B.C. Archaeology

Study Tours of the Ancient World


On the 18th October I went to Lebanon for 2 weeks to do a rekhy for the upcoming Tour of Lebanon and Jordan in 2012. I had not been to Lebanon before and must admit that I was expecting a more 3rd world country. What I found was a prosperous and very western Beirut which has largely put the civil war of the 80ís behind it. The antiquities in the rest of the country are dramatic and impressive, particularly the stunning Roman remains at Baalbek. The complex social and political makeup of the country has been highly influenced by the presence of so many Palestinian 'refugees' who are now very much part of the ethnic makeup of the country. The trip was fascinating and made me realize how much this small country has to offer in terms of tourism.

I started by exploring some of the main sites of Beirut. I visited the Museum of the American University of Beirut which has a very well presented collection of artefacts from Lebanonís history with excellent information. I also went to the National Museum. This building was damaged in the civil war but has been completely restored - the artefacts were protected by being encased in concrete and this preserved the stunning collection of statues and sarcophagi. The Museum also contains the treasures from the royal tombs of Byblos including numerous gold pieces - the mosaics are also worth a look.

The Roman Baths in downtown Beirut
The stunning temple of Bacchus at Baalbek

I explored part of 'Downtown' Beirut - the Crusader era Church of St George is very beautiful and has an interesting museum in the crypt which gives the history of the site. I also saw the Crusader church which was converted into the Mosque of Omar, as well as the large Roman Baths. The Downtown district has been totally rebuilt and is full of upmarket shops and cafes today. A walk along the corniche or seaside boulevard took me to Pigeon Rock, a dramatic natural landmark in the sea which is surrounded by cafes.

One of the highlights of my visit to Lebanon was a day trip from Beirut to visit the ruins of the Umayyad Period at Anjar and to see the absolutely stunning remains of the Roman temples at Baalbek. I travelled across the Lebanon Mountains to the east of Beirut and descended into the Beqaa Valley, a very picturesque area of agriculture watered by the Orontes River and the Litani River. The ruins of Anjar are set in a beautiful part of the Beqaa. This was the retreat of the 18th Century Umayyad Caliph Walid I, who constructed a walled compound complete with palaces, bath complex and markets. Not far away was the Ksara Winery which was well worth a visit - it still uses ancient Roman cellars for storing its casks and it was possible to explore the cool tunnels and taste a selection of wines.

In the Beqaa Valley I also went to Baalbek, surely one of the most spectacular ancient sites anywhere in the Mediterranean. Developed in the Late Roman Imperial period (2nd and 3rd Century AD) the complex consists of three main temples and a huge complex of ancillary buildings. The Temple of Venus would itself be worth seeing but it pales in comparison with the huge Temple of Jupiter - the columns of this mighty structure are enormous, dwarfing any other Roman temple Iíve seen. Nearby, and far better preserved, is the stunning Temple of Bacchus. This preserves its external colonnade and highly decorated cella. The scale of the building is stunning (see the scale from the person in the photo) and I couldnít help but take too many photos! It has to be the most impressive Roman structure to survive anywhere.

The Sea Castle at Sidon
The harbor and old quarter of Sidon

Down the coast from Beirut I visited two of the major Phoenician sites of antiquity. These are Sidon and Tyre, once great commercial city states during the Iron Age. Most of the remains that you see today are form the Roman era and the Crusader Age. In Sidon I explored the Sea Castle built in 1228 and which guarded the harbor - it must be entered over the drawbridge. The local markets were bustling and I visited the 17th Century Khan el-Franj which has a large rectangular courtyard where the merchants unloaded their wares and houses their animals, with accommodation up above. I also visited the soap museum and a newly restored Ottoman mansion. In the hills behind Sidon I saw the ruins of the Phoenician Temple of Eshmoun, the local god of healing. The most fascinating part of the site was the Throne of Astarte with winged sphinxes on either side.

The ancient site of Tyre has a number of archaeological zones. In the eastern part of the city is El-Bass which contains an extensive Roman necropolis with elaborately carved stone sarcophagi. You enter the inhabited part of the site through two Roman commemorative arches leading into the commercial zone of ancient Tyre. The partly reconstructed remains of the hippodrome give a good impression of the remarkable scale of the original monument once capable of seating about 20,000 spectators. Near the shore are the remains of the agora, a large rectangular arena with seating, and a Roman bath complex.

