Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Lebanon!



Lebanon is a country in Western Asia. It is bordered by Syria to the north and east and Israel to the south, while Cyprus is west across the Mediterranean Sea.  Lebanon's location at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland facilitated its rich history and shaped a cultural identity of religious and ethnic diversity.

The earliest known settlements in Lebanon date back to earlier than 5000 BC. In Byblos, which is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, archaeologists have discovered remnants of prehistoric huts with crushed limestone floors, primitive weapons, and burial jars which are evidence of the Neolithic and Chalcolithic fishing communities who lived on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea over 8,000 years ago.

The ruins of the ancient city of Baalbek.
(Photo by upyernoz. Licensed under CC BY 2.0)

The area now known as Lebanon first appeared in recorded history around 4000 BC as a group of coastal cities and a heavily forested hinterland. It was inhabited by the Canaanites, a Semitic people, whom the Greeks called "Phoenicians" because of the purple (phoinikies) dye they sold. These early inhabitants referred to themselves as "men of Sidon" or the like, according to their city of origin, and called the country "Lebanon." Because of the nature of the country and its location, the Phoenicians turned to the sea, where they engaged in trade and navigation.

In the centuries that followed, the area came under the rule of the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Macedonians (led by Alexander the Great), the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Crusaders, and the Mamluks.  The region eventually was ruled by the Ottoman Empire from 1516 to 1918. Following the collapse of the empire after World War I, the five provinces that constitute modern Lebanon came under the French Mandate of Lebanon. The French expanded the borders of the Mount Lebanon Governorate, which was mostly populated by Maronites and Druze, to include more Muslims.  This furthered deepened a religious divide that was born when the Arabs took rule as Islam was introduced into a region that had been predominantly inhabited by Christian Romans and Byzantines.  That religious divide exists to today and is often the root of many a conflict. 

Byblos.
(Photo by Giorgio Montersino. Licensed under CC BY SA-2.0)
Lebanon gained independence in 1943 and Beirut became its capital city.   I've summarized 8,000 plus years of history into just a few sentences.  Obviously, it's all much more complicated than that. You could easily spend weeks just reading up on the history of Lebanon, as small a country as it is.

My first real knowledge of Lebanon was like of that of many people my age - in the mid 70's when the Lebanese Civil War broke out throughout the country.  Fighting was between the Muslims and the Christians.  I remember watching the nightly news and seeing all the destruction that was taking place in Beirut.  I didn't know anything about Lebanon then and it wasn't until I was in college and met a Lebanese girl that I even had an inkling of what the war was doing to her country.  Her eyes would well up with tears every time she told me of the impact of the war on her family back in Beirut.  They were the lucky ones in that they could afford to leave the country.   In doing so, they escaped to safety but left their entire world, and other family, behind.  Not in my wildest imagination could I ever understand what being a refugee is like but I don't like to hear of any human suffering so my heart always goes out to those who have to flee to escape harm and find a better life for themselves.

According to some numbers that I've read, more than 60,000 people died in the first two years of the war (1975–1976), and much of the country was devastated. A particularly destructive period was in 1978 when the Syrians relentlessly shelled the country in a three-month campaign later known as the Hundred Days' War.  Syrian occupation of Lebanon began in 1976, during the Lebanese Civil War, and ended in 2005 following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.

Given how much Lebanon had suffered under Syrian occupation, it would probably surprise many people to find out that since the start of the Syrian civil war, Lebanon has taken in an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees.  This is quite remarkable for a country of just over 6 million!

As if being under Syrian occupation was not brutal enough, another destructive chapter in Lebanon's history was was the 1982 Lebanon War, during which the country was under siege by Israeli troops.  Tensions with Israel remain high and as a result the border between the two countries is closed.

Since the end of the war in 1990, the people of Lebanon have been rebuilding their country and slowly it is regaining its status as a tourist, cultural and intellectual center in the Middle East and as a center for commerce, fashion, and media.  For now, things seem peaceful enough in Lebanon for a trip though the US State Department still warns against travel to the country.  Same warning as for Russia and well, I just returned from a month in Russia and I honestly felt safer in its big cities - Moscow and St. Petersburg than I would in any major US city. 

Sea Castle (Qalat al-Bahr), Sidon.
(Photo by Heinz Hövel.  Licensed under CC by SA 3.0)

Lebanon is a country is rich with ancient history and as a ancient history lover, it has long been on my travel bucket list.  I am finally going and I could not be more excited! I'm equally thrilled that I will be going with one of my favorite travel partners - Pat whom I first met on a group tour in Ethiopia.  The following year, she and I did a private tour of Central Asia. We spent four weeks visiting Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.  That trip was followed by another trip to the Caucasus - Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Armenia which we did fairly independently.  That last trip was in 2016 so it's time for another one together.  As she keeps reminding me that she will turn 85 (yes, 85!) next year, time is of the essence so I have decided to set aside two trips with her in 2019.  Her son, Howard, who is quickly coming into his own as an adventure traveler will be joining us.

