B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


The May 2012 Tour of Lebanon and Jordan was made up of a very keen and dynamic group and we had a great deal of fun. It took place from 10th to the 30th May 2012. The 18 participants were: Alex Radford, Stephanie Rigby, Rachel Hole, Tracey Shand, John and Lyn Dun, Terry and Brian Coleman, Robert and Robyn Callister, Shane and Tim Woodburn, Joanne and Mark Willcocks, Wolfgang and Marisa Mitterheumer, and David and Mary-Anne Rose. The group was led as before by Michael Birrell, and we were assisted in our travels by Natasha in Lebanon and Elias in Jordan.

I was coming directly from Spain and had a night in Beirut before the group arrived. I met them at the airport before we transferred to Byblos and checked in to the very comfortable Byblos Sur Mer Hotel. The weather was warm and bright and after lunch at a restaurant overlooking the Crusader harbour we went for a walk in the afternoon to get our bearings - we stopped to have a look at the fossil shop, and also had a chance to see the Crusader era Romanesque Church of St John the Baptist. Many members of the group went for a swim - the water was perfect.

The following day we went to see the ruins of Byblos - these are spread over a grassy mound overlooking the sea and include buildings from the Neolithic to Crusader era, including a wonderful castle built in the early 12th Century. We all went down into the tomb of King Abi-Shemau (1800 BC) where we saw his limestone sarcophagus. In the afternoon we had some free time - some members of the group like Mark and Joanna, were in the crystal clear water all afternoon, as well as most mornings.

Our next day took us north of Byblos to the scenic Qadisha Valley, a refuge for the Maronite Christians. We descended into the valley and walked down the valley for about 2 km from Qanoubin monastery to the small hermitage of Hawqa and back again. The views were stunning with the surrounding hills capped by snow. After viewing the Monastery of Mar Elisha we headed up to the Cedar reserve behind Bcharre - the snow had cleared since my earlier visit in March and we were able to walk the trail between the trees interspersed with only occasional patches of snow.

Hiking in the Qadisha Valley
The Temple of Adonis at Faqra

On the 14th May we were meant to go to Tripoli Castle but there had been a disturbance in the city caused by sympathetic protests associated with the Syrian civil war. Instead we went to see the Dog River stelae, a group of commemorative inscriptions left by passing invading armies from the time of Ramesses II, before heading up into the mountains to see the ruins of the Roman temples at Faqra. These were no longer buried in snow, as they had been in March. We saw the unusual symbolic grave of the god Adonis, and also the temple which is built into a natural cavity in the karst limestone landscape.

The following day we reluctantly packed our bags and left Byblos. We first headed north to see the remains of the Castle of Moussalayha, a small 17th Century structure built to guard a strategic road along the coast. It preserves its entire form and we could explore all its rooms and passages. We then headed south to see the Jeita Caves, a wonder of the natural world. The main cave is stunning with a vast drop down into its subterranean depths which can only be dimly seen, while above is an enormous space draped with stalactites. We had a pleasant lunch near the caves and then headed on to Beirut where we checked into the Bellariva Hotel. This comfortable hotel, with views of the Mediterranean, was our base for the next few days as we explored the southern part of Lebanon.

We went to the Beirut National Museum on the morning of the 16th May. This has a fantastic collection of artefacts spread over two floors. The objects include the contents of the Royal tombs of Byblos and many remarkable carved sarcophagi from Tyre. We then went downtown for a walk in the newly rebuilt quarter of the city. Amongst a number of sites, we visited the Omari Mosque, originally a Romanesque Church from the Crusader period. The ladies in the group were requested to wear robes which I thought made them look like Jedi Knights from Star Wars.

The following morning we headed to the Beqaa Valley, crossing the Lebanon Mountains, which were lightly covered with snow. The weather was perfect with bright sunny skies. Our first stop was at the 8th Century Umayyad Palace of Anjar. This impressive royal city contains two palaces, bath complexes, and two major streets lined with shops. From here we went to see the Roman Temple at Niha - this is a colossal structure built for the worship of the local god Hadaranes. We had an interesting discussion with Natasha about the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s - her personal view was that no-one was responsible and all Lebanese people love each other!

