IN THE LEVANT
Our March 2011 holiday
"The people are all charming to me. They are not really Eastern, or anything: just a poor fringe of a people between Islam and the sea, doomed to be pawns in whatever politics are played here ..."
"Letters From Syria" by Freya Stark (1942)
"Anyone who wants to lengthen his days, taste paradise and feel the world to come should spend some time in Lebanon beneath the shade of its splendid cedars, breathing its healthy air, drinking its good waters, and pampering himself with its glorious visions of nature."
Lebanese government tourist manual in Hebrew (1930s)
The Middle East is the cradle of civilisation and therefore it has to be of fascination to any serious traveller. We had already been to Egypt, Jordan, Iran and Israel and were excited to explore two other nations in the region: Syria and Lebanon. For Roger, this trip took his country count to 56.
As on many previous holidays, we travelled with Voyages Jules Verne [click here]. As on most previous vacations, Roger read a book about our destination – in this case “Beware Of Small States”, a history of modern Lebanon in the context of the wider Middle East, by David Hirst [for review click here].
Visiting this troubled part of the world was always going to be different from the conventional holiday, but events took a dramatic turn between booking the trip and when we took it. In the month before the visit, the Arab world was set alight by demonstrations of unprecedented size and consequence, leading in the case of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya to full-scale revolutions.
The land of Syria is layered with one civilisation after another like an archaelogical palimsest. This is the land of Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Umayyads, the Abbassids, the Serljuks, the Mongols, the Crusaders, the Mameluks, the Ottomans, and finally the French Mandate. The Ottoman Empire lasted from 1516-1918, a period that Syrians today call "400 years of darkness".
Modern Syria gained its independence from France in 1946 but has since lived through periods of political instability driven by the conflicting interests of its various ethnic and religious groups. Civilian rule only lasted until 1949 when a series of military coups put the army in charge.
For a while, from 1958-61, Syria united with Nasser’s Egypt, but an army coup restored independence before the Alawite-controlled pan-Arab Baath (Renaissance) Party took control in 1963 and instituted a dictatorship which has now lasted five decades. A state of emergency rule has now been in place for 48 years.
The 1971 constitution requires the president to be a Muslim but does not make Islam the state religion. In fact, the constitution formally vests the Baath Party with leadership functions in the state and society. People must elect the leader of the Baath Party as President and he also serves as Secretary General of the Baath Party and leader of the National Progressive Front (a coalition of 10 political parties authorized by the government).
Since 2000, the president has been Bashar al-Assad [click here], son of the former president, Hafez al-Assad [click here] who ruled for three decades. He spent two years studying in London and was planning to be an optholmologist but was recalled when his elder brother Basil – originally destined to succeed his father – was killed in a car accident.. Bashar al-Assad is credited with modest internal reforms, although his foreign policy remains highly problematic for the West, especially his support for Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza.
Syria is home to diverse groups, including Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Alawite Shias and Druze, as well as the Arab Sunnis who make up a majority of the Muslim population. Syrian and Palestinian Arabs comprise more than 80%, with Kurds (9%) representing the largest minority. In religious terms, 85% are Muslim (mostly Sunnis with 13% Shia), while 15% are Christian (the majority Antiochian Orthodox). Although the overwhelmingly majority of Syrian Muslims are Sunni (like most Arab states), the leadership of the country is in the hands of an elite from the Shia community (the majority in Iraq and Iran) – called the Alawites - which makes for real tension and resentment in the country.
Recently there has been various moves to make the country more secular: there is a ban on the wearing of the niqab in schools and universities, more alcohol sale permits have been issued, and even gambling is now permitted in selected locations. Until just before our arrival in the country, access to social networking web sites like Facebook and YouTube had been banned, but it seems that the protests throughout the Middle East had persuaded the regime to allow access to these sites (according to one view, so that usage can be monitored more easily).
The population of Syria is around 22 million and, as with all Arab countries, the majority is young: two-thirds are aged under 30. Like many Arab countries, Syria has a low standard of living for the mass of its people - GDP per head is a mere $4,800 (less than that of Tunisia or Egypt) - and high youth unemployment (16.5% of those aged 15-29 but better than Tunisia or Egypt). For some years, tourism has been increasing but, following unrest in the Middle East just prior to our visit, there has been a fall in visitor numbers.
The country is running out of oil (although some assert that oil exports are being held back waiting for prices to rise) and, in the normally fertile north (where most of the Kurds live), there has been a severe drought for the last four years.
Syria is one of Israel's staunchest enemies and supports a number of militant groups that carry out attacks against Israel, most notably Hamas. Their current relationship flounders on the continued occupation by Israel of the Golan Heights – Syrian land taken in the 1967 war (Roger & Vee visited the Golan during a holiday in Israel in 2007, so technically they had already been to Syria).
On the world stage, Damascus has been increasingly isolated, having come under fire for its alleged support for insurgents in Iraq, and over its role in Lebanon. However, that isolation appears to be easing after efforts by France to bring Syria back into the international fold.
It was a Thursday when we flew from London's Heathrow airport where Vee spotted the television personality Gok Wan and exchanged smiles with him. Our flight to Damascus – on a British Midland International Airbus A321 – took four and half hours and, since there is a two-hour time difference between the UK and the Middle East, we landed shortly after 11 pm local time.
At Damascus airport, Roger & Vee met their fellow Voyages Jules Verne travellers. It was only a small group with four other couples. Roger & Vee particularly befriended Lance & Lorraine from Rossendale (who had visited a staggering 70 countries) and Sam & Fiona from Greenwich. At the airport to meet us all was Ehab, our guide for the whole of the Syria part of the holiday. He proved to be an outstanding guide with exceptionally fluent English, a tremendous knowledge of the history and culture of the country, and a supportive and humorous style.
