Lebanon Part II: August 4 -7

After visiting the old Roman Quarry in Baalbek, we drove 4-hours over the mountains and back along Lebanon’s coast to the northern port city of Tripoli.  I had been advised by both the U.S. State Department’s website and people in Beirut not to travel to Tripoli because of its serious crime problems – but nothing ventured nothing gained!

I checked into the El Mina Boutique Hotel in the heart of the El Mina Historic District just off the city’s Cornish and enjoyed a very nice lunch in the hotel. After lunch, I spent the afternoon and evening sightseeing with absolutely no problems with any criminal element.  In fact, I lucked out befriending the super nice day manager of my hotel who arranged my lunch and a local driver to show me the sites at a very reasonable rate.

We began our tour of Tripoli with a couple of sites not on my list or in any of the websites I researched for the trip.  First, we visited an old abandoned train depot and rail yard.  The old abandoned buildings and train engines sat weathered and long discarded baking in the relentless sun and heat – a silent testament to a long-forgotten time when Lebanon was a top tourist destination and Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East.

Today the massive old locomotives are rusting away and the formerly beautiful buildings are falling in on themselves and of little use to anyone besides teenagers looking for a place to hang out and oddly, couples using the decay as a backdrop for wedding photos.  Not sure of the intended symbolism with that but I’ve seen some pretty strange weddings and marriage customs on this trip.

Next up was a very Spartan Coastal Crusader Fort that was a simple cubed structure with two large halls (one over the other) and rooftop fortifications.  Unlike many of the grand fort/palaces I have visited all over Europe, Asia and the Middle East, this fort was built strictly for defense. I have included photos of both the fort and the train depot.

Next up was the real reason I came to Tripoli – the Castle of Saint-Guiles.  The castle sits high up on a hill overlooking present day Tripoli.  The drive to reach the Castle was a little depressing.  This part of the city is in an advanced state of decay.  The buildings, roads, and even the automobiles all look like they have suffered decades if not centuries of benign neglect and disrepair.

The castle on the hill, however, has retained its luster from her glory days.  The castle was built in 1102 – 1103 during the First Crusade by Raymond de SaintGiles, Count of Toulouse to control the coastal road and reinforce the siege of Tripoli (what is now the El Mina District). The city of Tripoli became the principle city of the State of Tripoli throughout the Crusader Period (1099 – 1289).  The State of Tripoli extended south to the border of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and north to the Principality of Antioch.  Years later after the Franks abandoned Tripoli the Fortress was used as a citadel by the Mamluks and later the Ottoman Empire as a city barracks.

Tripoli has a long and rich history dating back to the Bronze Age and its port has been a prize coveted and captured by many through the millennia.  The first I remember learning of this small piece of the world was in a world history class while studying the Hellenistic-Period.  During this time, the people who lived in what is now Lebanon were known as Phoenicians and were renowned as traders and sailors throughout the Mediterranean.  Oddly the moniker, Phoenician, was not how these people referred to themselves.  The Greeks named them Phoenicians because of the purple dye they used in their clothing. 

After exploring the castle, I traveled thru the city to the old souks and wandered the narrow lanes aimlessly until I stumbled on an ancient hammam that was still in use.  Since I hadn’t had a good steam, massage, and sandpaper body scrub since Istanbul I decided to treat myself.  And it turned out to be a great treat!  I spent several hours there moving from hot baths to very hot steam rooms to cold water baths to a body scrub from a big harry guy with a grit covered mitten he used to peel the dead skin from my body to a nice massage then to a final bath.  And once I was scrubbed pink, had all the impurities sweated out in the steam room and relaxed from my massage I wrapped myself in a towel and enjoyed relaxing with a pot of piping hot tea and fruit flavored smoke from a hookah pipe.

I made it back to the El Mina district just in time for a sunset walk along the city’s Cornish where I took several photos of the sun setting over the Med.  After my walk, I joined my new friend from the hotel for a couple of beers and dinner.  Turns out the day manager of the hotel is a Greek Orthodox Christian married to a Russian woman and has worked in hotels throughout Asia during his long career.

Day 2

The following morning my Hotel Manager friend had arraigned a driver for me to visit the coastal cities of Batroun and Byblos before dropping me at my east Beirut Hotel.  First stop of the morning was just north of Batroun to explore the Mussayiha Fort.  This imposing and hulking sandstone fort is built on a long, narrow towering limestone rock near the Nahr el-Jawz River.  The walls (6 feet thick) are constructed with sandstone blocks built into the sides of the limestone.

The fort consists of two separate sections built separately and then connected.  To reach the fort you must climb a long path/stairs that hugs the outer southern side of the bedrock. The fort, built by the Druze Emir Fakhr ed-Dine II, sits high above the valley on its limestone pinnacle at a choke point between steep hills protecting the valley and the cities along the coast from invasion.  (photos attached)

Mussayiha Fort

After exploring Mussayiha we moved on to Batroun and explored the very beautiful Sayet al Bahr (Lady of the Sea Church), the old Phoenician Sea Wall, St. Stephan’s Cathedral, the old Batroun Souks, the city’s small Roman Theater (situated in a local hotel’s back yard) and enjoyed a simple but tasty seafood lunch before driving on to Byblos

Lady of the Sea Church

Batroun Old City

Old Phoenician Seawall

St Stephan’s Cathedral

Batroun’s Roman Theater

Byblos Archeological Site

Byblos is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and was founded over 7,000 years ago.  This was the first city built by the Phoenicians and was the birthplace of the Phoenician alphabet which our current alphabet is based upon.  The most remarkable thing about this city is civilization after civilization has built their buildings and culture beside and over past civilizations.  The medieval town intra-muros’ old homes, city wall, cathedral, castle and donjon sit alongside the Ottoman town’s souks, khans, mosques and houses.  And from the ramparts of the Crusader Castle, you can see the ruins of Bronze Age Temples, Persian fortifications, the old Roman road, Byzantine churches, Egyptian and Phoenician structures.

