Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lebanon: Baalbek and the Bekaa Valley

Chapter Six - Baalbek and the Bekaa Valley

There are no direct service taxis to Baalbek. You have to get one to Beirut first (LL 10,000) and change there to another (LL 10,000). I took a direct taxi (LL 50,000) because I wanted to go via the high mountain pass and take some pictures on the road. It was a nice drive with some spectacular views, really worth paying the extra bucks for. In winter this road is closed due to extremely heavy snowfall.

There were several checkpoints along the way, especially upon getting closer to the Bekaa Valley. At two of them (both Syrian) I needed to show my passport, and one of them even checked inside the trunk of the car. This was the only time such a thing happened; all the other times I was just waved on by the soldiers.

When I arrived in Baalbek, the first thing that drew my attention was the machine gun fire, seemingly not too far away. I could hear heavy guns firing slow but with force, and hand-held guns replying (?) this with rapid fire. I never found out what was going on, but I do know that several people came out of their houses to listen to it and they started discussing about it.

Baalbek ruinsBaalbek was the seat of the Hezbollah party, the Shiite Party Of God which was responsible for the famous kidnappings of Western tourists. Nowadays there are welcoming sights, however. Even most of the big posters of the Ayatollah Khomeini that allegedly dominated the streets before, have gone. The city of Baalbek is rather dull, plain in appearance. Not a real surprise considering the modest nature of the Shiites. That's probably why the impressive ruins attract even more attention than they already would otherwise. When I was taken to the Palmyra Hotel (there are only two other, but extremely basic, hotels in Baalbek) they appeared to be literally everywhere. They were so strikingly beautiful that I almost couldn't wait to explore them. This was similar to Palmyra in Syria where the road also goes right past the old remains.

Walking into the oddly-named Palmyra Hotel was like entering a bygone era. Right from the moment I'd passed the iron gate of this 120 years-old hotel, I felt like a character right out of an Agatha Christie novel or something. The place still had the air of the days of before. Inside, the hotel is still very much furnished and decorated as it must have been in the years before the war; on the walls are old black-and-white pictures of the ruins and of the famous people who once stayed there, including Général de Gaulle and the empress of Abyssinia. Even the porters cum waiters cum bellboys seemed to date back to that time. I loved it from the second I entered. Rooms didn't come cheap, though, at LL 55,000/70,000 for singles/doubles, plus 15% service tax and 5% err... tax. Still, it's a blast staying there ! The proprietor, Ali Husseini, wrote in the Daily Star Online the following about the people who visit nowadays : "They're the curious, intellectual type. They're not here for a disco." And I think that really fits the character of the place indeed. Although since recently the rooms have been equipped with central heating (whereas before this was by paraffin stove), one shouldn't expect the mod-cons usually associated with a hotel in this class. There is no air conditioning, telephone, room-service, etc. The Palmyra's all about nostalgia, of which you'll get a high dose if you stay here!

I have eaten in the hotel a few times as well. The restaurant is yet another experience. Strangely enough I was always alone in the restaurant, and indeed there were hardly any other guests staying. This doesn't discourage the staff, however. No matter if it's for breakfast, dinner or supper, the tables are always perfectly set, with a wide range of mezzes and toasted breads already on the table. I wondered why they do that. Surely they'll have to bin or give away the lot if it's not eaten ?

The selection of dishes is a bit limited, but no matter what you order, the quality's always excellent. This was the best food I had in Lebanon, no doubt. The price is very reasonable too : between LL 7500 & 11000 (without the 15 + 5% taxes). Soft drinks are LL 1000. I don't drink alcohol so I can't comment on the price of that. The waiters are quite hungry for tips; they'll even tell you when you've 'under-tipped'.

OK. Enough about the hotel. You'll start to think it's even more important than the ruins. :-)

The Palmyra is located right by the ruins. It's only a short walk down a peaceful road to the main entrance of the site. There you'll be approached by several people, offering you everything from a fake silver coin to a camel ride. Except for some postcards and a small guidebook I gave it all a miss. I was thirsty and wanted a coffee, but was hit for LL 1000 ! Skip it !

