At the Border: Heaven and Earth, Lebanon and Syria

October 10, 2011


At the Border: Heaven and Earth, Lebanon and Syria

“A friend who is far away is sometimes much nearer than one who is at hand. Is not the mountain far more awe-inspiring and more clearly visible to one passing through the valley than to those who inhabit the mountain?”

–       Khalil Gibran

Finally, the university broke through the red tape that had kept my friends and I from our prepaid trips. I nearly did a back flip when it was announced we would be heading to the Cedars for the weekend. It had been a long week and we were all in serious need of a get away.

Saturday morning we each claimed seats on a bus and made our first stop in Tripoli. Although it holds the title as Lebanon’s second largest city, Tripoli bears little resemblance with upscale Beirut. The grungy streets, crowded sidewalks and tan tones gave the city an overall feel that is distinctly Middle Eastern.

Tripoli is also home to some unfortunate Palestinian refugee camps with alleged ties to Al-Qaeda. In 2007 the Lebanese Army confronted militants within the camps, engaging in skirmishes that eventually spilled into the streets. That’s how yet another historic Middle Eastern sight has fallen out of popularity. However, for those who are willing to visit, Tripoli will not disappoint.

Our first order of business was a visit to a hill top castle that was originally burnt down, rebuilt by an Emir, and used by the crusaders.

The Souk

You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced a souk. I touched on them last post but I cant say enough, these open air markets are truly a world of their own. Stepping into the souk in Tripoli you are instantly thrust into a medieval scene. It’s a labyrinth of dark and narrow alleys lined with small shops and handcrafted goods. Veiled locals chattered about and pushed past you like bees in a crowded hive. The sharp smell of 100 potent spices bites at your nose. You focus on the sheep testicles hanging in front of you as your periphery catches the tail of a homeless cat. All of your senses are fully engaged.

Buried deep the souk was an ancient Mamluk Bath which we had the luxury of touring. The dark, wet, and musty feel made it easy to imagine what it must have been like hundreds of years ago. Later, we shook off the vertigo of the souk with a relaxing boat ride in the Mediterranean.

Into the Mountains

It wasn’t long before we were on the road again and bound for the mountains. The sun began to sink as the bus climbed its way toward the sky, hour after hour. We ascended into a cloud and through its haze glowed the lights of cinderblock homes on neighboring peaks. When we came into a patch of clear sky the air carried the familiar smell of autumn. The temperature had dropped significantly. Earlier that day I had rolled up my sleeves, sweating under the sun in the souk, now I dug my jacket out of my pack to stay warm. My ears popped as the clouds came and cleared again before we finally arrived at our lodge for the night. The hotel was small and homey and logs crackled in a fireplace across from the reception desk.

The Cedars

Cedar trees are a beloved symbol of Lebanon and there’s one in the center of every flag.  High altitude cedar forests used to cover the mountains here until the ancient Phoenicians (amazingly) cut them for their navy and dragged them all the way to the coast. Early the next morning we hiked the most famous of the remaining cedar patches. This hike was followed by another, which delivered us to Lebanon’s second highest peak. The incline was steep and the air was thin but every glance down on the gorgeous Qadisha Valley recharged my spirits.

The view from the summit was priceless. Looking west, I could see across the entire width of Lebanon into the Mediterranean Sea. Turning around, I could see a range of mountains that marked the border with Syria. “So much has happened in such a small area,” I thought. “So many nations, (The United States, Iran, Syria, Israel, Saudi Arabia, France, Palestine and so on) have put so much of their energy into such a tiny strip of land.” Somehow, I loved Lebanon even more for it.

We had lunch at a peaceful outdoor restaurant before heading to the former home of Khalil Gibran, our final destination. Khalil Gibran is the third best selling poet of all time, right behind Shakesphere and Lau-Tzu. His house, carved into the side of the Qadisha Valley, has been converted into a museum displaying his work.

Heading to Tripoli

The Crusader Castle

Into the Souk

Everywhere is famous for something and Tripoli is famous for its handcrafted soap, this shop has been owned by the same family for seven generations. 

Islamic Prayer Bead Soap

The Artisan

Grape Soap

The Mamluk Baths

Back through the Souk

This is an old Madrassa, a Koranic School

Our Night Time Lodge

The Cedars

A Catholic Monk once lived inside this tree…

The Qadisha Valley

It might not be much to look at but this peak marks the border between Syria, Lebanon and Israel/Palestine. It is also part of the Golan Heights, a highly contested peace of land.

This is my souvenir from the hike, a fossilized sea shell I found on the mountain from a time when even this peak was underwater.

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2 Comments on “At the Border: Heaven and Earth, Lebanon and Syria”

  1. phil Says:

    nice work. great pictures.
    stay safe.
    quite a range of terrain.
    I liked the picture of the author the most.


  2. Sharon Eastman Says:

    Scott, nice pictures ! I feel as though I am right there with you, what an amazing adventure.


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