We were immediately driven to the Old City to our hotel for our two nights in Damascus: the Oriental Hotel [click here] which is located at the eastern end of the Old City in the previous Christian Quarter. This is a former grand mansion converted to provide a small number of comfortable rooms and we were charmed by its intimacy and character.
Next morning, as we did each day on this very full trip, we made an early start: alarm at 7 am and out at 9 am. It was Friday and, as throughout the Muslim world, it was a day of prayer and quiet in the city which worked well for us tourists. The weather was sunny which was a delight after the long British winter - but the warm climate was not to last ...
Today Damascus is the capital of Syria with a population of around 5 million (including suburbs) and it consists of an Old City (medieval Islamic), a new city (last 50 years), and a modern city (currently being constructed). It is arguably the oldest living city in the world, dating back to the second millennium BC and with evidence of people living here as long ago as 10,000 BC.
Our city tour commenced with the nearby Chapel of Saint Paul where the saint is reputed to have been lowered in a basket from a window in order to escape the Jews who were angered by his teaching of the new Christian faith.
Next stop was the National Museum where we spent an hour and half. One of the many fascinating sections here is the Ugarit Room devoted to finds from Ugarit, a coastal town in north-west Syria. Prior to this civilisation, the two known systems of writing were hieroglyphics (developed by the Egyptians) and cuneiform (developed in Mesopotamia), both of which involved hundreds of pictograms that represented complete words or syllables. However, the Ugaritic alphabet was a greatly simplified system of 30 symbols, each of which represents one sound, making it one of the world's first alphabets.
Next we walked through the Souq al-Hamidiyya, which was closed because it was Friday, to access the Umayyad Mosque which is characterised by three minarets and three domes. First, the five women members of the group had to visit the 'Putting On Special Clothes Room' in order to obtain a head-to-toe outfit that made them look like Hobbits and indistinguishable from the dozens of other females in the mosque. Built between 705-720 AD, at the time it was the largest and most beautiful mosque in the world and today it remains the most important in the Muslim world after those in Mecca and Medina. Originally the site was a Christian basilica and dedicated to St John the Baptist whose head was said to be contained in a casket here and a basilica remains in the heart of the Muslim monument.
Above: place for special clothes
Right: Vee in special clothes
Two outside shots of
Two inside shots of
Immediately adjacent to the mosque is the Mausoleum of Saladin or Salah ad-Din as he is known here. Saladin, the nemesis of the crusaders, died in Damascus in 1193 and the original mausoleum was erected on this site that same year. Actually there are two tombs here: a walnut wood one on the right containing Saladin's body and a more modern, marble one on the left donated by Kaiser Wilhelm.
It was time for our first proper meal in the Levant, so we stopped at a restaurant called “Beit Geddi” which means 'grandfather' (Roger liked this because just seven weeks earlier he had become a grandfather for the first time). Essentially the meal consisted of mezze, half-a-dozen cold dishes – the delicious starting point of every lunch and dinner that we had in Syria and Lebanon. We discovered a refreshing drink new to the region which consists of mint and lemonade and goes by the odd name polo (later we learned that the original version of the drink dates back to the 1920s but involves vermouth and gin).
Suitably refreshed, we next walked on to visit the Street Called Straight (Shariah Medhat Pasha). Two millennia ago when it was known as Via Recta, this was one of the most famous streets in the world. Indeed it is mentioned in Chapter Nine of the Acts of the Apostles, since Paul – after his conversion on the road to Damascus – here found lodgings and had his eyesight restored. Today it is believed to be the oldest known street in the world. Down a little street off the main road, we found the Chapel of Ananias, a cellar named after the Christian who restored the sight of Paul.
At this point in the day, the guided tour of Damascus should have ended and given way to some free time, but one of our number – the lovely Lorraine – had researched our holiday, had an idea for an extra trip, and persuaded all of us to pay extra for this additional venue. So we drove a short distance north-east out of the city to the village of Maalula (the name means 'high ground').
What makes this location so special is that it is one of only three villages in the world where Aramaic – the language of Christ – is still spoken (it is not a written language). At the Church of St Serge and Bacchus, built in 325 AD, we were treated to two renditions – one by a middle-aged man and another by a young woman – of 'the Lord's Prayer' in the original Aramaic – a magical experience. Close by, we strode through a water-filled ravine in high limestone rocks to access the Convent of Saint Thecla, dedicated to a woman who was a pupil of Saint Paul and one of the earliest Christian martyrs. According to legend, the gap in the rocks – a kind of miniature version of the famed gorge at Petra – was created by God to enable Thecla to flea her persecutors, although an earthquake seems the more likely explanation.
Back in Damascus about 5.30 pm, the tour really was over – but Lorraine had another suggestion for an original venue and Roger joined her and her husband Lance to locate a cafe called “Al-Nawfara” in the lee of the Umayyad Mosque.
This is the location of a nightly performance by 'the storyteller of Damascus', a remarkable old man called Abu Shady. Once the country had many professional storytellers called hakawati but – thanks to television and the Internet - Abu Shady is the last. It is a spellbinding performance given about 6 pm each evening for around half-an-hour. He sits on a low platform against the cafe's far wall, wearing baggy trousers and waistcoat with a red tarboosh (fez) on his head, and reads a section from his handwritten stories with histrionic use of his powerful, undulating voice and a long white stick which he points, waves and slaps on his chair arm or platform. The audience is invited to respond and, while of course we did not understand a word, we thrilled to the act.
Back at the hotel, dinner for the group was in the adjoining restaurant. As always we began with mezze and ended with fruit, but the main course was something different this time: a dish of lamb, aubergines, almonds and rice called makhlooba which means literally 'upside down' (because of how it is served) – really appetising.