Baalbek was the Heliopolis, the Sun City of the ancient Greek and later the Romans, who took over the earlier Phoenician site dedicated to the God Baal. It's rightfully famous for its majestic, enormous temple ruins, where all kinds of licentious rites were held, including sexual worshipping and temple prostitution.

A ticket to enter costs LL 10,000, but it's certainly worth every penny. Already near and on the monumental staircase, which leads up to the propylaea, I noticed how intricately built the whole place is, and how big. Yet it was only a poor reflection of what was to come !

From the propylaea a door gives way to the so-called Hexagonal Courtyard. It's not an equilateral hexagon; the two sides which make out the entrance and exit are wider. This enclosure is beautiful with arches and niches - some still decorated - all around you.

I left the Hexagonal Courtyard by one of the gateways which lead to the Great Court, another enclosure (but rectangular this time) of not less than 135 metres long and 113 metres wide. Upon entering I was struck by the size of the place. It's huge ! On all but one sides it's surrounded by richly decorated niches, columns and twelve exedrae, eight rectangular and four semi-circular. The fourth side, immediately in front of you in the distance, is a wide, monumental staircase leading up to the Temple of Jupiter. In the middle of the enclosure are the remnants of a huge altar (its base is over 20 metres) and on either side is a decorated pool of over 20 metres in length (I just mention all these figures, because dimensions are really important in Baalbek; everything is so huge, that only by me telling you how big exactly, you can start getting an indication of the size of the place !). These pools are very intricately decorated with Medusa heads, nymphs, Cupids, bulls,...

I walked up the stairs of the Temple of Jupiter-Baal. It's seen better times; most of it has been destroyed, if not by nature then by man. Judging by what still remains, it must have been one hell of a construction, almost impossible to imagine. The 54 columns, of which only six still stand, made out a portico surrounding the 106 by 69 metres big temple. They're really huge, the biggest in the world, measuring 23 metres in height and 2.2 metres in diameter ! The very nicely decorated cornice on top of the columns is another 5 or 6 metres high. One can only imagine what an incredible building this once must have been.

From the high platform on which the Jupiter Temple was built, one overlooks the impressive Temple of Bacchus and the Arab fortifications, much later additions.
The immense diameter of the columns When I had descended from the platform, I could see the foundation stones. In-cre-di-ble ! These blocks are gigantic ! It is not surprising that legend has it that Baalbek was built by giants. In fact, even today it's hard to imagine it was built by human beings, even if they'd have had machines. Segments of fallen pillars lie next to the platform. I walked past their diametrical sides and was dwarfed by them. Closely observing the intricate carvings, which include well-executed lion heads, on the fallen parts of the cornice, I realised the look of the place must have had the ancients standing in awe. After all, I was completely baffled, and I was only looking at the ruins... I looked around inside an ancient tunnel, emerged again and gazed at the Temple of Bacchus, and noticed some fallen friezes which had been erected near the side of the temple. Wonderful !

I walked to the entrance. The first view of it was dazzling ! You cannot possibly understand the beauty : thirty-three steps with three landings lead up to a fantastically decorated doorway (15 metres in height) with a massive hanging keystone. Looking diagonally inside, one sees the exquisitely finished ornamentation, including incredible fluted columns. Truly awesome ! A fine portico runs around the entrance, and a large gallery with a double row of columns surrounds the other temple sides. The cornice of this gallery is extremely beautiful; the 'roof' is finely carved with busts of mythological figures.

The Temple of Bacchus is a misnomer. Actually the sanctuary was dedicated to Astarte (Venus). In antiquity it was called 'The Small Temple', although the acropolis is bigger than the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.

