Pregnant stone delivers

3 July 2014
The baby stone

The baby stone

Today, I received a message from a friend in Beirut, who recently visited Baalbek. When you arrive to that city, you will pass the ancient quarry, where you will see the largest stone that was ever cut by men. It is called Hajar al-Hibla, the “pregnant stone”. The owner of the nearby souvenir shop greeted my friend with the words that “the pregnant has delivered!”

What had happened? Archaeologists had been inspecting the site, when they discovered a small, straight stone edge. They investigated it, and soon discovered a “baby stone” that is probably even bigger than its mother. Hajar al-Hibla has a length of twenty meters and a height and width of 4½ meters, this one is 5 meters wide; its width is still unknown. No doubt, both stones were cut out for the nearby temple of Jupiter.

The photo above was sent to me by my friends at travel agency Libanva.

PS

Judith Weingarten reminds me of the unfinished obelisk attributed to Hatshepsut. It is 42 m long and 2.5-4.4 m wide. It is even bigger than the stones at Baalbek.


Syrian refugees in Lebanon

19 September 2013

Syrian refugees sit around a stove inside their tent during a winter storm in Zahle. The vast majority of the refugees are from the hard-hit provinces of Homs and Damascus. (c) Washington Post

This blog is on ancient history, but today, I make an exception. Those who have followed me over the past year and a half, know that I’ve been to Lebanon three times – and it is for this country modern that I ask your attention. (Next time, I will be blogging about some site in Gaul, some senator, or some Anatolian king again. Promise.)

According to last week’s UNHCR figures, about two million people from Syria have left their country. Some 720,000 people have been registered in Lebanon, a country with some four million inhabitants that already hosts some 400,000 Palestinian refugees. Because I cannot really understand what it means, I decided to ask Maya, who lives in the Bekaa valley in eastern Lebanon, some twenty kilometers from the Syrian border.

First two questions about numbers. 720,000 people is almost incredible. Do you believe that it is accurate?
When it comes to counting refugees, accuracy is always an issue. We have the non-registered, the registered, and the ones who come back and forth to Lebanon. But all in all, I think the number is much more than that. The number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon may be more than 900,000.

You live in Zahle. With some 50,000 inhabitants, it is the first major town a refugee from Damascus will visit. How many Syrians are there in your hometown?
In fact, the Bekaa Valley itself rather than Zahle, which is already on the slopes of the mountains, is the main destination for refugees. The valley is closer to the Syrian border, most refugees settle in Bekaa regions like Ghazzeh, Kabelias, Barelias, Majdel Anjar, Saadneyel, Marej, Taalabaya. Fewer Syrians settle in Zahle since it’s more expensive to live here; in the regions I mentioned the number of refugees is high because they can set up tents, something we rarely see in Zahle. Approximately 400,000 Syrians live in the Bekaa.

How are these people sheltered?
I think it’s important to keep in mind that Syrians from different social classes are settling in Lebanon. The rich Syrians settle mainly in Beirut, while the less fortunate settle in the Bekaa. Those who have a good financial status may choose Zahle and Chtaura, while others have no other choice than staying in tents or old buildings and garages.

Who is paying for that? Is it just the UNHCR?
Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, many NGOs gathered and united to help the refugees, many organizations cooperate in order to assist those people in need. NGOs are helping refugees by giving food vouchers, hygiene and baby kits, mattresses and blankets, stoves during wintertime, establishing toilets …. UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF, World Vision, ACF, DRC, NRC among others are highly contributing to the Syrians’ cry for help.

I recall that Zahle is a Christian town in a predominantly Shi’ite region. Does this mean you receive mostly Christian refugees?
I believe that this issue is hard to elaborate on since most refugees do not mention any personal religious details,  but I think we live in a zone where people have always preferred to live with people of the same religious background. I believe this is still applicable nowadays (each town contains people from the same religion), so I must say that refugees will choose to settle in regions where they would feel comfortable among people who share their religious beliefs. With religious conflicts arising in Lebanon and the Arab countries, refugees have to avoid such problems.

