A Weekend in Lebanon
My memory of Lebanon will forever be linked with the backseat conversations of weekend service van travels. There is something about the motorists’ get-away-driver mindset and their centrifugal turns that seems to bring out the whimsicality in everyone. Herein lies some of the best advice I can offer to the Middle East sightseer: Get out of the capital! Now and then a good time out with friends means abandoning the flashy bars and comforting western amenities of the big cities and jumping forward with both feet first. Despite its small size Lebanon’s abundant countryside destinations have kept my schedule full for all seven months of my stay. However, after countless weekend road-rips I think its safe to declare that my friends and I have discovered one of the best itineraries for the Beirut based adventurer looking to go beyond the beaten path.
The Trip to Hermel
After nabbing a van from Cola station we headed into the Beqaa Valley and arrived to Lebanon’s most curtail tourist attraction in the city of Baalbeck. On the way to the ruins visitors will notice an impressive Shia mosque that sticks out from the surrounding brickwork. Its intricate inlays are a colorful testament to the Iranian influence that permeates the area.
This is the mens’ side.
The full metal jacket just inside the mosque’s entrance collects donations for the Islamic Resistance.
Imam Hussein is depicted here in mosaic form, the image remains faceless per Islamic tradition.
We stayed overnight at a modest hostel named Pension Shouman. For only $15 a night we had warm beds, fresh breakfast, and a balcony that looked straight into the ruins. That night the 3 of us were the only guests in the building so the service was excellent. A surprise highlight was the Nargeleh pipe (Hookah) delivered straight to our room. Only in the Middle East..
The man above is filling up our heater with fuel. Once lit, the oil kept the flame alive until morning and the fire added a campground like quality to our overnight experience. Just before calling it a night we were treated to the sounds of a firework display close by.
That Awkward Moment When You Realize Theres Gunfire
At dawn our room filled with sunlight and we had a satisfying ma’noushi breakfast with fresh fruit smoothies (ma’noushi is similar to baked naan bread and is typically covered with cheese, thyme and olive oil, its a cheap dish any visitor will learn to love). With our bellies full we made it to the Baalbeck ruins right as the gate was being unlocked. Tho I’ve toured them before the massive temples were just as remarkable as ever. Soon the call to prayer sang out through the city and later arabian music seemed to follow us around from one of the anonymous shops close to the site. At some point the music stopped, revealing a few of the birds that had been calling to each other that morning. Then, just as I began to enjoy the silence, the air was filled with the crack of automatic machine guns firing in the not so far off distance. Less than a minute later we heard the whizzing of artillery shells over the sky above us. The sound seemed to progress toward the gun fire and concluded with the thunder of two sharp explosions that reverberated through the ruins and shook the valley bottom. These were clearly not the fireworks we had heard the night before. As we wandered through Baalbeck that day the US State Department was drafting this message warning other tourists not to join us:
To: All American Citizens
From: Consular Section
Subject: Emergency Message – March 13, 2012
“Because of clashes between the Lebanese authorities and criminal groups, Lebanese authorities have advised Westerners to avoid the Baalbeck area while the risk of clashes continues. The U.S. Embassy takes this opportunity to note for American citizens that clashes involving Lebanese authorities and criminal elements have also recently occurred in other areas of the Bekaa and border regions. The Embassy advises U.S. citizens to monitor the security situation, avoid areas where clashes have occurred, and maintain low profiles in public. As always, the Embassy reminds U.S. citizens to consult the Department of State’s Travel Warning for Lebanon.”
Close to the ruins just off the main road sits the largest cut stone ever used by man. Hajar el Gouble, the “Stone of the South,” is 21.5m x 4.8m x 4.2 meters in size. Today this gigantic 1000 ton block sits like a beached whale in what must be someones backyard.
Therr she blows!’
The Hermel Obelisk
The rest of the day was dedicated to the hunt for a famous pyramid close to the village of Hermel, which lies in the valley only a few kilometers from the northern border with Syria. Once again we crammed into a service van and bounced through the dusty streets of the Beqaa. By the time the Obelisk came into view we were really in the middle of nowhere. Hermel Pyramid is said to be visible from 40 kilometers away and was nearly the only thing in sight, appearing at first as only a dot on the rolling horizon. The overcast sky and low fog contributed to the sense of utter isolation.
The 2000 year old pyramid is said to be the tomb of a Syrian prince who had a passion for hunting, thus the depictions of animals and weaponry.
From here your not too far from the Monastery of Mar Maroun, if you can find it. This system of carved caves sits on the ledge of a ravine that is somewhat hidden in the hills at the bottom of the Beqaa valley. There are no stairs from the road and the hill is considerably steep so to access the caves requires a fun touch of leg work.
If you expand the photo you can better see the 3 stories of windows and my friend lovin’ life there in the doorway.
On the other side of the river there are more caves tunneled into the landscape. One of these pockets houses a lone Afghani woman that managed to end up in the valley.
For more practical information about this trip and others check out my friends blog:
Farewell Ye Olga!