B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The inaugural B.C. Archaeology Tour of Lebanon and Jordan began on the 15th March and ran till the 5th April. The tour group included Nola Thompson, Catherine Doherty, Colin Sheppard, Brenda Wass, Deborah Russell, Sandra Gillespie, and Margaret Weissman. The tour was led by the author Michael Birrell. In Lebanon our local representative was Cedra and in Jordan we were accompanied by Hisham.

Our group flight was on Etihad Airlines which arrived into Beirut. I had gone ahead for a few days to make arrangements and met the group at the airport. We transferred to the hotel, called the Casa D’Or, and after a rest we went for a bit of a reconnaissance to get our bearings.

On Saturday 17th March we left Beirut and headed north. We stopped at the 'Dog River' to see the famous stelae erected by the ancient Assyrian, Egyptian and Babylonian armies as they passed through Lebanon and competed for control. This strategic point was an ancient pass where armed forces went through a narrow defile. We also saw the Mameluke bridge across the river, dated to the 14th Century. We then went up the river to see the enormous Jeita Caves, with their stunning limestone formations. The main cave is huge - the heavy winter snow had resulted in huge quantities of run-off which had flooded the lower cave. We then had some Lebanese style pizzas for lunch in a café and then drove into the Lebanon hills to see the remains of the Roman era Temple of the god Adonis at Faqra. We passed through areas of heavy snow and found the temple buried in deep drifts – it was fun to make our way through the snow and explore the temple precinct - I thought Nola might disappear at any moment! We then drove down to Byblos and checked into the Byblos Sur Mer Hotel, our base for the next few days.

The following morning was spent in the wonderful ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Byblos (modern Jbail). The weather was bright and sunny as we explored the Temple of the Obelisks, the Phoenician royal tombs and the Crusader Castle. A small site museum in the castle gives a good overview of the history of this fascinating place. In the afternoon we had some lunch and there was some free time to wander around the mediaeval quarter of the city - the fossil shop is my favourite place.

On Monday 19th March we headed north by bus to explore the stunning Qadisha Valley. Our path took us through scenic landscapes and snow covered peaks before we headed down into the valley for our walk. It was a perfect sunny day and we saw a number of isolated Maronite monasteries, many of which are carved into the sides of the valley. Some of these churches are decorated with Byzantine frescoes. In the afternoon we went to see one of Lebanon’s cedar reserves which protects ancient stands of cedar, some up to 1500 years old. The snow was very deep here, up to 4 m in places, and some of us ventured into the drifts between the cedars.

The following morning we left Byblos and headed north. We stopped to see the mediaeval Muslim castle of Moussalayha, perched on the top of an isolated rock. We then went to Tripoli where we explored the dramatic Castle of Saint Giles, built by Raymond of Toulouse in 1104. We explored the old quarter of Tripoli where we saw the 13th Century Great Mosque and the old markets and khans. We then drove back to Beirut which was our base for the next 5 days.

Faqra Temple in the snow
The Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek

On the following day we visited the National Museum in Beirut. Badly damaged in the civil war, the Museum has been fully restored and contains a superb collection of artefacts covering the history of Lebanon. Highlights included the sarcophagus of King Ahiram of Byblos, and the golden treasure from the royal tombs. We had some lunch in the Downtown area of Beirut and went for a walk to see the Church of St George, the Omari Mosque (ladies had to dress in robes and Catherine gave a very good impression of St Teresa) and saw the remains of the Roman Baths.

The next morning we crossed the Lebanon Mountains into the fertile Beqaa Valley. The snow was still quite heavy as we crossed the pass over the mountains. We explored the ruins of Anjar, an 8th Century Umayyad royal city which was built by the Khalif Walid I, then after lunch in a café we explored the stunning, enormous remains of the Roman Temples of Baalbek dedicated to Jupiter and Bacchus. We then saw the majestic Roman period Temple of Niha, dedicated to the Syrian god Hadaranes. In the late afternoon we stopped to taste some wines at the Ksara Winery which still uses the ancient Roman cellars.

The next day we went to the American University of Beirut to see their collection of artefacts - these are well displayed and labelled and give a further insight into Lebanon's history. We then headed south of Beirut into the Chouf Mountains to see the magnificent Beiteddine palace, built by Emir Bashir in the late 18th Century. It contains a wonderful collection of Byzantine Mosaics from the area. We then had lunch and wandered round the city of Deir el Qamar. Capital of Lebanon in the 17th Century, the town preserves a number of grand buildings from this time.