Are the new people in your town a very visible group? How did their presence change your lives?
I think that the main impact of the Syrian crisis on Lebanon is financial: we noticed an increase in prices of houses, rental fees, prices of food items … Still, we can’t associate this increase to the refugees only, because we have always experienced price changes in Lebanon; but the rate of the increase is getting bigger. Another main problem we are facing nowadays is the sense of insecurity of the Lebanese people. Refugees have no money, they lost everything they owned in Syria, and have nothing left to lose. This has made them consider stealing and begging as a way to make money.

Lebanon does not produce enough electricity for its needs. Blackouts are quite normal. Has this increased?
Blackouts are still occurring, there was and still is a great need. I don’t think demand should increase any further.

Is it only a tragedy? I can imagine that there must be people in Zahle, like the owner of a bakery or grocery, who must make lots of money right now.
People who are benefiting the most are land owners, landlords, and shop owners, especially those who are partnering with NGOs in order to exchange food vouchers with food items.

How do the Zahleans respond?
Lebanon always lacked tranquility, and Syria has had a great role in adding to that. Perhaps you have heard that a couple of years ago, Syrian tanks and military forces left Lebanese lands and went back to Syria. What most people don’t know, however, is what exactly happened prior to this retreat: how the Syrians mistreated the Lebanese people, harmed, killed, and took advantage of many things and people. It’s safe to say that the problems between Lebanese and Syrians go way back and lots of Lebanese citizens have suffered losses because of this dark period, in which the dominance of Syrian forces was inescapable.

For that reason, the Lebanese find it difficult to be welcoming, even though many refugees are innocent people. But after bloodshed, some things can’t be forgotten. Nevertheless, no problems were caused by Lebanese against Syrians, but the frustration is starting to show through people’s nagging about the great number of Syrians, the prices increase…

And most importantly, the Lebanese people themselves are getting no aid from NGOs yet many of them are in need as well, and they too are affected by the Syrian crisis. For example, Syrian people easily take jobs in Lebanon, especially as laborers. Since they accept lower wages than Lebanese people, this increases the unemployment rates in Lebanon and causes Lebanese citizens to get even more frustrated.

I was told that the situation was so difficult, that there some refugees were going back to Damascus. Is that true?
That’s true. There are two groups of them. Some of them go back because they find it hard to live in Lebanon, where everything is more expensive than Syria. (This might change shortly because an increase in prices is taking place in Syria.) Others go back and forth to check on their families, relatives, and possessions. After all, Syrian refugees never miss a chance to express their eagerness to go back to Syria and always wish things would go back as they were before the crisis began.

Thank you for answering these questions.

Last week, the UNHCR announced that their lack of funding was catastrophic. If you want to donate some money, you can do it here.


Lebanon, again

31 December 2012
Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

Beirut (in the distance) seen from Byblos

For the second time in less than a year, I had the privilege to visit Lebanon. Starting in Beirut, where we visited the splendid National Museum again, we embarked upon a very, very leisurely trip around. At the Nahr al-Kalb, we managed to reach the inscription of Nebuchadnezzar, which is covered by all kinds of vegetation, and will soon have disappeared.

Byblos, which I could not really appreciate during my earlier visit because I did not understand its stratigraphy, turned out to be a lot more accessible now that I knew what to expect. It was interesting to think where Wen Amun must have built his tent and where the king must have had his throne.

We proceeded to the Kadisha valley, which is the heartland of Maronite Christianity. Before entering it, we visited Amioun, Bziza, and Aïn Akrine, three sites with Roman temples. In Bsharre (the town of Kahlil Gibran), we climbed to a Phoenician tomb, and had lunch with a view of the snow-covered cedar trees.

Cedar tree

After this, we visited the Bekaa valley and Baalbek. Because we had started early and had slept in a hotel in the valley, we could arrive very early in the morning, and were almost the only people at the site, except for the guards. Returning to our hotel, we passed along Qsarnaba, Niha, and Nabi Ayla.

We also saw the Palestinian refugees who had been bombed away from Damascus – but this is not the place to write about those poor people, who most certainly did not deserve this.

Sidon

Next day, it was raining cats and dogs, but we were in Sidon, where we greatly enjoyed watching how the storm pushed the surf against the sea castle. Some of the waves must have been fifteen meters high and it was really spectacular. The same can be said of the lovely mosaics in the Beiteddin palace. The last place we visited in Beirut was the museum of the American University.