Saturday was an early start: alarm at 6.15 am and out of the hotel at 7.45 am. Vee had been sick in the night and spent the next few days being more ill than she has ever been in our 30 years of holiday-making. We were leaving Damascus to travel north-east to Palmyra. This is a long journey of around 140 miles (220 km) and there is little to see since most of it is an arid, rocky terrain called badiya (Syria does not have proper desert). Our guide Ehab tried to enliven the early part of the journey with information on Syria's economy but the manufacture of cement is not that interesting and he could not talk about the politics of the regime.
After two hours on the road, in the middle of nowhere, we stopped at a wonderful place called "Bagdad Cafe 66". This was created by a local bedouin called Faraj. The name is borrowed from the German 1986 film set in the Mojave desert of the USA but, since a couple of locals have since opened similar cafes with the same name close by, Faraj added the numbers "66" since there was once a "Cafe Bagdad" on Route 66 in the States.
After another hour on the road, we reached Palmrya (the name means literally 'palm oasis'), Syria's main tourist attraction and one of the world's most splendid historical sites. The location dates back to the 19th century BC when it was known as Tadmor. It was at its height in the second century AD when it had a population of 200,000 located on the border of the Roman and Persian empires. Excavation began in 1924 and continues to this day. The novelist Agatha Christie, whose husband was a noted archaeologist, called it "lovely and fantastic and unbelievable".
The modern world intrudes sadly with hawkers who speed around the huge site (some 50 hectares) on lightweight motorbikes and call out "Welcome ...Where you from? ... Very cheap ...I offer good price ... 200 pounds [Syrian] ... OK - 100 pounds". But nothing could diminish the grandeur of Palymra in warm sunshine and Sam in our group - a member of staff in the Department of Portable Antiquities & Treasure in the British Museum - was just so excited, running around, reading inscriptions and photographing everything.
We started in the Valley of the Tombs at the Tower of Elahbel, the best preserved of a series of tower tombs dating back to the first century AD. Next we visited the Hypogeum of the Three Brothers, a later tomb set underground where the bodies could be better preserved and frescoes were created. Then we went on the Temple of Bel which was built in 32 AD and was a huge structure of almost 700 feet (210 metres) by some 670 feet (205 metres)
At this point, we broke off for some lunch in the "Palmrya Gate Restaurant". When we resumed our tour of the ruins, we found that Ehab had kept the best for the last. The Great Colonnade, stretching between the main funerary temple in the west and the Temple of Bel in the east, covered a distance of around 1300 yards (1200 metres) and still sports more than 300 standing columns. Bizarrely a film crew was at work in the colonnade making a movie about Zenobia, the colourful, third century Syrian queen who led a famous revolt against the Roman Empire [for details click here].
We went on to view successively the Nabo Temple, a trapezoidal structure dating from the first century AD, the Amphitheatre, a centre of Palmyran entertainment that originally sat 2,500 and was covered by sand until the 1950s when it was extensively restored, and the Agora, the large courtyard that houses the market. Finally we called into the Palmyra Museum which is something of a disappointment and an anti-climax after the ruins themselves.
About 4 pm, we checked into the Zenobia Cham Palace Hotel [click here]. Amazingly this hotel is located right next to the ruins but the rooms are tiny and the facilities basic.
We were not in the hotel long before we were off again to ride up to the Qala'at ibn Maan, a mountain-top castle built in the 17th century, to watch the sunset over the ruins of Palmyra. Sadly the weather was now rather dull and the sun did not perform as spectacularly as we would have wished. You would think by now that the group would be ruined-out but Sam especially could not get enough of temples and columns and so the coach dropped us off back down at the ruins and he led us through the site to our hotel, the last stretch in complete darkness.
Dinner – a chicken dish with rice – was at the hotel.
Link: Wikipedia page on Palmyra click here
Hama & Apamea
Sunday was another early start: alarm at 6.15 am and on the coach at 8 am. We had another long journey through the badiya - first west to Homs and then north to Hama. We had a couple of comfort stops and reached Hama towards noon. As with every Syrian city and town, the entrance was adorned with a statute to the late President Hafez al-Assad and posters of the current President Bashar al-Assad – these dictatorships do love their personality cults.
There is not that much to see in Hama, thanks to the massacre of February 1982. When Roger asked our guide “Are you going to tell us about the massacre?” Ehab smiled knowingly and simply responded “What massacre?” - he could not talk about the politics of the regime.
The Hama massacre occurred when the Syrian army bombarded the town in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood. An estimated 17,000 to 40,000 people were killed, including about 1,000 soldiers, and large parts of the old town were destroyed. The attack has been described as possibly being "the single deadliest act by any Arab government against its own people in the modern Middle East".
Hama's most distinctive attractions are its norias, wooden water wheels up to 65 feet (20 metres) in diameter which have graced the town for centuries and take water from the river to aquaducts. There are still 14 in the town (and seven outside), mostly dating from the 17th century and we viewed a couple in the town centre.
Thanks to the army bombardment of 1982, the Old Town is now merely one long, twisting alley way, but it features the charming Azeem Palace which has been described as “one of the loveliest Ottoman residential buildings in Syria”. It used to be the home of the governor from 1742 and the upper of the two floors features a beautifully restored living room.
Leaving Hama, we drove further north and stopped at a place called Mhardeh for some lunch. There was a 'Welcome' sign at the restaurant door but it was upside down; then again, none of us would have been able to tell whether such a sign in Arabic was the right way up.
As we left Mhardeh, it started to rain – this was not what we expected or wanted. When we reached the ancient ruins of Apamea in gloomy weather, as at Palmyra there were hawkers zooming around the site on light motorbikes and this time their offerings included umbrellas – you kind of had to admire their entrepreneurship.
Apamea, located on a high moor, was founded in the third century AD by Alexander the Great and later taken over one of his former generals Seleucus I who turned the site into a training camp for his army and renamed it after his wife Apama. It subsequently became a Roman city which, at its height, housed some 500,000. Although the ruins are not as grand as Palmyra, the main street (the cardo maximus) is actually longer, running to almost 2,200 yards (2,000 metres). The columns – which were originally scattered around the site – have been re-erected by a Belgian team working here since the 1930s. Some have twisted fluting – a feature unique to Apamea.
