Hummus, History, and Hezbollah
Our final destination in Lebanon was a 3-day stop in Tyre, also known as Sour (pronounced Sur). The city is in Lebanon’s deep south and few tourists make it to Tyre, most likely due to its alarming proximity to Israel. As luck would have it our favorite Lebanese restaurateur in Salt Lake City is a Tyrian (that is really what they’re called), and when we mentioned to Ali that we’d be visiting Tyre he generously set us up with his mama and brother, Nasser. Don’t you just love Lebanese hospitality?
The road to Tyre
Accommodation secured, we needed to figure out transport to Tyre. Nasser told us that a taxi from Beirut would cost $100 US, which really annoyed us for a 1.5 hour drive. Emboldened by our public bus to Byblos, we decided to find a bus to Tyre. How hard could it be with roughly 88 lbs of baggage? There are neither bus stations nor bus schedules in Beirut, so making this happen was a little tricky. We found a tip online saying that buses south stop at something called ‘Cola Station’, so that’s where we headed. It turns out that ‘station’ means ‘kind-of-a-curb-where-some-buses-are’, and after our taxi dumped us at Cola we had to figure out our options.
“Going to Tyre? Tyre?” we asked every bus driver. “No,” most of the drivers responded. Except for one guy. He said ‘no’, but after thinking about it for a second, he decided ‘yes’. Hummm, we were suspicious but we were also hot, so we loaded our selves and our exorbitant baggage onto his bus. One downside of this bus was that everyone smoked, but one upside was that the doors were broken and didn’t close. So… win?
As we headed south, we began to sense that the cultural landscape had changed. We no longer saw glossy commercial billboards, and saw an increasing abundance of yellow flags emblemized with green AK-47s. Wait a second… are those Hezbollah flags? Yep, and the further south we drive the more Hezbollah-y things got. The flags were everywhere. Lining the streets, hanging from apartment buildings, and in front of otherwise inviting cafes. Many of the cars we saw had sweet windshield wraps with dramatic stylized images of machine guns, ayotellah-esque figures, and fierce looking young men in fatigues. In addition to the welcoming iconography, we started seeing rugged SUVs with UN seals on the side. Oh fun, UN peacekeepers AND Hezbollah! Welcome to the south.
The drive was slow, and when we reached the halfway point of Sidon we were told to get off the bus. Yep, that’s what I suspected – NOT a bus to Tyre. After asking about 100 people, we figured out that there is another bus that would take us to Tyre, but of course the bus was like 5 blocks away. Fine. We schlepped our way to the bus, which was really more of a van, let’s be honest, and got settled for our very up-close tour of small southern towns in Lebanon.
As we approached Tyre, Nasser called us, rightfully disturbed that we were now 3 hours into what should be a 1.5-hour journey. Since there are no bus stations in Tyre, we needed to arrange where to meet him. “Just tell the driver to drop you at Mahatta Joudi!!! Mahatta Joudi!!!!” I’m really bad with languages, so I usually come up with a visual mnemonic to remember foreign words. This one was easy – I just pictured the baby of Mahatma Gandhi and Judge Judy, which in my imagination was even less cute than it sounds. Great, now I’ll never forget where to have the bus take me in Tyre.
Nasser took us to his mom’s house, and Mrs. Sabah took wonderful care of us. On the night of our arrival Mrs. Sabah cooked us a lovely dinner of roasted chicken and vegetables, and after so much time on the road a home cooked meal was amazing. Both Jeff and I loved – LOVED – getting to stay in a neighborhood in Tyre rather than a hotel. We’re fairly certain that there was a Hezbollah training camp down the street from Mrs. Sabah’s home, but we played it cool like everyone else. As Jeff put it, “People are acting like Hezbollah training camps are as normal as Starbucks.” Well, I guess here they kind of are. Yeah, we see this stuff all the time….
Ancient Tyre was a Phoenician port-city renowned for the manufacture and export of uniquely transparent glass and ‘murex’, a fabulously expensive purple dye made from snails. At its height around the 10th century BC, these exports helped to make Tyre one of the richest cities in the ancient world. The archeological sites are huge and you could easily spend several days exploring them. Nasser was kind enough to connect us with a local guide, Hassan, to help us navigate the sprawling ruins for a day. Hassan is an archeologist by trade, and knows a LOT about Tyre’s archeological sites. Like, kind of too much sometimes, but we definitely got an education.
There are two main areas of archeological sites in Tyre: al-Mina (the ancient port) and al-Bass (the Necropolis). We started out at al-Mina to explore the ancient city and port. Excavations are ongoing (inshallah, finances willing), but much of the central port area has been excavated. The view from the central road is striking: massive, pink Aswan marble columns and leading down to the Mediterranean and a sprawling city on either side. Tyre was so wealthy that this road was actually paved in mosaic tile, and many of the mosaics have been restored. On either side of this main road excavations continue, with a residential area on one side and glorious public bath system on the other. It seems like the baths comprised half of the area of the city, which would have been fine by me. Hassan told us that people would spend an entire day at the baths, and that they had libraries, dining options, and places to nap in addition to baths and steam rooms. I really should have been born a rich Roman.
After like 4 hours in the blistering sun we were exhausted, but Hassan had oh so much more to show us. After ‘relaxing’ with an apple and a thimble full of water, we headed to the Necropolis at the al-Bass site, which is larger but but less excavated than al-Mina. Our exhaustion aside, the site really was spectacular. In addition to tombs in the Necropolis the site houses an amazingly well preserved Roman aqueduct, an impressive 20 meter high arch erected for the emperor Hadrian in 130 AD, and my favorite thing – a hippodrome for chariot races. The hippodrome was enormous, and our pictures don’t do it justice. Some of the ‘bleacher style’ seating has been restored and it is estimated to have held over 30,000 people. All around the hippodrome track are the ruins of small rooms that would have been concessions vendors for the attendees – there are probably 100 in total. It’s not that hard to imagining this site in full swing, and it makes you realize what a privilege it was to be a citizen of the Roman empire.
After like 8 hours in the blistering sun, we negotiated our release from Hassan. Exhausted and sunburnt, we made our way to a nearby restaurant called Abou Deeb to nurse our wounds. Luckily for us, Abou Deeb turned out to be fabulous, and we ate some of the best hummus we’d had on the trip. Abou Deeb saved the day!!! Fortified and fully human again, we spent the rest of the day wandering the twisty streets of Tyre’s old city and souqs.
The next day, we headed back to Mahattah Joudi (aka Mahatma ‘Judge’ Judy) and slowly made our way back to Beirut for a flight to Cyprus. Tyre was a great adventure for us. We saw more UN peacekeepers than tourists, but alhamd lillah (thanks be to god) we got to enjoy tasty food, amazing sites, and some genuine Lebanese hospitality. Thus concluded our adventures of humus, history, and Hezbollah. Until the next time, Middle East!!!