On the 24th March we headed south of Beirut to see the sites of southern Lebanon. We stopped to see the remains of the Phoenician Temple of Eshmoun (after coffee and cake of course!). Later in the morning we saw the Roman ruins of Tyre. The town preserves extensive remains of the Roman era including the main street and triumphal arch, the hippodrome, a well preserved cemetery with numerous sarcophagi, Roman bath and gymnasium. We met some soldiers from UNIFIL (the United Nation peacekeeping force) while we were there. In the afternoon we stopped at a glass making factory to see traditional blown glass vessels being produced. Southern Lebanon was famous for this product in the past. At Sidon, on the coast, we explored the medieval Crusader castle and took a walk through the Old City. The following day we flew to Amman, the capital of Jordan. We checked into our hotel and went for a walk in the local area.

Roman soldiers at Jerash
The Temple of Artemis at Jerash

On the 26th March we headed north from Amman by bus to explore the magnificent Roman ruins at Jerash. Our local guide was perplexed that we wanted to spend 'a day' at the site since most of the time he allots only about 2 hours. We explored the impressive circular forum, two theatres and saw soldiers, gladiators and chariot racing recreated in the hippodrome. The site was very green from recent rains.

The following day we visited the citadel of Amman where we saw the National Archaeological Museum of Amman, the Umayyad Palace and the Temple of Hercules. We had some mezze (light snacks) downtown before exploring the well preserved Roman theatre of Amman. It rained quite heavily and we had some lunch before returning to the hotel. On the 28th March we explored the 8th Century Ummayad ruins in the eastern desert of Jordan (colloquially known as the ‘desert castles’). These sites include the fortified residence and meeting place at Qasr Hraneh, the remarkable decorated baths of Qusayr Amra, the black stone castle of Azraq, where Lawrence of Arabia planned his attack on Damascus, and the fortress of Hallabat with its Umayyad mosaics.

Our travels next led us to the west of Amman. In the morning we saw the impressive Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land in the church at Madaba. Our journey then took us to the top of Mt Nebo, the site where Moses is said to have first seen the Holy Land - we had a relatively good view across to Jericho before travelling on to see the Baptism site at the river Jordan - I offered to baptise people in the cult of rationalism and got one devotee, namely Nola. We later went to a resort on the Dead Sea, where some of us experienced the strange sensation of bobbing in the salty water.

On the 30th March we left our hotel in Amman and headed south. We made a wonderful unscheduled stop to see the late 8th Century Byzantine mosaics at Umm Rasas - these church mosaics were well worth seeing. We then headed down the Kings Highway stopping to see the superb view over the Wadi Mujib. We then saw the impressive remains of Kerak Castle, built by the Crusaders in the 12th Century to dominate the region. After lunch we continued south to Shobak to see the remains of the medieval castle. Built on an isolated hill, the castle is famous for its deep water tunnel with more than 365 steps to the bottom. In the late afternoon we headed to Petra where we checked into our hotel.

The group at Qasr Hraneh
The 'Monastery' at Petra

The next 3 days were dedicated to the scenic wonders of the magnificent ancient Nabataean city of Petra. Carved into the dramatic red sandstone of the Wadi Arabah, the city is famous for its magnificent mortuary chapels. We enjoyed our walk down the famous siq where we caught our first glimpse of the 'Treasury', a superb example of Natabataean architecture. Every cat in the area seemed to find Nola for a pat. We saw the rock-cut theatre, climbed up to the High Place, saw the stunning 'Royal Tombs', the central part of the site including the Great Temple and the churches, and explored the incomparable Ed-Deir, ‘the Monastery’, a spectacular funerary temple carved out of the native rock. Some of the group rode donkeys to the summit, which has spectacular views.

A free day was set aside to rest and relax, re-enter Petra or to visit 'Little Petra'. On the last day of the tour we headed south by bus to explore the splendid natural wonders of the Wadi Rum, a stark desert landscape. We travel by 4-wheel drive down the Wadi stopping to see the landscape and explore the Nabataean temple. In the afternoon we returned to the modern town of Petra. The following morning we drove north to the airport and the group boarded their plane for the flight back to Australia.

Michael Birrell

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