At the foot of the hill, there is the Mosaic Museum, located in the former stables of an 18th century caravanserai. Technically the place had already closed when we reached it and our guide Ehab had to persuade the caretaker to open it for 10 minutes so that we could have a rushed view of the fine mosaics which are poorly looked after.
Then we resumed our journey northwards to Aleppo. We stopped briefly at a place called “Tower Tourist Restaurant”which presented an odd juxtaposition of images. On the one hand, all the walls were festooned with pictures of the three Assads; on the other hand, the large-screen television was showing coverage of the civil war in Libya.
It was 6 pm when we rolled up to our hotel in Aleppo – we had been on the road for 10 hours. This accommodation - the Sheraton Aleppo Hotel [click here] - was very different from the charm and character of the Damascus hotel or the tiny rooms of the Palmyra hotel; it was very modern with huge rooms. Dinner was at the Sheraton and Roger persuaded Ehab to join us so that we could have a stimulating and entertaining conversation.
All of Monday was spent in Aleppo, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world with origins dating back to the early second millennium BC. Today it is a thriving city of some 2.3 million. So it was alarm at 7 am and out at 8.30 am without both Vee and Lorraine who were still suffering stomach upsets.
In fact, our first destination was some three-quarters of an hour outside Aleppo to the north-west: the Basilica of St Simeon (also known as Qala'at Aamaan). This is situated on a rocky outcrop and the chill and heavy misty made the location really atmospheric. The basilica is named after an odd character who was born around 390 AD and died in 457 AD.
Simeon was a recluse who decided to escape contact with people by sitting on a pillar which over a period of 38 years he made higher and higher, eventually reaching over 50 feet (16 metres). This did not stop pilgrims from visiting him – on the contrary he was the David Blane of his time. Many others took up the bizarre and uncomfortable idea, giving rise to the term 'stylite'.
The basilica consisted of four small churches in the shape of a cross with the famed pillar located in the centre. The outlines of the churches are still very clear, but the religious and tourists have so whittled away the pillar that it is now merely a stub.
We then returned to Aleppo to visit the National Museum which was founded in 1987. One of the rooms contains artefacts unearthed at a place Mari which was a third century BC city located on the Euphrates. Vee is a twin and her sister is called Mari (in this case Welsh for Mary), so the room had some personal resonance.
The coach took us back to the hotel where we collected Vee and Lorraine and all together walked to the the Armenian Quarter of the Old City to have our lunch. This was in a splendid restaurant called “Massis”, which had only opened two months previously, and the meal involved a delicious lamb & beef kebab.
After lunch, we were collected by the coach and driven to the Khan al-Wazeer , one of a succession of Aleppo's caravanserai. From here, we walked through the souk and, coming out at the eastern end, found ourselves facing the towering Citadel. The citadel served as a power base for the Muslims during the 12th century crusades but much rebuilding and strengthening occurred during Mameluk rule (1250-1517) and it is largely their work which survives. A wide moat and a sophisticated series of carefully-positioned gates obviously made this a formidable place to attack. At the heart of the citadel, there are the remains of an Ayyubid Palace dating from the 13th century.
As the day had progressed, the weather had become gloomier and gloomier and it was timely that the group was now given some free time to roam the Aleppo souq which is covered. Vee and Lorraine were still not feeling well and returned to the hotel with Lance, while Roger joined Sam & Fiona in exploring the mysteries of the cavernous souq which, beneath a stone vault built by the Ottomans, features almost 20 miles (30 km) of covered passages.
From Roger's point of view, the harassment of the storekeepers was less intense than he had experienced in the souks of Cairo and Istanbul but not the hassle-free experience of the souks of Isfahan and Shiraz in Iran. Fiona attracted particular attention but handled it well and made a number of purchases, We all bought the famous Aleppo olive soap. This is 100% natural, consisting of 90% olives and 10% bay laurel.
After a short spell back in the hotel, we all left on foot for the evening entertainment and meal. By now, it was raining heavily. First, we attended a short performance by whirling Dervishes. Four dancers performed, supported by the same number of musicians, all of whom ignored the noise of the deluge outside as they performed this Sufi Muslim rite that is actually not a dance but a prayer, an effort to make a special kind of spiritual connection with God. The huge, billowing, white 'skirts' create a mesmerising spectacle.
Then we had dinner in a splendid restaurant called “Sissi House” where we sat in a covered courtyard and were entertained by a wonderful oud (lute) player. The food was good and something different was the cold cinnamon pancake served as a dessert.
Between our time in Aleppo and our entry into Lebanon, we had two days and two crusader castles. Sam introduced all to the acronym ABC standing for 'another bloody castle' but it was a joke because the two we were to visit are outstanding.
So Tuesday saw an alarm at 6.15 am and departure from Aleppo at 8 am. The roads were quiet because it was a public holiday (8 March): Commemoration of the Revolution (that is, the coming to power of the Baath Socialist Party – which is still in power five decades later).
We travelled south-west and, at one point, our driver decided to save some time by using a brand new stretch of motorway. The problem was that the motorway was so new that, as he soon realised, it was not actually completed and soon ran out. This necessitated a reversal process that was not easy on an unfinished road and involved some exciting manoeuvring. Later the road became very winding as we traversed over bush-covered hills in mist and rain.
Eventually, after a journey of three and a half hours,we reached the village of Al-Haffa, the site of our first crusader castle: Saladin's Castle ( Qala'at Salah ad-Din). Although Saladin never actually visited the place and his name was only given to the location in 1957, it was conquered by his army. In fact, it is technically not a castle but a fortress and it is positioned on a ridge surrounded by a canyon, so that our coach had to be abandoned for a minibus that could cope with the very tight bends on the narrow road up to the top where 142 concrete steps lead to the gate tower entrance.