We stopped off to get some nice Lebanese manusha rolls for lunch and headed to Baalbek. The Roman temples of Jupiter and Bacchus are mind boggling in scale, as is the entire courtyard of the temple. We explored the complex and then headed south to visit the Ksara winery – these are interesting because they actually employ ancient Roman tunnels for the storage of their wine. We enjoyed the tasting and took quite a few bottles with us for future consumption during our trip to Jordan where wine is not always available.

On the 18th May we visited the American University of Beirut where we saw the Archaeological Museum. They have a good collection of small finds, pottery and glass. Some members of the group spent longer in the bookshop choosing the right replica jewellery to purchase. Two students from the university then gave us a brief tour of the main campus - they were both very informative. From here we caught our bus and headed south into the Chouf Mountains where we stopped at Deir el Qamar, the capital of Lebanon in the 18th Century. We had a look at the main historic buildings in the square and then went to see the beautiful palace of the Emir Bashir at Beiteddine. This complex of buildings is well preserved and includes beautiful state rooms and private quarters. The gardens have been well maintained and the view down the valley is spectacular.

The Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek
Beiteddine Palace in springtime

The following morning was our last day of touring in Lebanon. We headed to the port city of Sidon where we saw the remains of the Temple of Eshmoun, the Phoenician god of health. Terry made a suitably regal Astarte when she took her place on the throne of the goddess. We then headed to the main town of Sidon where we saw the small Crusader castle guarding the entrance to the harbour and went for a walk through the old quarter where we saw a more traditional side of Lebanese life. We visited an Ottoman house and also saw the caravanserai which was built by the Emir Fakhreddine in the early 17th Century. After a very pleasant lunch down by the harbour, we headed south to Tyre - here we saw the remains of the Roman city which include: a hippodrome for horse racing, a large cemetery, an aqueduct, bath complex and gymnasium. The view down the harbour was very scenic.

On the 20th May we took a morning flight to Amman in Jordan and checked into our hotel. This was the Bellevue Hotel, and it would be our base for the following four nights. In the afternoon I took the group for an exploratory walk around the main shops in the area. Amman has some good markets selling traditional wares but you really need to hunt them down. We went for a walk along Rainbow St where we did some more reconnaissance for future shopping expeditions, and then retreated to a bar for a drink, followed by dinner in a nice restaurant which specialises in Ottoman style cuisine.

Our travels next took us to the superb Roman ruins at Jerash. Spread out across rolling hills in northern Jordan, the city includes a wonderful range of monuments including: two impressive theatres, an arch dedicated to Hadrian, colossal temples dedicated to Zeus/Jupiter and Artemis, the ancient markets, and an impressive oval forum. We watched the well-produced Ancient Roman Arena show which includes a re-enactment of Roman army manoeuvres, gladiatorial fights and chariot races before spending the rest of the day exploring the site - Tracey made a suitably dynamic Artemis by re-creating the statue now lost from the temple sanctuary.

We explored the historical sights of downtown Amman on the 22nd May. We started our wanders by visiting the remains of the Roman Temple of Hercules and the Umayyad (8th Century AD) palace on the summit of the Amman acropolis. The archaeological museum nearby has an extensive collection of remains encompassing the history of ancient Jordan - these will soon be transferred to a new building where they will be better displayed. We headed down to the splendid Roman theatre and also explored the small odium (roofed theatre). While having a coffee we had a chance to chat with some refugees from the Syrian crisis who gave us an insight into the ongoing situation there. Finally we had a walk in the covered fruit and vegetable markets before Elias took us for a wonderful meal in the Ammani suburbs.

The ruins of Jerash
The Roman Theatre in Amman

The 'desert castles' of eastern Jordan were our destination for the following day. This collection of 8th Century Umayyad structures include a variety of different buildings: a fortified residence and meeting place at Qasr Hraneh, the remarkable painted baths of Qusayr Amra, the black stone castle of Azraq Oasis where Lawrence of Arabia planned his attack on Damascus, and the fortress of Hallabat with its Umayyad mosaics. We took a picnic lunch with us on the trip and enjoyed Bedouin coffee in a traditional nomad tent.