The Crusaders scavenged the cut stones from ancient structures to build their castle.  So, as you look out across the plain towards the Sea or back toward modern Byblos you see a lot of ancient foundations and columns but no buildings as all were razed and their stones repurposed as Castle walls, ramparts and flooring.

As you stand atop the castle walls you can see nearly 8,000 years of successive inhabitants imprinting their religion, culture and building styles upon the previous fallen civilizations.  There is the 2700 BC. L-shaped temple foundation of Resheph, the Obelisk Temple foundation, the Temple of Baalat Gebal, the 4,000-year-old tomb of a long-dead king of Byblos, Roman temple foundations, a Roman Theater, Roman streets lined with colonnades, the remains of the footprint of a Persian Fort, and Phoenician homes and tombs all bearing silent witness to both the march of time and the fragility of civilizations.

Byblos Sea Castle

Roman Ruins

After exploring the castle and walking amongst the architectural bones of 7,000 years of life and death in old Byblos, I moved on to wander thru the old souk and medieval lanes within the old city walls.  And finally, I drifted down to the old port for a walk thru the Crusader’s sea fort and a seafood dinner overlooking the little harbor.

Byblos Souks

Byblos Old City

After dinner, I made the short 40km commute to eastern Beirut to my hotel for the next two nights.  After checking in I secured a driver for my trip south the next day and hit the bed early after a full day in the hot sun.

Day 3

Next morning I was up and out early headed south to Sidon.  My driver turned out to neither speak any English nor have any experience driving tourists to sites in the South.  I could never make him understand that our first stop should be the Temple of Eshmun.  And even had I been successful in communicating my priorities he had absolutely no idea where any of the sites were located.  So, we blew right past the Temple of Eshmun and our first stop became the very interesting Sidon Crusader Sea Castle.

The Crusaders built the Sidon Sea Castle as a fortress on a small island connected to the mainland by a narrow 300foot long road.  The island was formerly the site of a Temple to Melqart.  Just across the Cornish from the Sea Castle stands the 17th century Khan al-Franj.  Unfortunately, none of the rooms were open to the public so the only photographs I took were of the courtyard and arched exterior hallways.  The elegant two-story limestone Khan would be called a caravanserai in central Asia and was designed a one-stop-shop for traders from across the known world to come and sell their fabrics, leather goods, metal works, spices, produce, gems and other treasures.  The bottom floor rooms were used as stores and shops while the upstairs rooms for used for sleeping quarters for the traders.  Horses and donkeys were stabled in the courtyard but camels were not allowed in the gates.  The term Khan al-Franj roughly translates to a place of the French (the Arabs of the day called all Europeans French).

After the disappointing visit to the Khan al-Farnj things got much more interesting as I wandered through Sidon’s old Souks and stumbled upon an old four-story mansion that has been decorated in elegant period pieces and turned into a beautiful museum.  Photographs of the souk, interiors of the mansion and exterior shots from the mansion’s upper windows and roof are attached.

Sidon Souks

Merchant Mansion

Our next and final stop in Sidon turned into a comedy of errors.  The driver couldn’t understand that I wanted to visit the Crusader Castle of Saint Louis.  Then once I managed to make myself understood he drove aimlessly around in circles unable to read my GPS map or follow my instructions. 

Finally, I convinced my corpulent navigationally challenged driver to move to the passenger seat and let me take the wheel.  I quickly found my way through the heavy and chaotic traffic only to find the castle was on the opposite side of the street and a traffic barrier prevented left turns for miles.  At the first opportunity, I executed a swift tire screeching U-turn to a chorus of horns and Arabic curses from on-coming traffic and made my way back to the Castle and parked the car.

As I passed into the Castle entrance I was immediately met by panicked workmen rushing to block my progress.  Turns out the damn Castle was closed for major renovations and totally unsafe to be in.  And I must admit it did look like the old crumbly brick ceilings and walls could come tumbling down with the slightest breeze.  Interesting that the entrance gate was wide open and there was no signage warning of the danger and prohibiting entrance.

So, after wasting hours finding then passing on Saint Louis Castle I gave the wheel back to my clueless driver and we headed for Tyre.    

My visit to Tyre, another of ancient Phoenicia’s great port cities, was to explore the Al Mina Archaeological Site.  This huge complex of ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins include; a well preserved colonnaded Roman Road, Arena, Roman Bath House, Residential Quarters, Triumphal Arch and Hippodrome.  And interestingly, just next to all the Roman ruins is the ruins of a large Crusader Cathedral.  Photos of all are attached.

Tyre Roman Ruins

Christian Church

My final site to visit in Tyre was the old Christian Quarter with its narrow lanes, old stone church, and brightly painted old buildings.  Attached are photos of the quarter as well as a photo of a Volkswagen with a window decal that I particularly enjoyed.


Tyre Christian Quarter

And with the very insightful auto decal commentary that “Bartenders see more assholes than doctors do” fresh in my mind I headed back to Beirut to catch my flight to Cairo.

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