It is an impressive structure and T E Lawrence was moved to say: “It was I think the most sensational thing in castle building I have seen”. The canyon around the castle was actually man-made by the crusaders who hacked a huge volume of stone out of the hillside to separate the castle from the main spine of the ridge. They left a freestanding needle of stone 92 feet (28 metres) high which provided support for a drawbridge and today – if you do not mind heights - you can peer down on this from the castle via a metal gantry. Sadly our appreciation of the castle was marred by repeated and very heavy showers, not to mention a real chill.
Lunch – the usual mezze - was at the village and then we were off again, travelling south through more heavy rain. After almost three hours, we reached our accommodation for the night: a hotel at the Mashta al-Helu resort. Since it was out of season and the weather was so bad, the resort was a rather sad place and we were the only group staying at our hotel. Our rooms contained written instructions to the guests which concluded: “Sorry for this procedure because of the abashment by some of the guests”. Dinner was excellent though; for the first and last time, we had fish and the hamour - a white fish from the Eastern Mediterranean – was really tasty.
That night, we experienced thunder, lightning and heavy rain – what a holiday (and in the Middle East!). Wednesday was alarm at 7.45 am and off at 9.30 am – all of us wearing some mixture of jumpers, jackets, scarves and hats. It was only three-quarters of an hour to our next castle but, as we took the winding road up into the hills, the coach splashed through huge puddles and we were sometimes smothered by clouds of mist.
Krak des Chevaliers - the name is a mixture of Kudish and French and means Fortress of the Knights - sits on a cliff of 2,130 feet (650 metres) along what was the only route from Antioch to Beirut. Kurdish soldiers garrisoned here in 1031 and then it was taken over by crusaders in 1110. Most of the castle was constructed by the Knights of St John from 1142 onwards and it was besieged by Saladin in 1188 and captured without being destroyed by Beybars in 1271. Light restoration was conducted by the French in 1936.
The castle encompasses an area of 32,300 sq ft (3.000 sq m). The outer wall is 100 feet (30 metres) thick and the guard towers are 26-33 feet (8-10 metres) thick. Plentiful stores and stables means that it could accommodate some 4,000 soldiers with their horses
Krak des Chevaliers is one of the best preserved medieval castles in the world and was described by T E Lawrence as “the finest castle in the world. Certainly the most picturesque I have ever seen – quite marvellous.” Sadly our experience of the castle was undermined by the lashing rain and biting cold. Our guide Ehab had visited the location countless times and proclaimed this weather the worst he had encountered here.
how to turn the weather into a photo opportunity
not the weather we were expecting
From Krak, we continued driving south until we reached Aridah on the Syrian-Lebanese border. It took us an hour to complete all the formalties of the border crossing and then towards 2 pm we were in Lebanon.
Lebanon was carved out of the Ottoman Empire and granted independence by the French in 1943. It is a tiny state: geographically around the size of Wales in the UK or Connecticut in the USA, with much of it mountainous. And it has a small population: only around 4 million (although there is a much larger Lebanese diaspora around the world). But religiously, it is one of the most complicated nations on earth.
Lebanon's population is estimated to be almost 60% Muslim (Shia, Sunni, Druze, Isma'ilite, Alawite, or Nusayri) and almost 40% Christian (Syriac Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Melkite Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Syriac Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, Copt, or Protestant). Over the past 60 years, there has been a steady decline in the number of Christians as compared to Muslims, due to higher emigration rates among Christians and a higher birth rate among the Muslim population.
Clashes between Palestinian militia and Christian fighters broke out into full hostilities in 1975 and the bitter civil war lasted until 1990. It is impossible to be precise as to the casualties of the war, but we were told that around 150,000 were killed, another 250,000 were injured, and some two million emigrated. Sectarian tensions remain and the various militia are backed by countries around the region, most notably Hezbollah which is backed by Iran and is still allowed to retain its arms. The population - almost half in the capital Beirut - lives in constant anxiety of another break-out of major violence.
A major event was the car bomb assassination of former Prime Minister and Sunni politician Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005. This led to massive demonstrations and the withdrawal of Syrian forces from the country, but the killing continues to bedevil Lebanese politics, most notably because a United Nations commission of enquiry threatens to accuse certain parties of complicity in the murder.
An unwritten National Pact of 1943 remains in force, allocating key political positions between the different religious groups, so always the President is a Christian Maronite, the Prime Minister is Sunni Muslim, the Speaker is Shia Muslim and the Deputy Speaker is Greek Orthodox.
Lebanon is a parliamentary democracy which implements a special system known as confessionalism. This system is intended to ensure that sectarian conflict is kept at bay and attempts to represent fairly the demographic distribution of the different religious groups in the legislature and the government. There are no less than 18 state-recognized religious sects - 4 Muslim, 12 Christian, 1 Druze, and 1 Jewish.
So Lebanon's unicameral national legislature has its 128 seats divided equally between Christians and Muslims, proportionately between the 18 different denominations and proportionately between its 26 regions. Prior to 1990, the ratio stood at 6:5 in favor of Christians; however, the Taif Accord which put an end to the 1975–1990 civil war, adjusted the ratio to grant equal representation to followers of the two religions and circumscribed the previous powers of the President.
The members of parliament then align themselves into two broad groups which confusingly have similar names: the 8 March bloc and the 14 March bloc. Membership of these blocs can - and has - changed.
The 8 March bloc takes its name from a huge demonstration called by Hezbollah on that date in 2005. Membership of the bloc includes most of the Shia Muslim community dominated by Hezbollah led by Hasan Nasrallah plus Amal and the Maronite Christians led by Michel Aoun and (now) the Druze led by Walid Jumblatt. The group is supported by Syria and Iran.
