significant populations of Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Christians living in Lebanon, along with a sizable portion of Druze.  Religion plays a huge role in the politics.  In recent history, there has been a civil war that lasted for 15 years, (1975-1990), so it is fresh on the minds of all residents.  Many of the buildings still contain bullet holes and have not been restored, which bolstered my comprehension of the reality of the civil war.  It is always different reading about something in a book or a newspaper – even seeing pictures or videos – and being able to see the effects first-hand.

Over the four days I was there, I was given a crash course in recent Lebanese history and political schisms, taken from the country to the city, to the Mediterranean Sea to the mountains. Lebanon has an incredibly diverse landscape and elevations.  To give you an idea of the size, it is 10,452 km2 (4,036 sq miles), which is smaller than 48 of the United States – barely bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined.

Day 1: We went up, up, up! It was cloudy and a bit rainy, but it was an incredible view. The clouds were so low, we were walking in them. Oh, and it was cold! We also went to Moussa Castle, built by a man who just always dreamt of living in a castle. Inside, there are moving mannequins that depict different aspects of Lebanese culture. There is also a massive collection of weapons.

Day 2: There is an incredible, natural sinkhole in Tannourine in a villiage called Balaa. Honestly, it looks like something off a fantasy planet. It definitely wasn’t planet earth! Unfortunately, my photography abilities cannot possibly capture the beauty in this area. After that, we adventured up again to Harissa.  This is a mountain village that contains a pilgrimage site – a massive statue of Our Lady of Lebanon. After we visited the statue, the chapel in the base of the statue, and poked around the Maronite Cathedral at the site, we wandered down the road a little bit to a Greek church. One of the guys noticed wedding music, and had the great idea to go crash the wedding.  Y’know, Lebanon is pretty small. Their cousins were at the wedding – so we were handed plates and glasses of refreshments. We had some chill time at the end of the night for hanging out. The weather was nice so we were out on a balcony – and would you believe it if I said a CAKE showed up? I didn’t get away with no birthday celebration this year!

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Day 3: I went to the Jesuit Monastery Taanayel, which has beautiful grounds.  Afterwards, we went to Château Ksara, a winery founded nearly 160 years ago by the Jesuit Monks.  We also visited the National Museum of Beirut.  The museum was doubly interesting – in that it holds collections from pre-history up through the Mamluk period, and was on the fighting line of the recent civil war.  The museum has since been completely restored, but it was in terrible shape by the end of the war.  Thankfully, they took the time to protect many of the artifacts from complete destruction, and were able to minimalize most damage that did occur.  We headed to downtown Beirut after the Museum.  This photo is of the Martyr’s Square.

 

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Martyr’s Square

The statue was erected in 1960 in memory of the Lebanese nationalists who were hanged by the Ottomans in 1916, during World War I. It has taken a secondary meaning, now that it has been riddled with bullet holes, toppled, and straightened again from the civil war.  Martyr’s Square is still a common place for protests and demonstrations, including during the 2005 Cedar Revolution and the 2007 anti-government demonstrations by Hezbollah and the Free Patriotic Movement.

Also located in Martyr’s Square, we visited the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, which is standing right next door to the St. George Cathedral. Then, we continued to walk around downtown – seeing ruins of an ancient Turkish bath, seeing many more churches and mosques scattered throughout the city.  We saw Zaitunay Bay, otherwise known as the St. George Bay, as well.  This was particularly interested – because not only is it beautiful place where the legend says that St. George slew the dragon, but even the name of it is the subject of controversy  (if you’re curious, you can Google “Solidere”, but I’m not educated on the subject enough to speak about it).

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Downtown Beirut

Day 4: We went to Jeita Grotto.  Jeita is another other-worldly scene in Lebanon. It is an extensive set of caves with stalactites and stalagmites, with an “upper” and “lower” grotto.  The lower set contains water, which you can take a boat ride through.  They do not allow pictures inside the grotto, so I stole one of the upper grotto from Wikipedia.  They are currently still working on discovering the extensiveness of the caves. The lower grotto was discovered in 1836, but the upper grotto was not discovered until 1958. We also went to Byblos (Jubayl).  This is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, starting from as early as 8800 BCE by the Phoenicians.  The city center is absolutely quaint. There is a Crusader Castle, built during the 12th Century CE, which is not only surrounded by rich history, but also has an exciting history for itself. 

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Heading down towards the sea, we acted as roof rats for a few minutes – we definitely were walking on top of people’s homes! We walked out on a rocky surface into the sea, which was at low-tide.  This was sadly my last night in this beautiful country. Until next time, friends!