There was a bonus, though: our airplane was delayed and we were unable to catch the connecting flight in Istanbul. So, our trip lasted an additional day, and we saw a snow-covered Hagia Sophia and, in the archaeological museum, the royal sarcophagi from Sidon.

Beiteddin

Beiteddin

I cannot wait to go back to the only place in the world where you can listen to “o come let us adore him” and at the same time hear a mu’ezzin’s call for prayer. My Facebook photos are here and here; and today I added photos of the temples of Aïn Akrine, the rock tombs of Amioun, the Phoenician tomb at Bsharre, the sanctuary at Bziza, and the temple at Qsarnaba. Some older stuff from Lebanon is here.


Baalbek, Tyre, Belgrade

2 October 2012

Tyre, Al-Bass: Great Arch, probably dedicated to Hadrian.

Over the past months, I have traveled to Lebanon and along the Danube. I have put online quite a lot of stuff.

That’s it for today.

 


Nahr al-Kalb

30 April 2012

Reliefs of Ramesses II (left) and Esarhaddon (right).

In the thirteenth century BCE, the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II left three reliefs on the south bank of the Nahr al-Kalb, north of Beyrut, which commemorated the northern campaigns that culminated in the battle of Kadesh (1274). Several centuries later, the Assyrian king Esarhaddon conquered Egypt, and chose to put a memorial opposite the relief of Ramesses. Ever since, armies have left inscription at the Nahr al-Kalb, a custom known to Herodotus (more).

All in all, there are twenty-two inscriptions and two monuments, with texts in seven languages (Egyptian, Akkadian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, French, and English). Together, they give a nice overview of Lebanese history.

A complete overview is here (and an overview of all Lebanese posts on this blog is here).


Roman Beyrut

30 April 2012

Roman baths

I have now blogged about the new web pages about the Bekaa Valley and the Lebanon, about Niha, about Faqra, and about Machnaqa. There’s a lot more to be written – think of Baalbek, Byblus, Sidon, and Tyre – but for the moment, I will only add Beyrut.

We found it a lovely city, with two beautiful museums (the National Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the American University) and a couple of ancient ruins, which were not very special. Nevertheless, the city’s history is quite interesting, and some objects from the museums are really important.

My favorite is an amulet from the Louvre, in which many celestial beings are invoked to protect one Alexandra. Officially, she was Christian, so she mentions “the One who sits among two cherubs” and “the One God and His Christ”, but after that, we read about the seven lords of the seven heavens (Marmarioth, Uriel, Ael, Gabriel, Chael, Moriath, Chachth), the beings responsible for the weather (Riopha, Zonchar, Tebriel, Tobriel), the protectors of the sea and mountains (Suriel and Nuchael), the celestial dragon keeper Iathennuian, and a protector of the firmament named Chrara. So much for orthodoxy.

Two new webpages can be found here. Enjoy!


Faqra (Lebanon)

30 April 2012

The Small Altar at Faqra

One of the most spectacular sites we visited during our trip through Lebanon was Faqra. It is situated along the road from the coast to a ski resort with the same name.

When we visited the place, it was covered with snow.  It was the Easter Weekend (according to the Maronite calendar) and many people had a day off, which meant that they were snowboarding, picnicking, barbecuing, and even dancing at the place where – in the Summer – you would have crossed the mountain pass. To judge from the scarfs, Christians were not the only one enjoying a holiday.

Faqra itself consists of two parts. To the north of the road are four altars, to the south are two temples, dedicated to Adonis and Atargatis, and a church.

Eight small but new pages on the Livius website can be found here. Other recent pages are about the Bekaa Valley and the Lebanon, about Niha, and about Machnaqa.


Nihata

28 April 2012

The high priest Narkisos

Our visit to the temples of ancient Nihata (modern Niha) was one of the highlights of our visit to Lebanon. There are two sanctuaries, an oracle dedicated to the Syrian goddess Atargatis and a smaller shrine for Hadanares, who was comparable to the Baal-Zeus-Jupiter of Baalbek. There are two other temples, never finished, at nearby Hosn Niha.

The site must have been well-known, as it was situated along the main road from Antioch to the south: along the Orontes to Aleppo and Baalbek, and down to Tyre through the Bekaa valley. Many travelers must have seen the shrines of Nihata, and must have stayed there, as it is exactly one day from Baalbek.

My new webpages are here.