The 14 March bloc takes its name from probably an even bigger demonstration which was held on 14 March 2005, exactly one month after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Membership of the bloc includes the Sunni Muslims led by Rafiq’s son Saad and groups of the Maronite Christians led by Amine Gemayel and Samir Geagea. The group is supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States.
Just prior to our visit, a government led by the 14 March group had fallen because Hezbollah pulled out its ministers from the coalition and a new government had still not been formed.
Link: English language news site click here
Beirut & Byblos
Over in Lebanon, we met our new guide for this country, a woman called Claire. Although not as fluent in English or as knowledgeable of history as Ehab, she was ebullient and amusing. She assured us that we had brought luck to Lebanon because they had snow on the hills, but we were not sure that this was lucky for us.
We soon stopped for some lunch in a cafe called “Palais 1881” where Roger & Vee had a beef 'pizza' and sweet pastry 'dessert' – a change from mezze. Our journey south took us past the coastal city of Tripoli ands along the coast with the rolling waves of the Eastern Mediterranean. Lebanon had a different 'feel' than Syria: we no longer had the ubiquitous photographs and statues of the Assad family but the sort of commercial advertisements that is normal in the West but largely absent in Syria.
Our Syrian driver Waleed and guide Ehab were still with us because it was easier for them to return to Damascus from Beirut than from Aridah on the northern Syrian-Lebanese border. So Sam collected tips from the group and Roger took the coach's microphone to make little speeches thanking Waleed and Ehab and presenting the money to them.
It was around 5 pm when we reached our accommodation in the Hamra district of Beirut: Le Bristol Hotel [click here].This was the first hotel in which we found tea & coffee-making facilities.
There was nothing planned for us for the first evening in Beirut which was convenient for Roger & Vee because they had arranged to meet his stepmother's goddaughter, a young English woman called Claire, and her Lebanese partner Fadi. The venue for dinner was a Lebanese restaurant called “Abdel Wahab el-Inglizi” in the Achrafiye district of eastern Beirut. The food was great: mezze of course, then lamb, chicken & mincemeat kebab, and finally mouthwatering desserts. The menu offered no less than 18 desserts – coincidentally the number of religious groups recognised by the Lebanese confessional political system -and we chose and shared four of them, including one called mahalabiye, a milk custard laced with orange blossom essence, almonds & pistachios.
Roger & Vee had never met Claire & Fadi and were old enough to be their parents but we had a wonderful evening together. They are a very good-looking couple, she a project manager with the British Council and he a civil engineer working on costing. Roger indulged in his passion for politics and questioned Fadi about the complex situation in Lebanon. Fadi – whose father is Shia and mother is Sunni - was incredibly knowledgeable and balanced in his explanations. He told us that the revolutions in the Middle East were encouraging proponents of change in Lebanon and that the previous two weekends had seen demonstrations calling for a non-confessional political system. He was positive about the current situation and concluded: “I'm very optimistic”.
It was such an enjoyable evening that we agreed to do it again in two evenings time.
Another day (Thursday) and now another country (Lebanon), but still the same busy programme, so alarm at 7 am and out at 8.30 am for our tour of Beirut. This is yet another city that can claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited in the world with a history going back to 3,000 BC. Today it has a population of around 750,000.
Two things are immediately apparent to any new visitor to Beirut.
First, almost all the buildings in the city have been built or restored in the last two decades, so the downtown area especially looks pristine and modern. This is because the civil war of 1975-1990 destroyed or damaged virtually every structure in the city. One of the rare exceptions of a pre-war building that remains standing and unrestored is the Holiday Inn hotel which, with its gaping glassless windows and charred walls, looks like a black tooth in a pearly-teethed mouth. A crucial component of this reconstruction process has been a special company called Solidere [click here].
Second, the Lebanese army – young men in camouflage fatigues with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders – are all over the city, checking identities, stopping cars, or mostly just observing. At key locations there are even armoured personnel carriers stationed on the pavements. The presence of the national army provides reassurance to the citizens after the chaos wreaked by the multiple militias during the war and the political assassinations of recent years. For Roger, all this was resonant of his frequent visits to Northern Ireland in the 1970s.
Our first stop was the National Museum [click here]. This is located at what used to be a strategically important intersection on the the Green Line between Muslim West Beirut and Christan East Beirut during the civil war. As a result, it was heavily damaged during the conflict, although the artefacts were carefully crated-up and protected. We started our visit with the viewing of a short film called “Revival” which charted the restoration of the museum, the recovery of its artefacts, and the re-opening in 1999. We all loved the museum, partly for its historic displays, partly for the layout which ensured that a limited number of objects are given proper space.
While we were in the museum, there was more rain and some hail, but mostly the rain managed to hold off – although a chill wind did not – for our visit a short way north up the coast to the ancient site of Byblos. The earliest settlements here go back to the Neolithic (5th millennium BC) and Chalcolithic (4th millennium BC) periods, so this yet another city that can lay claim to be being the oldest continously inhabited in the world, and the site is known as the birthplace of the modern alphabet during the Phoenician period. We toured the ruins which included the Temple of Baalat Gebal, the oldest temple of the site dating back to the 4th millennium BC. However, the ruins are so old that there is really not that much to see.
In a narrow alleyway of Byblos, there is a workshop of the local palaeontologist Pierre Abi-Saad whose family has recovered thousands of fossils discovered in a quarry owned by the family for three generations. These are the only fish fossils ever found in the Middle East. A sign outside the shop proclaims that the fossils are 100 million years old which stands oddly with both Christian and Muslim notions of God's act of creation.
We all had lunch in the nearby cafe called “”Feniqia”. Roger & Vee chose what the menu advertised as “chicken homeless sandwich” - it did not look like a sandwich at all but it was certainly chicken and boneless.
