Sunday, February 1, 2009


Hi friends,

Erin and I are in Amman. Today we went and saw yet another set of amazing Roman ruins at Jerash. Unbelievable. Basically, it was a lot of rocks arranged in a particular way that made me think of Romans. No point in trying to describe them further.

We are leaving Jordan soon, to take a quick trip to Jerusalem. I'm sure I'll have lots to say about that. I'm extremely excited about going.

Until then, I'm going to send you an article I wrote when I was in Lebanon. I wrote it specifically for the Walrus magazine, for their Field Notes section; I was promptly rejected, by a very nice editor who told me that it was "a lovely article", but that the history and politics it referred to was a little too obscure for their readership. I don't think I have any chance of getting it published elsewhere, so I'm going to post it here. I trust that you'll all be sharp enough to understand the history and politics it refers to. Read it and love it and don't nobody never say I can't write.

Layers of Conflict

Searching for the true Lebanese people in the ruins of Byblos

The Israeli invasion of Gaza is in its 15th day 300 kilometers south of here. My guide Waad points out signs of an earlier conflict. I look up at the blond limestone wall of the citadel looming over us, and there, wedged between giant blocks carved 2500 years ago by Persians and reused 16 centuries later by crusaders, are two cannonballs fired by the Royal Navy in 1842.

“As you can see, Lebanon has had politics since at least 1842,” Waad jokes.

The soil of Byblos is packed with evidence of much earlier politics, dating back to the dawn of civilization. In the running for being the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, Byblos is an archaeological onion, with successive waves of invaders each adding a layer to the ruins, Roman remains lying over Greek, Persian over Phoenician.

The informed opinion of analysts is that Lebanon will avoid an invasion this year; a few rockets have been launched at Israel from southern Lebanon in support of Hamas, but Israel seems disinclined to punish Hezbollah with a repeat of their 2006 invasion. Still, I am ready to run for the Syrian border at a moment’s notice. I am only interested in invasions that are no longer in progress.

During these years of reconstruction following Lebanon’s civil war, there has been little money for archaeological sites. The pathway we follow through the foundations of the bronze-age city was paid for by the government of Quebec. Waad complains about what he calls the cultural ignorance of his countrymen. “If you ask the old man in the souk what is here, he’ll say ‘the citadel’. Actually, the citadel is the least important thing here.”

The excavation of Byblos was the lifework of French archaeologist Maurice Dunand, who made spectacular discoveries here. As Dunand peeled back the layers, he dismantled the significant structures in the upper layers and reassembled them elsewhere.

The site is now reminiscent of a dissected cadaver. Two bronze-age temples that spent four thousand years one atop the other are now sitting side-by-side; a Roman amphitheatre that was once tucked into a nearby hillside is now a hundred meters away, on a rise overlooking the sea.
Waad is emphatic about his countrymen’s need for a clear-eyed understanding of their shared history. “There can be no facts in history. There may be facts in archaeology. The reason this place is so important is that you don’t need to believe.”

During the civil war, factions touted distorted versions of history and laid claim to ancient identities in order to exclude others from the land they were born to. “The man who goes to church on Sunday calls himself Phoenician,” Waad says. “The man who goes to the mosque on Friday calls himself an Arab. We are Phoenician by habit, Arabs by language, but we are Lebanese. We owe our lives to the soil.”

He tells me about the Genographic Project, an effort to genetically trace humanity’s historical migrations. The project has found genetic footprints left by Phoenicians at their colonies across the Mediterranean, but they are faint. Thousands of years of invasions and migrations have blended bloodlines until claims of such ancient ancestry have become meaningless.

Lebanon has been invaded eighteen times, by Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Turks. Waad’s eyebrows are heavy and his nose prominent and hooked; his black pupils are set in dark blue rings.

“Nobody called the Lebanese ever invaded this place,” he says. The Lebanese are the people left behind when the floodwaters of each invasion receded.

We walk back to the citadel, which the crusaders built using the ruins on the site as a quarry for materials. The structure is composed of pieces left by earlier civilizations. Italian granite columns brought here by Romans were inserted into the walls as reinforcing members. Stones bear Persian and Roman carvings that don’t match up with the blocks adjacent to them.

Inside, Waad points out more recent layers of construction. An arched stairway was added by the Lebanese government in 1967. Much of the ceiling was restored in the 19th Century. The most recent addition is the Canadian layer of Byblos, a museum built in 2002.

“Actually, it was built with your tax dollars — thank you,” Waad says.

I laugh.

“No, really; thank you.”

I tell him that it is natural that Canadians should take interest in so ancient a site. “The city I live in is brand new. Vancouver has never even seen a war.”

“You are very fortunate,” he says. He stands in front of a board displaying information about the Hellenistic period. “I am moving my family to Canada next year, actually.”

I have questions, but Waad interrupts me. “When I was born, there was a war. When we got married, there was a war. When we had children, there was a war. Now, we go to Canada so my children can dream. So at least they can have a dream. I never could dream.”

I am left struggling to find an appropriate response. A silent moment passes before I lamely welcome Waad to my country.

After my tour, I stop at a nearby pub, where I have a conversation with the proprietor, Pierre. Like many Lebanese, Pierre has a Canadian connection: until a few years ago, he lived in Montreal.

We discuss Lebanon’s antiquity and Canada’s newness, and he shares an anecdote about a Canadian friend who took him to see his grandfather’s farmhouse, proud of it being 180 years old. “It was nice, but it meant nothing to me,” Pierre laughs. The room we are sitting in contains a Roman column carved sometime around the birth of Christ.

Unlike any building in Lebanon built before 2006, the 180-year-old farmhouse outside of Montreal has never seen a war. The only thing in Canada that is ancient by Lebanese standards is our peace.

1 comment: