|Joined: 09 Mar 2007
Location: Jbeil Byblos
| Holidays Lebanon: Echoes of Past, Natural Treasures
|Special Holidays, off the beaten track – where others don’t go!
The sites worth visiting in Lebanon are beyond counting. Hundreds of thousands of holiday makers go there in crowds every season, following an itinerary prepared in advance along famous but well-worn routes. So what if in order for you to rediscover the Land of the Cedars in all its primeval splendor we offered you the opportunity to visit sites that are little known and little visited, untouched witnesses to our ancient heritage?
When they set foot on Lebanese soil, the overwhelming majority of the tourists are straight away taken in hand by their guides to follow a routine which there is no escaping. What astounding natural wonders they are, the Grotto of Jeita, the Valley of Qadisha and the forests of the cedars! And those monuments of our history, the citadel of Byblos, the ruins of Baalbek, and the palace of Beiteddine! And after dusk has fallen, these same visitors who during the day relaxed on the lidos of the seafront hotels, with discreet glances at the Lebanese bathing beauties, will stare open-eyed at the Beirut nightlife, at the somewhat gaudy modernity of downtown, at the labyrinth of Gemmayzeh and at the authenticity of Hamra Street.
The circuit is much traveled and all the postcards are much the same.
Once they are back home, you hear these people throw out such remarks as, “It’s extraordinary how such a tiny country as Lebanon can be so rich in treasures!’ or “Those Lebanese, what vitality! Even after the war they know how to enjoy themselves!” Without any doubt, tourists are not lacking in commonplaces and often their ideas have a certain ring of truth even if they are somewhat in the nature of caricatures. But can one imagine for just a second that France can be reduced to Paris and its monuments, to the castles on the river Loire, and to the pretentious Côte d’Azur? For a change from these representations, we propose to you a guide for tourists unlike all the others, with signposts that will be as useful to outsiders as to the local Lebanese, most of whom have little idea of the sites that can await them. To find out the treasures hidden along the coast, in the mountains and in the history of Lebanon, follow this guide!
Neglected echoes of the Past
If archeology and history are of interest to you, certain villages offer you little-known sites of great value.
In the Bekaa, after having visited Baalbek, make your way to Furzol, where it is possible to see the ruins of a Roman temple. Kamid al-Lowz is a living witness to the changing history of Lebanon. This artificial mound, built up in turn by the different civilizations that have followed one another, started its growth during the Stone Age 7,000 years ago. It reached its greatest height during the Persian era, during the 4th century B.C.. Under it lie buried a wide variety of urban structures, temples, defense works, palaces, workshops and humble dwellings. Clay tablets discovered here reveal that this was once the site of an ancient Egyptian colony.
In the south of the country, in the region of Bint Jbeil, the village of Tebnine will show the visitor an impressive Crusader fortress, richly historical. After falling into the hands of the Mamelukes and the Ottomans, the main features of this fortification of 2,0002 meters, together with its panoramic view, have survived the weathering of time. Famous for its needlework, Baakline in the Shouf has played an important role in the history of Lebanon. Dating back to the 12th century, the village possesses a fine Grand Serail built in 1837. Here was the birthplace of Fakhreddine II.
Contrarily to what is commonly thought, the best-preserved Roman remains are to be found in the north of Lebanon, in the village of Sfireh. Situated in the sub-prefecture of Minieh-Dinniyeh, it shelters at least three Roman temples, one of which has kept the original height of its walls. Zghorta is the site of the fortress of Aaf, built in 1816 by Mustapha Barbar Agha. This charming fort is a little world of its own, with its women’s quarters, little rooms, courtyard and even a mosque, not to speak of a cemetery in its soil. In the Akkar district, Arqa also has its mound. Its foundations date from the New Stone Age, with the addition of hundreds of early tombs. With the passing of time, Bronze Age peoples settled there, followed by the Canaanites, later to be known as the Phoenicians.