The Roman ruins at Tyre
The romantic Beiteddine Palace

I travelled up into the Chou Mountains to visit the beautiful 18th and 19th Century Beiteddine Palace, home of the Emir Bashir who was appointed Governor of Lebanon by the Ottomans. The palace is located in a stunning setting overlooking a deep wooded gorge and many of the beautifully furnished rooms are still used by the President of Lebanon as a Summer retreat. The main courtyard with its water fountain and grand entrance into the private apartments is a site to behold. A highlight of the visit was the collection of Byzantine mosaics which have come from the local area and are now on display in the lower galleries. I stayed overnight in the charming hill town of Deir el Qamar which has a wonderfully antique town square surrounded by grand civic buildings of the 18th Century.

The next day I left Deir el Qamar and travelled to the ancient Temple complex at Faqra, stopping en route to see some impressive natural formation including a natural rock bridge carved by the local stream. Faqra Temple lies in a fertile valley near an important spring. The Temple was dedicated to the ancient fertility god Adonis, and is unusual in being partly cut into the native bedrock, the rear of the shrine being of solid stone which the forepart is built and includes a colonnade and grand entrance. Nearby lay the ruins of a Byzantine period church. Down on the coast I went to Harissa, the church is the venue for an important Christian pilgrimage. There were sweeping views over the coast and a spectacular sunset over the outskirts of Beirut.

Travelling north to Byblos I stopped to see the famous ancient stelae which were carved into the cliff face next to the dog river. Over the millennia every army passing through Lebanon has had to pass the narrows of the Dog River Gorge and they left a reminder of their passage. Famous inscriptions have been left by Ramesses II on his way north and the Assyrian King Ashurbanipal on his way to invade Egypt. Not far away to the north I went to the stunning Jeita Caves, one of the great natural wonders of the world. These limestone caves are enormous and have spectacular formations. The main cavern is huge, descending down to river caves far below. Part of the visit included a boat trip through a submerged cave.

The harbor of Byblos
Moussalayha Castle

From here I headed north to Byblos (modern Jbeil) where I spent a couple of nights, a wonderful place to stay with a fascinating history. The medieval walled city has many buildings of interest and extends around a very picturesque harbor defended by Crusader bastions. Above the harbor rises the ancient tell site of the Phoenician city which has great historical interest. The ancient site is dominated by the spectacular Crusader castle from the 12th Century which today houses a fascinating collection of artefacts from the site. The ancient mound includes the subterranean royal tombs of the Middle Bronze Age, a Roman theatre, a Persian fortress, and the extensively cleared remains of the Phoenician city with its numerous walls. The Old Quarter of Byblos is a very pleasant place to explore and has some great shops selling fossils and minerals.

Reluctantly leaving Byblos behind, I headed north stopping to see the fascinating remains of Moussalayha Castle. This was built in the Crusader period by the local Muselim rulers to guard the passage of the road from Tripoli to Beirut. I then ventured up into the mountains, passing spectacular vistas. There are six major nature reserves in Lebanon where cedars are being propagated and I had the chance to go for a two hour walk in one of these Cedar forests. The landscape was superb, with broad views down a misty valley and the cedars growing amongst strange kast limestone formations. A wonderful experience!

From here I went to Bcharreh where I saw the unusual museum of Khalil Gibran, author of Ďthe Prophetí. It makes use of an abandoned monastery and has much of his original art work. I then went to see the monasteries in the Qadisha Valley. This is a spectacular natural gorge with many caves that have been used over the centuries as hidden places of worship by the local Maronite Christians. The caves have in many instances been converted into churches, some having painted frescoes. The monastic buildings and hermtiages in the Qadisha Valley are often up in the sides of cliffs with small vegetable gardens around them and spectacular scenery.

The magical Qadisha Valley
Tripoli Castle

My final visit was to see the mediaeval city of Tripoli with its spectacular Crusader Castle of St Giles. This wonderful stone structure lies on the hill overlooking the city and dominates the landscape. The nice thing about the castle is that it has not so-far been 'touristified' but preserves its original feeling. At the foot of the castle lies the old city with its wonderful covered markets, Grand Mosque and numerous khans (inns for merchants). Unlike Beirut, Tripoli has a Middle Eastern feel, tumble-down, poor and ancient.

I enjoyed the 12-day trip to Lebanon very much. In many ways it exceeded my expectations for the scale and grandeur of its antiquities, the modern vibrancy of Beirut, and the character of the people who are unlike any of their neighbours.

Michael Birrell

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