Lebanon

Let me introduce you to a tall, nice and brilliant guy named Charbel. He is a professor of Engineering in several prestigious universities in France and Lebanon. I met him for the first time before a glass of sweet Coteaux du Layon in a bar in Nantes, France, where people tend to be more relaxed and friendly than in Paris. When inquired about his native country, Charbel talked about its beautiful landscapes and rich cultural heritage. His story aroused my curiosity, and when he told me he would come back to Lebanon for a few months this year, I offered him as a joke to have a second glass in Beirut. He replied we don’t have this wine in Lebanon, but if you come, I’ll prepare some traditional pancakes for breakfast instead. Why not I wondered…

Charbel galettes.

Charbel cooking Lebanese pancakes.

Just to place Lebanon on a map, it is bordered by Syria to the North and the East, and by Israel to the South. The sea shore stretches along the West side, while the border with Syria is mountainous. Lebanon has a lot of sightseeing to offer despite its relatively small size. You can reach practically any corner of the country from Beirut in one hour drive. To get the most of Lebanon, renting a car is a good option, provided you are not afraid of the Lebanese chaotic driving style.

Pigeon rocks beirut

Pigeon Rocks in Beirut is the perfect place to enjoy a sunset cocktail.

Lebanon is often considered the most cosmopolite country in the Middle East because of its high literacy rate and traditionally Mediterranean trading culture. Another reason is Lebanon complex makeup of various communities: Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, always numerous in the territories from Iran to Lebanon, and Christians, themselves divided into Maronites and Orthodox. The Druze, a community descending from Shia Muslims since the 11th century, makes only 5% of the population, but they played a prominent role in the history of Lebanon. The different communities tend to live in separate regions, or villages, except in Beirut where they all mix together. People would say: “Our village is Maronite, but next is Shia, and then the other one will be Sunni”. The climate between them is calm since the end of the civil war in the 90’.

The time when civil war raged in Lebanon is still present in people’s minds. This violent conflict lasted from 1975 to 1990 and opposed Christian Maronites and Muslims. The civil war claimed up to 70, 000 lives, mainly during tit-for-tat terrorist attacks. However, the religious antagonisms have been fostered by a series of historical events, dating back as far as the First World War.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, France took the administration of the territory comprising Lebanon and Syria. During that time, the territory was inhabited by a majority of Christians, who managed to cooperate with the French administration. In 1943, when France was occupied by Germany, Lebanon managed to get its independence. The government and its administration were formed according to a principle supposed to mirror the proportion of communities in Lebanon, so that the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the speaker of parliament a Shia. This system favoured Christians who kept a prominent role in Lebanon institutions and army. Over the time, Muslim population increased drastically, without grasping more power in Lebanon society. In the meantime, a large number of Palestinian refugees arrived in Lebanon. They make up now roughly one tenth of the country’s population, living in precarious conditions. The demographic balance gradually shifted towards a Muslim majority. Conflicts in the Middle-East, particularly in Israel, radicalized religious tensions that flared up in 1975.

Beirut has often been dubbed the ‘Paris of the Middle-East’. Walking in the Hamra area reminded me the popular Chateau Rouge quarter, near Montmartre. Actually, many buildings in downtown Beirut were built by French architects during and even after the period of the French mandate. As in its other former colonies, the French wanted to secure their presence by massively developing infrastructures and institutions. This is the reason why French is spoken fluently among the Lebanese elite. Nowadays, English tends to replace it as second language after Arabic.

Beirut barbed wires

Barbed wires at sunset in Beirut.

The country is still peppered with military posts with soldiers, armored vehicles, bunkers, to prevent invasions from its neighbours countries, or possible terrorist activity. You can still see on many buildings in Beirut the scars of the civil war. The most obvious of them are the ruins of the Holiday Inn Hotel opposite the marina that stays covered with bullet and shell holes.

Beirut Hariri Mosque

Al Amine Mosque, late night.

The Al Amine Mosque (aka Rafik Hariri Mosque), built in 2007, is the most imposing building in Beirut. The Mosque was financed by Rafik Hariri, the Lebanon Prime-Minister, who was assassinated in the Valentine ’s Day in 2005 by a suicide bomber. Many people come to his memorial standing at the mosque to pay him respect.

The Lebanese political class was quick to accuse Syria over the killing, although Syria’s role is increasingly questioned. Syria sent its troops in 1975 immediately after the civil war started. Huge pro- and anti-Syria rallies in Beirut triggered the fall of the government and the Syrian army finally left Lebanon in 2005.

Syria continues to exert a considerable political influence in Lebanon. In the South suburb of Beirut, in majority Muslim, I saw many portraits of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.

Bashar al assad supporters Beirut

In downtown Beirut, people manifest their support to the Syrian government.

Sidon Castle.

The Castle of Sidon was built by the Crusaders in 1228 on a site of a Roman temple, which remains are still visible. The castle remained in their possession for not so long as the causeway in the foreground was built by the Mamluks in the end of the 13th century. You can see inside the remains of a mosque built by the Ottomans. The city of Sidon has a typical atmosphere of a Sunnite ancient city with numerous old mosques and its medieval shadowed souk.

Deir Al Quemar

Deir-al Quamar central square.

In the city of Deir-al Quamar, 50 km north of Beirut, the central square kept its Ottoman atmosphere with its vaulted souk.

Beiteddine Palace

Beiteddine Palace main court.

In the vicinity of Deir-al Quamar, Beiteddine Palace has an impressive system of cellars that contains a collection of byzantine mosaics. Due to its cooler climate in altitude, it serves as the Presidential summer residence.

Deir Mar Elisha Quadisha valley

A view of the Deir Mar Elisha monastery near the city of Bcharre in the Quadisha Valley. Several major Christian monasteries and numerous hermitages are located there, some being founded as early as in the 6th century. Quadisha Valley is the spiritual center of the Maronite community in Lebanon.

Baalbek

Lion-shaped gutter from Jupiter temple at Baalbek.

Baalbek, classified as a World Heritage site since 1984, is an extensive Roman site that includes many buildings and three temples. One of them, the temple of Bacchus, is in very good state. The biggest one, the temple of Jupiter Baal has only one side left, but its original size was impressive: 88 m long, 48 m wide, with 21 m tall columns, making it the biggest Roman temple ever built.

If you are passionate by classic architecture, Baalbek is the best place to visit, as the site was left almost finished, revealing some ingenious building techniques. By its scale and state, I found Baalbek is the Angkor of Lebanon and it’s worth the trip by itself.

Baalbek is close to the Syrian borders. When driving there, we underwent several thorough checks by the army and we saw some Syrian refugee camps. For the first time, seeing the precarious camps built in the dry Bekaa plain, I felt the reality of the Syrian civil war. The massive exodus of refugees from Syria started in 2011. It is estimated that in 2014, Syrian refugees make up around a quarter of the population in Lebanon, weighting heavily on the country’s resources.

 

Lebanese food

The delicious Lebanese cuisine largely favours vegetables and olive oil.

Lebanon Ksara Winery

Why don’t try a local rosé with Lebanese food? Wine production in the Bekaa Valley began in the 19th century thanks to the Jesuits and grew even more after 1923, when the French brought their savoir-faire and Bordeaux and Rhone grape varieties. Apart from international grapes, Obeideh is the most remarkable of local varieties. Chateau Ksara, with its large panel of wines and its labyrinth-like cellars is certainly the most famous winery in Lebanon. However, many other local producers are as good, but their marketing capacity just allows them to promote their wine in Beirut. The Lebanon wine production obtains world-level awards regularly.

 

 

 

 

 

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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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