Lebanon: Filthy, Frustrating, Fun, Fantastic

Sidon Sea Castle – Sidon, Lebanon

Lebanon. It’s filthy, frustrating, and a nightmare to get anything done. It’s claustrophobic, threatening, chaotic, and all rules go out of the window. But that’s also why I love it. And why you should go there.

Yes, the traffic is an abomination. The environment and the history play second fiddle to the big money men and their faceless development firms. There are squads of military personnel armed to the teeth and ready for action on what seems like every corner. In one of the districts you go through you’ll see that all the banks are defended by walls of sandbags. You pass quickly through this place. But despite the hilarity of it all, despite the sheer insanity of this place, it’s thoroughly wonderful. I even got married here, in an ancient port town called Byblos, a short distance north of the capital, Beirut.

Beirut. It’s a name that struck fear into many people I spoke to when I said I was moving there. Yes, the country was decimated by civil war. But that ended long ago – in 1990. And yes, there have been surges in violence from time to time. But generally, you know where to go, and where not to. It’s the same as anywhere. You can find problems in peaceful Canada if you know where to look. Don’t let that put you off life. It certainly doesn’t put off the majority of Lebanese I’ve met. There seems to be a rich vein of living every day to the full with Lebanese. They work, they party, they love life. They live, love, Beirut.

The cradle of civilisation

For the history buffs out there, you can’t get much better than the Middle East. After all, this region is the cradle of civilisation. Lebanon was mentioned time after time in the Bible. The famed Lebanon Cedars, the symbol of the country, which adorn the Lebanese flag, are a treasure. They were used to build Solomon’s Temple in ancient Jerusalem. They were exported to ancient Egypt. They were used to create the ships that built the Phoenician Empire. The Romans harvested them.

Even Queen Victoria was there to ensure that the Lebanon Cedars were preserved. Centuries of deforestation had seriously threatened these trees, so Queen Vic sanctioned a wall to be built around the Forest of the Cedars of God – up in the snow covered peaks of northern Lebanon at the top of gorgeous Qadisha Valley, where you can go skiing and snowboarding in the winter, by the way. The place is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I’m no tree hugger, but these evergreen beauties are well worth seeing.

The land of modern day Lebanon was conquered, ruined, decimated, rebuilt, over and over. As a result, you’ll find hallmarks from all civilizations. The ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek, a rickety bus ride away from Beirut that takes you over Mount Lebanon, flanking the now defunct Ottoman-era railway line and down into the Bekaa Valley, is a taste of life 2,000 years ago.

The gargantuan columns, the olive groves, the Temple of Jupiter. Built in the local stone typical of the Roman Empire, it’s a majestic sight, on the flanks of the Qalamoun Mountains, marking the border between Lebanon’s historic neighbour, Syria, which were once one territory. I will always take a trip up there when time allows, and sit on top of one of the city walls in late afternoon, watching the low sun shine through the olive groves below, the farmers and goat herders tending to their flock, as they have done for centuries. It never gets dull. And neither do all the local traders, peddling knock-off Hezbollah merchandise outside the ruins.

Getting away from the capital

In the south of Lebanon, things get more interesting once more. The two largest cities south of Beirut, Saida and Sour, are a world away from the insanity of the sprawling capital. I once got completely lost in the old Souk of Saida, fortunately post-shawarma sandwich and avocado smoothie. The famed sea castle from the time of the Crusades, when Christian knights swept down from Europe to the Holy Land, sits opposite the entrance of this ancient market.

Wandering around there, through the alleyways, narrow stone arches, nargile cafes converted from ancient cellars, tiny dwellings, you feel like you are in a time warp. Going back hundreds, if not thousands of years. The architecture has remained largely unchanged for generations, save for the wild mesh of electrical cables that covers the entirety of the country. This is a nod back to the civil war, from when the electrical infrastructure was ruined. It still remains partly so, and the hum of generators remains, whenever the power goes out.

In this souk, though, you’ll find everything from kitchen equipment, to antiques, to butchers, to falafel stores. It has everything, and an incredible atmosphere. Once, we bought a huge Arabic styled rug and a coffee table. In a tiny, enclosed square, surrounded by old Lebanese men drinking tea and smoking nargile, three friends and I borrowed some stools, set up our own living room with our new purchases, bought Arabic coffee, and sat down for an hour to relax. It was perfect, quiet, memorable. I’ve never had a bad time in Saida.

The city of Sour, further south, and in sight of the headland of Lebanon’s southern neighbour, Israel, is another piece of historic majesty. Sitting down by the Roman ruins there, ones that overlook the Mediterranean, you can imagine how beautiful it would have been, watching the sunset back in biblical times. The Romans certainly had the idea of picking the right location down to a fine art.

Sour, also known as Tyr, was the centre of the seagoing, Phoenician empire. The city was once on an island, but Alexander the Great built a causeway from the mainland, before sacking the place and taking it over. Now, Tyr incorporates a beautiful, tiny fishing harbor, where you can eat your fried fish and watch the local fisherman fix their nets, while the local street cats loiter around, hoping to score a scrap or two from your lunch, or from the day’s catch. In my opinion, the best be