Towards 2 pm, we drove back to Beirut to see more of the city, our guide Claire leading us on a walking tour.
We started at the Grand Serail, an Ottoman-era building which has been restored and now houses government offices. Next we viewed the Roman Baths which retain some fine mosaics. A little further along was the Parliament Building which is being restored. This is located in the Place d'Etoile which is dominated by a tall clock tower in the centre. While we were visiting the St George Cathedral, a Maronite church dating back to the crusades, the heavens opened and there were huge peals of thunder, so we sheltered for a while. Opposite the cathedral is a striking new mosque called the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque which stands out because of its blue domes – we did not go inside but were told that it contained seven tons of crystal donated by Turkey.
Our walking tour concluded with a visit to the huge Martyrs Square which is the site of all the biggest demonstrations in the country. Today one side of the square is dominated by a tented area containing commemorations to the victims – most notably former Prime Minster Rafiq Hariri [click here] – of the car bombing of 2005. The site has the aura of a political shrine where supporters of the 14 March movement can pay their respects and renew their ardour.
When the coach picked us up, it took us to the site of the assassination – now marked by a flame-like monument opposite the still-devastated St George Hotel – before returning us to the area of our hotel. In fact, the coach could not reach the hotel because access was cut off by roadblocks and soldiers. When we walked the short distance from the stopped coach to the hotel entrance, we found that the massive security was because all the Parliamentarians supporting the 14 March movement were in a meeting in our hotel planning this year's annual demonstration (actually this year on 13 March because it was a Sunday).
Meanwhile the 10 members of the Voyages Jules Verne group had being having its own version of the Arab revolt. While we had been having our city centre walking tour, our guide Claire had pointed out the restaurant where we would be having our dinner this evening on the pavement outside. The group was having none of that – it was too wet and too cold to eat outside. Claire pointed out that the restaurant did not actually have sufficient space inside and anyway there would be outside heaters.
This was far from convincing to the British contingent who pursued the battle of Beirut by deputing Roger to protest the need for alternative, warmer arrangements. Negotiations opened on the coach as we returned to the hotel, but Claire was not amused by this rebellion and, having called her office on her mobile, insisted on Roger speaking to her colleague. In the end, honour was served – as was dinner – with the group eating at our hotel. Not only did we stay dry and warm but the food was excellent. For a change, we were offered tender steak in a peppercorn sauce and then dessert was a choice from a tray of 10 different cakes.
Beiteddine & Baalbek
It was the last day of our trip to the Levant (Friday) but there was still lots to see, so it was a case of alarm at 7.10 am and out at 8.30 am. As we left Beirut for the day, we drove along the Corniche, a favourite place for promenaders along the sea front, and stopped for a photo opportunity at the Pigeon Rocks (a kind of miniature version of Etretat in France).
Driving south from the city centre, we passed the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila that were the site of a Christian Phalangist massacre in 1982 (there are still half million Palestinians in Lebanon, a country of only four million).
Our route took us south as far as the coastal town of Damour and then we turned east and headed for the Chouf Mountains. Passing through the village of Deir al-Qamar, about 9 am we reached our first destination of the day: Beiteddine Palace in the village of the same name.
This magnificent early 19th century complex – the name means 'house of faith' - was built over a period of 30 years, starting in 1788, and is a mixture of traditional Arab and Italian baroque. It became the stronghold of the Ottoman-appointed governor Emir Bashir and it is now the summer palace of the president of the republic. Of course, it was not yet summer and, as Claire had warned us when we first met her on the Lebanese border, there had just been a snowfall on the hills, so it was bitterly cold. But this was probably the most attractive building on our tour of Syria & Lebanon and the photographers among us found that it presented endless shots.
Back on the coach after more than an hour touring the palace, we proceeded to drive further up the Chouf Mountains. The snow was now not just on the hills but on the roadsides – a good 6” (around 15 cms) – but the roads were clear thanks to the work of snow ploughs. Really, when we had booked this trip, we had never imagined that, as a well as thunder, lightning, wind, rain and hail, we would encounter so much snow that it would require vehicles to clear it.
Travelling north, the highest point that we reached crossing the Chouf Mountains was 4,000 feet (1,500 metres) and then we descended into the Bekaa Valley and stopped for a hot drink at a place called Chtaura. By now, all the group members had donned as many layers of clothing as they had available, given that they thought they were coming on a trip requiring sun factor cream.
We were in Shia militia territory – mainly Hezbollah, which flies a yellow flag, but also Amal, which flies a green flag – and soon we reached Baalbek, a noted Hezbollah stronghold, although there is no visible evidence of an armed militia. This was originally a Phoenician settlement and was once known under the Greeks as Heliopolis (City of the Sun).
We started on the southern outskirts of the town visiting the location of what is billed as the largest stone in the world in a quarry on the Sheikh Abdullah hill. For some reason, locals call the stone Hajar al-Hubla which means Stone of the Pregnant Woman. It is a monster measuring 71 feet by 15 feet by 13 feet (21.5 metres by 4.5 metres by 4 metres) and Sam kindly sprinted down into the quarry to stand by the stone and give us a perspective. It is estimated to weigh around 1.000 tons.
As one enters Baalbek proper, one drives through a yellow, double-sectioned arch across the road. Each of the three supports of the arch features a large photograph of a Hezbollah hero: on the left, the former leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini; on the right, the current leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei; and, in the middle, the leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah [click here]. It was, of course, Friday and, as we looked around the town we could hear the sermon of the day being broadcast all around.
In terms of archaeological ruins, Baalbek is a place of superlatives: it is the largest complex of Roman temples ever built; the Temple of Bacchus is the best-preserved Roman temple in the world; and the Temple of Jupiter has the largest columns in the world (75 feet high and a girth of 7 feet or 22.9 metres high and a girth of 2.2 metres); and its stones – one weighing around 1,000 tonnes – are the largest ever used in any construction.