As with our previous two trips, I did all the planning for this trip and I have to say, I knocked it out in less than 2 weeks!   I just returned from Russia two weeks ago and the Lebanon trip is already all detailed out - the tours have been reserved and I just need to get our flight tickets and book our accommodations in Beirut and Tripoli.

So here's our itinerary.  You can pretty much cover the country in 2 weeks so it's perfect for us as Howard is still working so vacation time is precious for him.


The basic itinerary is 10 days in Beirut which will be our base from which we do day tours.

Lebanese Ice Cream
(Photo by Jad Issa.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)
We begin our tours in Beirut with a full day of tasting Lebanese food!  Pat and I are foodies so I signed us up for the food tour in Beirut with a company called Taste Lebanon.  We'll be doing their full day Beirut Bites tour.  Howard's fully on board with the food tour - his only request is that he not eat offal sandwiches.  I think that can be easily arranged 😁  No matter what, we definitely have to have some ice cream which from what I have read sounds very similar to Turkish dondurma.  Their ice cream cones look very different (flat and rectangular versus conical) and I think you can pile on small scoops of different flavors.  Whatever it is, I'm having one!  love Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food in general so I'm really looking forward to this tour and no better way than a happy stomach to kick off a visit to a country.  Yum! 

As for the other day tours from Beirut, the country is so small that you can pretty much do day trips from the city in less than 2 hours, most often less than 2.   For these tours, I found a local company called Lebanon Tours and Travels that offers tours to all the major tourist sites.  They are very reasonably priced and have received good reviews on Tripadvisor.

While there's going to be a lot of historic sites and ancient ruins on the tours but we'll also have opportunity to see a bit of mother nature.

More specifically, Jeita Grottoes which is largest explored cave in Lebanon and the cedar forests of Lebanon.  Oh....and days of gazing out at the crystal blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea!

Jeita Grottoes, upper grotto.
(Photo by kcakduman. Licensed under CC BY 2.0)
Jeita Grottoes is a system of two separate, but interconnected, karstic limestone caves spanning a length of nearly 9 kilometres (5.6 miles). The caves are situated in the Nahr al-Kalb valley within the locality of Jeita, 18 kilometres (11 miles) north of Beirut. Though inhabited in prehistoric times, the lower cave was not rediscovered until 1836 by Reverend William Thomson; it can only be visited by boat since it channels an underground river that provides fresh drinking water to more than a million Lebanese.  The upper grotto, reachable by cable car or a Disney-like train, provides a 750-meter long walking tour and by most accounts I've read, is definitely the most interesting part.  The upper grotto is comprised of a series of chambers the largest of which peaks at a height of 120 meters (390 feet).  It's also home to the world's largest stalactite.
 
I was having difficulties finding images of Jeita Grottoes to include in this blog posting though I managed to find one of the upper grotto.  Apparently, photos are not allowed inside.  What??  I think Jeita will remind me very much of Luray Caverns which is located in Virginia, USA and is one of the places I love to take my visitors to.

Flag of Lebanon
And, what would a trip to Lebanon be without a visit to see its famed cedar trees? Cedrus libani, commonly known as the Cedar of Lebanon or Lebanon cedar, is a species of cedar native to the mountains of Lebanon.  It is the national emblem of Lebanon and is displayed on the flag of Lebanon and coat of arms of Lebanon. The mountains of Lebanon were once shaded by thick cedar forests but like many forests around the world, the extent of these forests has been markedly reduced as a result of centuries of persistent deforestation, and more recently, global warming and infestations by the cedar sawfly, Cephalcia tannourinensis.  To protect the trees from extinction, the country has placed 90% of the cedar forests in protected areas. 


Tripoli souk.
(Photo by Bertramz.  Licensed under CC by SA 3.0)

We'll also make time to do a bit of souvenir shopping.  Beirut's souks are too modern but those in Tripoli will be a throwback to more traditional Middle Eastern markets. I think they will remind Pat and I of the ones in Morocco which I love.  I don't know if Howard has been to Morocco or not but I'm pretty sure he'll enjoy wandering around the labyrinth of shops as much as Pat and I do.

I don't know what products Lebanon is known for but good news for me is that I have plenty of time to find out and to actually learn more about this country before I step foot on it.  I still have a few logistical things to take care of but after that, it's on to reading up about the places we'll be seeing and then finding a few off the beaten path things to see or do that might be of interest to us.  

Lebanon, here we come!