It was at the Bacchus Temple that I met Ali and his two children. He was a tall and sturdy man; his face remembered me of a Bedouin I had met in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Just like me he was gazing at the impressive decorations. I said "Hello" to him. He greeted me back and (using gestures) asked me if I could take a picture of him and his son and daughter. I said I'd be glad to. Ali didn't speak any English at all, but his 16 year-old daughter Rasha did very well, so she acted as a translator. We talked about the ruins initially, but we got more personal after a while. Ali was about to leave for Saudi Arabia to work there for a long period. He was having a last walk around his home town, and was taking some photographs as a remembrance. Dunno why, but he instantly liked me very much. I liked him as well. He was rather philosophical about everything, had a great sense of humour and a kind nature. A good man. He asked me if I was finished, looking at the ruins. Actually I was, so I said : "Yes. Are you ?" He said he was and invited me to join him for a walk. Of course I accepted.

Whilst we were walking through town, past a green park, towards the Ras el-Ain spring, he told me he and his family were Shiites. He was quite liberal from a religious point of view though, and he and his kids were modern and had an open mind. He'd been a soldier before (also in the war), but was now a car mechanic. Rasha was great fun to talk to too. She didn't limit herself to just translating what her father and I said to each other, but brought in a lot of input by herself. Especially for her age, she was a very clever girl with good views on life.

Whereas Baalbek had first appeared to me as a boring town, I now sort of had to change my mind. The route to the spring was lovely, and so was the area around the spring itself. Not a great deal to see - there was an ruined ancient mosque nearby as well - but a nice place to pass some time. There are a couple of friendly, quiet cafes in the immediate vicinity.

After a while we walked back towards the town centre, exchanging facts and experiences. Once in town, Ali asked me if I wanted to come with him to the house of his mother-in-law. I thankfully accepted.

The house was quite lovely, both inside and out, and had a nice, small courtyard. I met Ali's wife and his mother-in-law, who was in her eighties. His wife could have been Rasha's sister. She looked young and was very friendly. So was his mother-in-law (friendly that is, not young :-) ). She spoke a little French. On the walls of the living room were many pictures of Shiite 'saints', including Ali and Saida Zainab (whose tomb I had visited in Syria). We had a long and interesting conversation, mostly about politics (mainly about Israel and the war) and religion. Ali said he was especially impressed by my views towards Muslims. I think he thought Westerners all had an aversion for Muslims. He didn't share all my political ideas though; he was a lot more extreme than me. Which is not surprising. When members of your family have been killed by another people, you cannot but dislike them. Out of respect for me, Ali said, and as a lasting remembrance, he offered me a nice Arabic translation of the Catholic Bible. I was really touched.
I was offered food and drinks, and stayed until late at night. Then I had to say the inevitable good-byes. I have great, ever-lasting memories of this visit, and hope to meet these kind and hospitable people again. I remember wondering why so many Westerners who have never actually been to a Muslim region, can dislike these great people so much, just because the media give them the impression they are mindless fanatics... Of course there are extremists among them, but then we should ask ourselves : aren't there fanatics, extremists, in our country, in our region ? I rest my case...

Spent a lovely night in the Palmyra Hotel. The next day, I went for a walk to the quarry where the colossal stone blocks used in the construction of the temples were cut. It's better known locally as Hajar al-Hubla, meaning 'Stone of the Pregnant Woman'. Presumably it'd increase the fertility of women. The locals make fun of it now, because it's actually a corruption of Hajar al-Qubla, 'Stone of the South'. The reason for the name is the sole gigantic stone block that still lies in the quarry, ready to be transported. It's a single stone block, the largest known in the world. It measures 21.5 x 4 x 4.5 metres and weighs 2000 tons. One can only wonder how on Earth it was possible to transport such an enormous stone over a distance of over one kilometre and then raise it to a height of ten metres.

Overlooking the site is a small souvenir shop, run by a former Lebanese soldier. He offered me coffee and took some snaps of me. He's a great bloke to talk to. There's no pressure at all to buy. He has a good collection of photographs, including pictures of him during the war.