Sam was absolutely in his element, translating stone inscriptions, explaining historic figures, and running around the ruins in a state of awe. Sadly the rest of us were struggling to appreciate fully the wonder of it all because it was so bitterly, bitterly cold and then it started to rain again. Claire insisted that the stones looked particularly wonderful in the rain but it was hard for all of the group to share her positivity.
It was time to turn round and commence our return back southwards through the Bekaa Valley and eventually to Beirut with a couple of stops – one scheduled, one not – on the way. It was 2.15 pm when we drew up to the charming town of Zahlé known locally as 'Bride of the Bekaa' for our scheduled lunch stop. It was a later than usual lunch, but the venue made up for that; the “Hotel Monte Alberta” is located on a hillside overlooking the town and its restaurant revolves while one eats. It is billed as "the hanging paradise that overlooks Wadi Zahlé".
Roger even managed to find more politics here because the hotel was set out for a meeting that night to be addressed by the Lebanese television journalist May Chidiac [click here] who lost an arm and a leg in an assassination attempt in 2005, shortly after the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, an occupation she had strongly criticised. In preparation for the meeting, there was a huge photograph of her with Samir Geagea [click here] , the controversial leader of the Lebanese Forces party which is part of the 14 March movement.
So much for the scheduled stop; for the unscheduled stop, we had to thank Lorraine again. Not content with suggesting visits to the Aramaic village of Maalula and 'the storyteller of Damascus' in Syria, now she asked if it was possible for us to call in on Lebanon's oldest and most famous winery. This was how we found ourselves dropping in on the Ksara Winery. From 1857-1972, this was run by Jesuits who used Roman-era caves to store the wine as is still the case today. We were given a quick tour of some of the caves, tastings of white, rosé, red & dessert wines, and the opportunity to buy. Roger & Vee bought a bottle of red to take to Claire & Fadi with whom they were having dinner in the evening.
We resumed our journey back to Beirut. It was now snowing. However, this seemed to have little influence on the conduct of the local drivers and we were (lightly) hit by a car overtaking our coach as we in turn were overtaking a lorry on a single-lane road over a mountain.
Back In Beirut
We finally reached our hotel in Beirut at 5.45 pm but Roger & Vee were out again within 20 minutes because we were meeting our British friend Claire at the Virgin megastore prior to going to her flat for dinner with her and Fadi. We found that our taxi could not actually reach the relevant street because it is by the side of Martyrs Square and the square had been cut off to traffic and hundreds of plastic chairs were being put out in readiness for this year's 14 March demonstration (actually being held the day after next on 13 March because it was a Sunday).
When we finally managed to find both the store and Claire (what would we do without mobiles?), she recommended to us three books about Lebanon and three CDs of Arabic music which we duly purchased as reminders of the trip. It was now time to go to Claire's flat and we hailed a passing taxi. Now Beirut has an odd system of so-called service and private taxis, the former cheaper than the latter, the former sometimes acting as the latter. This apparently was the cause of the shouting match which proceeded to take place between Claire and the driver. Roger was very impressed by Claire's Arabic and assertiveness but, in the midst of the consternation, he managed to remember his books & CDs but forget the Ksara wine for Claire & Fadi in the taxi.
This though was the only blot on a wonderful evening in the flat in the Gemmayzeh district of the city. Claire cooked for us: a Lebanese dish that she had never made before which was a kind of Middle Eastern version of lasagne and then – oh joy – apple crumble. Roger continued to ask Fadi about Lebanese politics and Fadi again showed considerable knowledge and balanced judgement in his patient explanations. After two extensive tuition sessions with Fadi, Roger now felt equipped politically to stand for the Lebanese Parliament but – overlooking the inconvenience that he is not in fact Lebanese – his belief system is not accommodated by any of the 18 religious groupings recogised by the confessional system.
Two happy evenings together in Beirut had resulted in a warm friendship between we two couples and we agreed to meet the next month in London when they come over for what will be Fadi's first visit to Claire's home country.
So the last night of the trip to the Levant proved to be the shortest. It was midnight before we reached bed and the alarm woke us up at 3.45 am (!) because we had to pack and have a quick breakfast before leaving the hotel for the airport at 5 am. It was only at the airport that some of the group learned of the devastating earthquake which had just occurred off the north-east coast of Japan – a poignant reminder that wherever we come from, wherever we travel to, we are one world.
This trip to the Levant had been challenging in different ways: the Middle East was in turmoil as several revolutions worked themselves out; there was a lot of travelling and long days; we stayed in five hotels in nine nights; some of the weather was appalling with lots of rain and heavy snow; and for Vee it was the worst ill-health of any of our holidays. All this was more than off-set, however, by the many pleasures that we experienced..
Above all, there was the history. The ruins of Palmyra, Apamea and Baalbec are amazing and the castles of Saladin and Krak des Chevaliers are really impressive. We had visited no less than four cities that can plausibly claim to be the oldest inhabited in the world: Damascus & Aleppo in Syria and Beirut & Byblos in Lebanon. Additionally there were the oddities ranging from a village still speaking Aramaic to 'the storyteller of Damascus', from the first alphabet in history to the largest stone in the world.
Politically this is a fascinating region of the world and it was a portentous time to be visiting it.
In totalitarian Syria, Roger had little to discuss politically, partially because there is little conventional politics to discuss and partially because there was nobody willing to discuss it with him. In total contrast, the confessional political system of Lebanon provided plenty to debate and people there were ready to explain it. In Syria, the security presence was virtually invisible; all one saw was traffic police but one was aware that in plain clothes there was a formidable apparatus at work. Again in complete contrast, in Lebanon the security was 'in your face' with troops, APCs and road blocks all over the place but nevertheless a feeling of freedom that was absent in Syria.