By Susan McKee Photos @ Susan McKee
In Lebanon, the capital city Beirut is definitely 21st century, but take a trip outside this bustling metropolis, and centuries of history come into view. In early February, I rented a car and started exploring this small country packed with history.
I headed east on the Beirut-Damascus Road to see the most famous ruins in the country: Baalbek. It’s a half-hour north of the highway, on roads that vary from median-divided thoroughfares to twisting urban streets in an seemingly endless process of being repaved.
If you look at a map, this small town (about 15,000) is located almost in the center of the Fertile Crescent, an area stretching from the Nile River basin in Egypt to the Tigris/Euphrates region of modern day Iraq.
It’s here in the still-agricultural Bekaa Valley that the Romans built one of their most magnificent cities in a place that had been a settlement at least since the Phoenician period (around 3000 BCE). On a site once dedicated to Baal, the Romans created a military, agricultural and commercial hub they called Heliopolis: the City of the Sun.
Even in ruins, ancient Baalbek is stunning: it has the largest stone blocks ever used and the tallest columns ever built. The six columns remaining from the Temple of Jupiter (having withstood earthquakes and warfare) are the iconic sight for the complex. They form the backdrop for the Baalbek International Festival, an extravaganza of music, held in July and August each year.
Because of the layers of occupation, the archaeology of the site tends to confuse the centuries. The Byzantine emperor Theodosius I destroyed the altars of the Great Court in the Sixth Century, and had a basilica built there, using the stones from the Roman temple. In the Seventh, the Arabs converted the complex to a fortress. Subsequent earthquakes and changing fortunes further obscured the site until “rediscovery” in the late 19th Century (we can thank Kaiser Wilhelm II for the archaeology begun by the Germans at the turn of the 20th Century). Since independence, the Department of Antiquities of Lebanon has been working to preserve what’s left.
Baalbek may be a must-see, but the town itself is a bit down at the heels. There are no upscale accommodations or great restaurants. A former favorite, the Palmyra Hotel (built in 1874) has closed. On the hill behind it, La Memoire aspires to provide a luxury boutique hotel experience in a converted mansion, but when I stayed there — as the only guest — they were having trouble keeping both their heating and their internet connection in service.
A better choice when visiting the Bekaa would be to stay one of two hotels in Chtaura, right on Beirut-Damascus Road. My favorite is the Massabki Hotel, built in the 1920s (but with a complementary fruit basket and free WiFi). A stone’s throw away, behind the McDonald’s, is the Chtaura Park Hotel. It’s a larger facility that caters not only to the business traveler, but hosts large events (such as weddings).
North of Baalbek, almost on the Syrian border, is the Hermel Tower (located just before the town of the same name). There’s no need to go into Hermel itself: the tower is atop a hill just outside and can be seen for miles. It’s a simple structure: a black basalt base with a pyramid-shaped top. It’s said to be a memorial built around 100 BCE for a local king who was killed on a hunting trip.
South of Baalbek is another series of ruins, but not Roman this time. Aanjar is a city build by the Muslim Umayyads in the early 8th Century. Because the site is so close to the Syrian border, I had the place almost to myself — I counted just three other tourists. It’s obvious that the buildings reused stones from earlier structures: there are Hellenic, Roman and Byzantine capitals, columns and other building blocks. The layout of the town is typically Roman, with north-south and east-west streets dividing it into (literally) quarters.
After the Bekaa Valley, I had hoped to journey across the northern mountains — but there was too much snow this winter. So, I headed south into the Chouf Mountains. Here, both the infrastructure and the scenery changed. This part of Lebanon is alleged to be controlled by Walid Jumblatt, scion of a well-established Druze family and prominent politician.
While the roads I’d been driving on in the Bekaa Valley were mostly in various states of disrepair, the roads in the Chouf were uniformly well-paved, complete with center lines and reflectors. The mountainsides were being replanted with Lebanon’s once-ubiquitous cedar trees. The people I spoke with all said that the positive changes were due to Jumblatt’s efforts. His residence is located next to one of the entrances to the Al Chouf Cedar Nature Reserve — a massive area of some 135, 908 acres.
Beiteddine is both a village and a palace in the Chouf Mountains. The palace, built by an emir in the early 19th century, still is used as a part-time residence by the president of Lebanon. Just up the hill is a secondary palace (a gift to the emir’s son) that’s now been converted into a resort hotel. While packed with visitors fleeing the heat in summer, it was practically deserted during my stay. Still, there was a traditional oud musician serenading the empty dining room during my solitary dinner.
Back on the coast, I drove south all the way to Tyre — a major port city during Phoenician times — and backtracked to Sidon, best known for its ruins of a sea castle built by the Crusaders in the 13th Century.
I had started my Lebanese odyssey in Beirut, staying at La Maison de Hamra in (no surprise) the Hamra neighborhood on the city’s west side that includes the American University of Beirut. It was the perfect base. My room had a kitchenette, free WiFi and a very helpful staff.
In Beirut, you don’t really want to have a car, with all the traffic and parking problems posed by a city of two million. Still, I rented a car. They brought my car to La Maison de Hamra, and picked it up when I returned to the city. Easy, inexpensive and convenient: it cost me just $145 and two tanks of gas for my five days of driving from Beirut to the far northeast of the country to the far southwest and back.