Since Lebanon is tiny, it was easy to do day trips with Beirut as home base. We did an organized day trip to the Beqaa Valley to visit the Byzantine era city of Anjar, the ruins at Baalbek, and the super fun Ksara winery and cave complex. Jeff and I also did an independent trip to the city of Byblos.
The Beqaa Valley
The drive from Beirut to the Beqaa Valley is about 30 miles, but the two places are quite literally worlds apart. It doesn’t seem logical that you can drive between them in 1.5 hours. While Beirut is wealthy, urban, and westernized, Beqaa is poor, rural, and home to both Hezbollah and the bulk of Lebanon’s one million Syrian refugees. As we began to drive, our guide calmly told us, “You’re going to start seeing a heavy military presence and security check points. DON’T TAKE ANY PHOTOS. Everything is totally fine, but DON’T TAKE ANY PHOTOS.” Got it.
We did indeed see a heavy military presence and lots of soldiers, but what struck us most was how poor the Beqaa Valley appeared. We stopped for breakfast in a small town near Zahlé, and were swarmed by women and children begging. Much of the Beqaa Valley is farmland, and we saw Syrian refugee camps interspersed with the farms. The camps were tidy rows of small, white Tyvek covered shelters with tires on top to secure the coverings. Obviously, we didn’t get any photos (NO PHOTOS!), but here is an image posted by an international aid organization of one of the camps we passed.
As we approached our first stop at Anjar, Jeff loaded up Google maps to check our progress. Apparently Anjar is 12 km (8 miles) from the Syrian border – which was disconcerting and doesn’t seem like something you should find out inadvertently on your phone… ‘Today I accidentally went to Syria…” Adding to the surreality is the fact that 6 years ago Jeff and I stood on the Syrian side of this same border and debated an excursion to Baalbek. We really wanted to see the temples on that trip, but at that time we decided that Lebanon was a bit too dangerous so we stuck with Syria. The sad irony.
I think the whole bus was relieved when stopped driving toward the border and arrived at Anjar. The city of Anjar was built between 705-715 AD as a trading cross-roads between Damascus and Beirut. Even though it was built by the Umayyads, the city has a very Roman style with the Cardo Maximus (main street running north-south) and Decumanus Maximus (main street running east-west) still beautifully preserved. Excavations have found over 600 shops have been lining these streets, and several elaborate bath complexes have been uncovered. Sadly, the Umayyad dynasty fell just 100 years after the founding of Anjar, and the city was quickly abandoned. They did all that work for 100 years of use… lame. Because the city was abandoned, however, the layout is well preserved and it’s easy to image how Anjar would have looked in its prime.
While Anjar was lovely, the Roman era temples at Baalbek were the true stars of the trip. The temples were built on a hilltop in Baalbek, and the surrounding areas have evidence of human habitation dating back to 7000 BC. This place is old. Most likely the current temples were build on top of older Canaanite temples from between 3000 and 1500 BC. The ‘modern’ day temple complex was built over many centuries between 200 BC and 200 AD, and consists of the Temple of Jupiter, the Temple of Bacchus, and Temple of Venus.
Each of these temples is spectacular individually, but to consider this site as a single unit is really impressive. The corner stones of the various temples weigh between 100 and 300 tons. TONS! When you actually see how big these stones are and realize that humans – mere mortals – somehow built this thing, it just boggles your mind. The Temple of Jupiter has these amazing pink marble columns imported from Aswan in Egypt. EGPYT! The columns had to be shipped up the Nile, taken across the Mediterranean, then somehow make the journey across the steep Mount Lebanon range. It really does not seem possible that humans could do this. You’d have to have a pretty compelling faith in something to make a feat like this happen.
After spending our day of touring Anjar and Baalbek in a mixture of alarm and awe, we finished with a visit to the Ksara winery and cave complex. We were pleased because we’ve had Ksara wine at home, and we acted like we know something about wine. We don’t. As we toured the caves, we were told the Ksara creation story. In the 1850s, some Jesuit priests were quietly farming the land, when they saw a fox scurry into a hole. They followed the little guy, and discovered a 2 km subterranean cave complex that would be perfect for aging wine. God had blessed them with a profitable business opportunity! Anyway, it’s a fun story and the caves are unique. The tasting room had TONS of animal heads, so I didn’t love that… I guess you can’t win them all.
In addition to our organized tour to the Beqaa Valley, Jeff and I did another trip by public bus to the town of Byblos. (side bar: the public buses were fun. You’ll hear more about that in our Tyre adventure, but suffice it to say that if you visit Lebanon, figure out the busses. It is cheap and an adventure to boot.)
The main archeological site in Byblos is unique in that archeologists have actively tried to highlight many different periods of history – not just the Roman era. The site has a prehistoric residential settlement, Egyptian style tombs, a Roman era amphitheater, an amazing Crusader era fortress, and a preserved 19th century home typical of those built upon the ruins. As you look over the site, you can physically see the layers of history and understand that all of these periods we think of as distinct units were really a continuum. More than any place we’ve visited, Byblos gives a picture of the continued thread of human settlement, which is pretty darn cool.
After exploring the ruins of Lebanon’s central region, we headed south to the city of Tyre to continue our adventures in humus, history, and Hezbollah.