Little-known Natural Treasures
Nature has made Lebanon a store of treasures, with its reserves and awesome views. Just off Tripoli, the Palm Island nature reserve, 5 square kilometers in area, is a key stepping-stone for migrant birds, with a brackish swamp where flourish rare kinds of sponges, and beaches where turtles come from the sea to lay their eggs. Rare species of seal pass there. Also in North Lebanon there is the forest reserve of Hosh Ehden, which shelters a number of animal species close to extinction, while birds, butterflies and other insects thrive among the luxuriant trees. Cedars stand alongside pine, wild plum, fir, and the last remaining clump of wild apple. At Tannourine there is the most extensive forest of cedars to be found in Lebanon, sheltering hundreds of rare plants and many species of animals and birds in danger of disappearing. On the heights above Jbeil the reserve of Bentael is thick with Mediterranean pine. In the Bekaa, one finds in the reserve of Yammouneh a variety of ancient juniper trees and also a fish rare in Lebanon, the minnow.
In the South, the reserve of Tyre is a stretch bordering the sea under the rays of the sun, attracting many birds and providing a nesting-site for rare turtles. The fresh-water ponds of Ras el-Ain and the surrounding marshes shelter numberless frogs and amphibians of many kinds. But the most extensive reserve is that of the Cedars of the Shouf. To refer back to the Bekaa, do not fail to visit the grottoes of the valley called Wadi al-Habis, the Valley of the Hermit. These hollows, partly natural and partly enlarged by the hand of man, are in the form of domes and contain many secrets that remain to be discovered. Some were used as burial places and others as sites for religious ceremonies. One stands out that is thought by some to have been probably a temple dedicated to the Phoenician god Baal.
The Other Mount Lebanon
For anyone visiting Lebanon there is no difficulty about finding a bed. One may put up for a stay with one’s relatives or friends in their welcoming homes, or choose a chalet in the mountains or a room in a hotel. But in fact Lebanon offers many alternative forms of accommodation. Lovers of the sea can fall back on camp sites, where they can get away from the bathing establishments that have invaded the shoreline. At Amshit near Jbeil the little camping ground of Les Colombes perched aloft a cliff offers the Mediterranean as if it belonged to you. For those who feel the call of the mountains there are many religious-run hostels, still only half an hour’s drive from the coast, available at easily affordable rates. In the Jbeil region, think of the Oasis St.-Charbel at Annaya or the Foyer de Charité at Adonis. In Kesrewan you can go to the Afqa Reserve, to Our Lady of Bzommar, to Kleyat, to Harissa or to Ajaltoun. When in the Metn, visit Beit Mery and follow the road that leads up to Bhersaf. Take advantage of the inns and the hostels in the Shouf to breathe in the air of a luxuriant nature!
The Witness of Age-old Villages
Lebanon is the land of villages. Get away from the concrete structures of the cities to visit at least two villages. On the road from Beirut to Zahleh, there is the magnificent locality of Mtein to be visited. There one is taken back two or three hundred years to an almost forgotten time. Early in the 16th century the Al-Lamahiyine emirs took up residence in Mtein and built their palaces and elegant buildings there. The village developed further during the Ottoman reign and earned a reputation for the excellent quality of its silk. Even now, Mtein retains its antique air but has in addition spreading vineyards from whose grapes fine arak (aniseed drink) is distilled.
Another village that is not to be missed is Faqra in Kesrewan, where so much beauty is concentrated. The natural beauty of the site receives its character from the aptly-named zone of rocks. The center-piece of the spectacular view is a natural bridge, Jisr al-Hajar, a monolithic block in the form of an arch which spans the river of Nabaa al-Laban. There are ruins there which with the passing of time have become part of the relief. Other villages are no less attractive. Douma for example has a superb background, Beit Shebab where church bells are still cast in a foundry, Rashaya with its charming old houses, Jezzine with its mesmerizing waterfall, and Amshit with its wooden villas bearing on their walls superb frescoes.
What difference is there between tourism and travel? It resides in the roots of the two words. In tourism there is tour, turn, indicating a clearly-defined itinerary fixed in advance to make maximum use of one’s time. As for the traveler, he is free to take his time and so to reach into the heart of things. He does not land anywhere abruptly but makes himself comfortable. He does not seek mere pleasure but rather profit. He is not a holiday-maker, but takes in his surroundings. He does not just visit but rather discovers for himself.
Julien Abi Rama - Translated from the French by K.J. Mortimer