I walked back to the main site. When I reached the visitors' parking lot, I wondered where the entrance to the site behind it would be. A seemingly nice collection of Roman ruins could be seen, but I also saw that it was completely fenced off. I walked around the perimeter, and found a couple of iron gates, all locked. I enquired at the house opposite the first gate when coming from the parking. A man there told me I could get in for $2. Too curious about what was inside, I agreed to pay. I was let in. Inside was a quite splendid collection of ancient remains, including a small amfitheatre. Nobody could explain to me what function the buildings here had, nor did I (later) find anything in books or on the Internet. Nevertheless, recommended.

Close to entrance of the main site again, is the lovely Temple of Venus, which unfortunately can only seen from a distance through an annoying fence. Nearby is the Great Mosque, but it could not be visited as it was completely being reconstructed.

Hermel Pyramid From Rue Abdel Halim Hajjar service taxis leave to several destinations. I went to Hermel. Service taxis go right to Hermel centre, but you can ask to be let out at the start of the path leading to the mysterious Hermel Pyramid. Nothing is known about this almost 30 metres high monument, solely standing in the desolate landscape of the northern Bekaa Valley. Nobody knows exactly what it is and why its there, but it's quite beautiful, except for the ugly graffiti which 'adorns' the base. As strange the monument may be, it also makes for a rather short visit, as there's really nothing else to see or do but to gaze at the monument and soak up the atmosphere. A visit which had to end with a ten kilometre walk on to Hermel. This can be avoided by taking a taxi to the Pyramid, but the drivers will want no less than LL 40,000 for the drive there from Baalbek. A high price for 'just' a pyramid.

Near Hermel is Deir Mar Maroun, an old rock-cut monastery. The location is quite nice, near the Orontes River. The caves cum residences are mildly interesting, but as a visit involves hiring a(n expensive) taxi, I'd skip 'em next time. There's not an awful lot to actually see (except a bat colony), but it's nice to do a bit of exploration inside. Be warned that there are some relatively dangerous climbs involved though.

There's actually only one main road through the Bekaa Valley, running north to south. On certain stretches cars jostle for space, whereas on the quieter parts, they drive fast (140 km/h is not an exception), making the traffic (with often careless drivers) quite dangerous. There are frequent military checkpoints. After all, this is still a sensitive area. Hezbollah flags with the typical machine gun pictogram wave everywhere. I also noticed some signs which depict a horrible looking skeleton with wide-opened mouth and sharp teeth, wearing a helmet with the Star of David. The helmets are always riddled with bullet holes. Real bullet holes...
At several points along the road, I noticed several old car dumps. I wondered why they were there. Then I noticed that under and behind the wrecks there were tanks, still very much at the ready. The more south I went, the more tanks and heavy artillery I noticed, although it never was too obvious.

And south I went. To the Umayyad ruins of Aanjar, not far from the border with Syria. A taxi is the only really feasible way IMHO to visit the place. A taxi from Chtaura will cost around $20, whereas a driver from Baalbek will ask you an amazing LL 60,000 ! Aanjar is quite unique as it's the only significant Umayyad site in the whole country.

The site and actually the whole town is a peaceful place (or at least it feels like it now). Entrance costs LL 4000, payable at the only gate open to the public (the other entrances are guarded by Syrian soldiers who will deny you entry from there (or exit if you're coming from within the site)).

There are few other tourists, and the ones I did meet here were independent travellers. A guy from Venezuela as well as an elder couple from France told me they loved the site for its authenticity and desolation. So did I. It's rather funny, walking along Roman roads lined with arches, with behind them the typically patterned Umayyad walls. A large part of the site consists of rubble, but the setting is lovely. The highlight is the Great Palace, which has partly been reconstructed. The visit to this site took me almost two hours.

Near the turnoff to the site, there are several cafes and restaurants which specialise in trout. I didn't try them, but continued straight to Majdel Aanjar to visit the old citadel. Driving a car up the hill is not a sinecure; the streets are extremely narrow and sometimes are dead ends. Once I finally made it to the top, the views over the Bekaa, sweeping away at your feet, is magnificent. The ruins are worth the visit as well. The people in the village are very friendly and were surprised to see a foreign visitor.

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