The 24th May saw us leave Amman and head south. Our first stop was to see the splendid mosaics at Um Rasas which date to the late 8th Century. They reflect a revival of Christian culture under the early Abbasid Dynasty and are very late examples of the art. We headed down 'the King’s Highway' to see the dramatic Wadi Mujib gorge, and then stopped in Kerak to explore the impressive remains of the 12th Century Crusader Castle. We had lunch in a local café before heading off to Shobak Castle where we saw another Crusader and Mameluke fortress famed for its treacherous 'water tunnel' which descends deep into the mountain down to the water table. In the late afternoon we checked into our hotel in Petra, the newly refurbished Petra Moon Hotel. This was our base for the next four days which were devoted to Petra and the surrounding area.

In Petra we explored the dramatic siq (narrow gorge) which provides the main approach to the ruins, stopping to see the numerous beit-el shrines along the way. The impressive 'Treasury' tomb chapel is the first monument glimpsed between the cliffs at the end of the siq – Steph had a camel ride, giving a good impersonation of Johann Burkhardt the first European 'discoverer' of Petra. We then explored the central part of the city of Petra with its theatre and numerous temples before our climbed up to the dramatic 'Monastery' overlooking the wadi Arabah. Most of the group walked to the summit, but some of us (including me) took donkeys, making the trip much less challenging. To our astonishment, a local man was doing headstands on the summit of the Monastery cupola with a 40 m drop to the desert surface!

The following day was a free day - some members of the group went back into Petra, some went to see the ruins of 'Little Petra', while many spent time relaxing by the swimming pool on the roof of the hotel - this has fabulous views of the desert mountains. Quite a few people had a Turkish bath and massage that evening to relieve tired muscles.

The 27th May was spent back in Petra. We saw a re-enactment of the ancient Nabataean army guarding the entrance to the siq - John was captured and only made it in after photographs were taken. It was a nice cool day which made our ascent of the High Place all the easier. We explored the numerous tombs and chapels on our descent and after a sandwich in a local café saw the Royal Tombs of Petra.

The following morning we packed our bags and headed south to see the dramatic desert landscapes of the Wadi Rum. We met up with our 4-wheel drives and enjoyed a trip through the desert, stopping to appreciate the stupendous dunes and cliffs (some up to 600 m high). We took a short walk to see the ruins of a freestanding Nabataean temple, and explored rock art in a dramatic gorge. After lunch we stopped to see the Hijaz railway - we were lucky to see a working steam engine and went on board the royal carriage which is still used by the Jordanian Royal Family. As we headed north our bus broke down but it was quickly replaced by a new one and we swiftly headed on to our hotel, a resort on the northern shore of the Dead Sea.

The group at Petra
Exploring the fabulous Wadi Rum

Our last touring day was spent exploring the historic sites in the area of the Dead Sea. In the morning we went to the 'Baptism Site' on the Jordan River. While Tracey was standing in the river awaiting salvation she was bitten by a tiny fish! I’m not sure if that counts as a rejection. We then headed up onto the Jordanian Plateau where we had some lunch and visited the site of Mt Nebo - from here the views over the Jordan Valley were relatively clear and we could see Jericho far away in the distance. The afternoon was spent at Madaba where we saw the famous mosaic map of the Holy Land.

We returned to our hotel in the afternoon and went for a dip in the Dead Sea. This is a strange experience since you float on the surface and can only swim with effort. Wolfgang opted for the Dead Sea mud treatment and looked remarkably like the Creature from the Black Lagoon at the end. Many of us then retreated to the hotel swimming pool where cocktails were available making it a very pleasant way to end the day. Our 'last supper' was spent in a tented restaurant with views towards the twinkling lights of Jerusalem - all in all, this was an outstandingly good tour!

Michael Birrell

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