Outside Rome, Lebanon holds the greatest slice of the historic Roman Empire, or so says our tour guide Waleed as we lose ourselves in Baalbek, the Arab nation’s most impressive ancient site.
He is perhaps not wrong.
I have been to many historical Roman Empire sites in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa but never came across anything like what I encountered in Baalbek. The scale and extravaganza of this sprawling complex of temples dedicated mainly to pagan gods Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus simply blow the mind.
Like the Acropolis in Greece or Petra in Jordan, the domain today displays an amalgam of ruins – columns, platforms, podiums, stairways, figurines and numerous stone-pieces which were once part of the edifices that stood there. However, they’re good enough to imagine how grandiose Baalbek was during Roman apogee.
Everything seen around is awe-inspiring from the expressive artwork on walls, columns and monumental gates to the setups of the round-shaped Temple of Venus and the rectangular Temple of Bacchus, which looks like the Parthenon in Athens.
However, most amazing are the megalithic foundations of the Temple of Jupiter, said to be the planet’s largest building blocks, each weighing over 800 tonnes. These limestone giants were sourced from a nearby quarry where we halted earlier to see three huge stone-slabs, which never could make it to the complex less than a kilometre away, possibly because of their enormous size and weight.
Located at the crossing of European and Arabic civilisations on the eastern edges of the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon is packed with hordes of significant historical sites like Baalbek and many natural splendours from golden beaches, mountain ranges, cedar tree forests and rolling valleys. In addition, it has all of the best Middle East has to offer from diverse culture and vibrant atmosphere to great food and warm and welcoming people. Bonus is its culturally liberal and open society which respects people’s choices. That’s why here it’s not unusual to see women in burqa as well as in jeans or to hear prayer calls from the mosques resonating with the sounds of bells ringing from nearby churches.
Despite all of these highlights, Lebanon, until recently, hasn’t been the most favoured travel destination because of the legacy of its 15 years of civil war which ended in the early 1990s. Thankfully, with peace prevailing now, the nation is back on the travel map with visitors from different parts of the world visiting its shores again in increasing numbers.
The Lebanon of today emerged after World War I from the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and it was under a French mandate until independence in 1946. However, the history of the land crafted by several ruling civilisations – Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans ,Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans and the French – dates back several millenniums.
The National Museum in capital Beirut is an ideal venue to learn more about the land’s past. Gilded bronze statuettes of Phoenician divinities displayed there inspire me to visit Byblos, another location of great historical significance.
Located along the Mediterranean Coast, Byblos is regarded as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in the world. Recorded history mentions Phoenicians living there in the Bronze Age, when it became a major trading port. Since then the land has been stomped by the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Malmuks and the Ottomans. Unfortunately, there is nothing on site from that glorious period other than some scattered ruins of fortifications, temples, castles, royal cemeteries, baths and buildings discovered during 20th century archaeological expeditions. Several priceless artefacts found during the mission are on display at the National Museum. The Sarcophagus of Phoenician King Ahiram and Statue of Roman Goddess of Health Hygieia are two notable ones.
With the imagination wide open, wandering through the ruins in Byblos generates a feeling of rewinding back to antiquity. Similar feelings strike when at Anjar, Lebanon’s best preserved Islamic archaeological site. This walled city was built by the Umayyad’s in the 7th century along the concept of Roman symmetrical lines and was unveiled by archaeologists as recently as in the 1940s.
While history overwhelms travellers in Lebanon, its natural attractions are no less significant – the Jeita Grotto and the Cedar Forests being the two highlights.
Often referred to as the ‘Pearl of Nature in Lebanon’, Jeita Grotto is a dramatic cave complex divided into upper and lower levels. The visit involves walking in the upper level and a boat journey through the lower one to come closer to one of the planet’s most amazing conglomeration from stalactites and stalagmites formations of different shapes and sizes to push the imagination. Because of its intrinsic beauty, this site qualified as a finalist for the New Seven Wonders of Nature selection in 2007.
Embedded in their national flag, the cedar trees are the most defining identity of Lebanon.
Qadisha Valley is the best place to see their natural spread. Some of the trees there are thousands of years old and hence referred as the “Cedars of the Lord”.
The journey up to the valley along a winding mountainous road offers Lebanon’s best scenic outlook.
Lebanon is a small country, only 10,400sq km in size. Positioned in the middle along the Mediterranean coast is capital Beirut, an ideal base station for tourists as all notable attractions throughout the country are within easy reach as day trips.
With the landscape swayed by the sea breeze and engulfing air “aromatised” by grilling kebabs and burning shishas, this city was beautified by the French who also energised an electrifying lifestyle that made it the “Paris of the Middle East”. At one time many travelled to Lebanon only to get a taste of this, in particular, the unique mix of Europe and Arabic flavours.
However, during the civil war the cityscape became a battlefield with almost everything on ground reduced to rubble. Three decades on, life has become normal, key buildings restored to its original look and the streets, some of which are still sign posted in French as Rue, are crowded again with locals and visitors, partying until late.
Thanks to the nation’s open-minded and carefree new generation, who are redefining hospitality, Lebanon is back as a star on the tourism map.