Friday, January 16, 2009


If Lebanon were located in another region, if it had a different reputation and a different recent history, it would be inundated with tourists, all of whom would be happy. The historical sights here are spectacular, the travel is easy, the food is fucking amazing, and the people are more welcoming than any I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. The streets are often dirty and you do have to put up with the odd blown-up building, but every country has problems you have to put up with. On balance, Lebanon is one of the best places I've ever been, but part of what I love is the fact that there are so few tourists here.

We stayed in Lebanon longer than we originally thought we would. This started with staying in Beirut for an extra day and then another extra day. Then we went to Baalbek to look at the (absolutely fucking incredible) Roman temple there before crossing the border and going to Damascus, when we changed our minds and went to Tripoli.

If asked to describe Baalbek in a single word, I wouldn’t. There would be no point. Besides, who are you that you’re so busy that you can’t even allow me a second word? And what enlightenment do you suppose you’ll obtain from such a superficial appraisal of an archaeological site of such complexity and importance?

If given several words to describe Baalbek, I’d describe it like this:

Baalbek used to be called Heliopolis by the Greeks and Romans, which basically means Sun City. They built a giant temple to Jupiter, the sun god, there, which I believe was the center of Jupiter-worship in the Roman Empire. I am unsure why they picked such an inconvenient spot, over at one edge of the empire, high up in a valley between two mountain ranges and far (by foot) from the coast, but apparently a lot of pilgrims made a trip there. I do know that I have never seen a ruined Roman temple anywhere near as large and impressive, and I’ve seen a lot of broken Roman shit.

Baalbek is now in my top three Roman sites, and one of the other two is Rome. Baalbek is pretty goddamn cool.

Alongside a lot of really badly broken stuff are a mostly-standing temple to Dionysus that makes the Parthenon in Athens look like a garden shed, and six columns from another temple still standing since Roman times, which are 70 feet tall and 7 feet across. Just building these columns with muscle and rope and animals is an engineering feat beyond belief — the fact that they are still standing moves me to Roman-worship.

There used to be dozens of columns the same size, but between earthquakes, Byzantine Christians and Muslim Mamluks, they all got knocked over, broken up and reused in building churches and transforming this magnificent temple into a castle for their petty internecine wars. I know that I am clearly biased in favour of the Romans because they built the coolest shit, but stuff like that makes me wish that Christians, Muslims and earthquakes would all just go and fuck themselves and leave that awesome Roman stuff alone.

Anyway, look at the pictures:

We stayed in Tripoli longer than we thought we would, as well. Erin has been working and we’ve really enjoyed hanging out here. For most people, Tripoli is a daytrip, but we made ourselves comfortable. Tripoli has an awesome crusader castle (okay, I guess Christians aren’t all bad) and some great mosques, caravansaries and souks (fine —Muslims are pretty cool, too).

The best thing about the castle is that you’re allowed to go pretty much everywhere, and they haven’t put in sissified safety railings and stuff like that all over the place. Apart from a guy selling tickets at the gate and the army unit that occupies one corner of the castle, there are no authority figures around and no other tourists. We got to climb right on top of the walls and look over the city.

If I could have seen that castle when I was ten years old, I would have been in heaven. If anyone who reads this has a ten year-old son, do them a favour and send them to Lebanon — or hell, go along with them — maybe you can do some bonding.



Apart from the castle, Tripoli is a great place to wander around. The old souks are crowded, noisy, narrow little laneways where you can buy toothpaste, a gold ring, handmade soap and electronics, all at bargain prices, and where you can spend hours wandering without getting bored. Plus, all over Tripoli there are men who sell tiny shots of strong Lebanese coffee for about 20 cents, or espresso for 40 cents, although sometimes espresso is only 20 cents, too.

In Tripoli, we wake up and yawn and stretch and loll around in bed for awhile before we go out and have the breakfast that the hotel makes, which comes with tea. Then we might shower, check the TV for news, and go for a walk through the streets. We stop at the first coffee seller we can find, who may or may not speak a single word of English, but we convey that we want two coffees without sugar and bam, we’re on our way. We walk toward the old town and look at a mosque and hey, there’s a guy, why don’t we get another coffee? And bam, we’re walking again, through the souks now, looking at stuff for sale and bam, more coffee! The souk is going by faster and a mosque just blurred by and bam, coffee! The mosques and souks spin past and a laughing Lebanese face tells us "welcome to my country" BAM! My stomach doesn’t feel so good and everything is fuzzy and BAM and all I can see is my hand stretched toward a coffee pot and BAM!

Then we wake up in our hotel room, not knowing how we got there. It’s about two in the afternoon, so we decide to sit down and do some writing. We work until 10:00 PM, have a sip of scotch, do some reading, and go to sleep, so we can be ready to go out for coffee in the morning.

I was going to finally get some photos of Beirut uploaded here, but the internets ain't workin' so good, so later, eh? Maybe I'll put them in a separate post. Here are a couple of shots of Tripoli to tide you over. Look for Erin on the wall of the castle in the first one -- she's the one in black.

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