Lebanese Antiquities

12 April 2012
Photo Jona Lendering

The Great Temple of Niha

When we announced that we wanted to visit Lebanon, many people thought that we had gone mad. After all, when we in Holland read about the country of the ancient Phoenicians, it is usually because of some eruption of violence. And indeed, the last chapter of the Footprint Handbook for Lebanon is a depressing catalog of disasters.

Nevertheless, the country appears to have come to rest, and I think it is useful to write briefly about our too short holiday. We were not disappointed and have already decided to return. Lebanon has much to offer to tourists, and tourists – for example, the lovers of ancient history that read this little blog – may help the country overcome some of its traumas. I promise you: you will like it.

And related:


Lebanese Antiquities: A Nation Divided

12 April 2012

The Lebanese flag

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It’s a cliché, but Lebanon is indeed a country of minorities. There have been no censuses since 1932, but it is estimated that about ninety percent of the four million inhabitants are Lebanese Arabs. The remainder consists mainly of Palestinians, who settled in camps like Sabra and Shatila (southern Beirut) after 1948, and Armenians, who fled from the Ottoman Empire during the First World War and live mainly in eastern Beirut.

Tomb of the assassinated prime minister Hariri

Other divisions are religious. Generally speaking, the people of the coast and center are Christians, with the northern part of the country following the Sunnite Islam, and the eastern part (the Bekaa Valley) and the south being Shi’ite. This division is, however, misleading on three points.

In the first place, because these religious groups are divided into smaller groups: the Shi’ites in the deep south are ‘twelvers’ who are waiting for the return of the twelfth imam (among these Shi’ites, Hezbollah finds its supporters), while the Druzes in the central south are an unusual type of ‘seveners’. The Alawis are another offshoot of the sevener Shia. Christians can be subdivided into Maronites and Greek Orthodox, although we also saw a Melkite church.

Tyre; memorial for the Unifil soldiers who gave the last full measure of devotion

In the second place, the geographical division is not as smooth as it seems. For example, although the Bekaa Valley is mainly Shi’ite, the cities of Zahle and Chtaura are Christian. In the third place, some people are pious and orthodox and really define themselves in religious terms, while others are more secular.

So, there’s no denying that Lebanon is a divided country. And it still matters. A man we met in Beirut, presumably Christian, was surprised we had gone to Tyre (Shi’ite), where he had never been. He believed tourists could go there without fear, but he was clearly not interested in going there personally.

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Lebanese Antiquities: Travel

12 April 2012

Roadblock near Tyre

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As I said, the violence that so often attracts western attention, has come to an end. There are probably more people killed in Lebanese traffic, which is a nightmare indeed. It seems to be perfectly acceptable to have lunch while driving or to park your car on the right lane of the coastal highway. Incidental roadblocks do not add to easy travel. Of the places I have visited, only Tehran and Lahore resemble Lebanese chaos. On the other hand, if you make a mistake, no one is angry. The insulting gestures you will see over here in Amsterdam, are mercifully absent.

If you are not very confident of your skills as a driver, it is probably best to use a taxi. We rented a car, and the man who had to drive it, was also the man who was, every afternoon, most exhausted. Our agency was Avis, which has its Beirut office on the first floor of the Phoenicia Hotel; we very happy with the way they dealt with everything (more).

The beauty of the Lebanon Mountains: natural bridge near Kfardebian

We severely underestimated the Lebanon Mountain Range. The slopes are pretty steep, and in the first days of April, the passes are still closed. This made our visit to Faqra unforgettable – snow-covered Roman ruins! – but it was quite surprising that even good roads like those from Tripoli or Jounieh to Baalbek became inaccessible. High up the mountains, people were skiing, snowboarding, picnicking, and enjoying ourselves; nice for them, and an unexpected surprise for us.

A problem we were not able to solve was finding a really good map. Sometimes, towns were not indicated where they actually were, and the rendering of Arab words is not always identical to the transcription on the road signs. And speaking about road signs: they are never there when you need them most, which gives a certain urgency to finding a decent map. We found this the only real problem, and had to abandon our trip to Sfiré because we simply could not find our way through Tripoli.

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Lebanese Antiquities: Books

12 April 2012

A nice archaeological travel guide

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A good preparation is always useful, for every country, and Lebanon is no exception. In advance, we read Jessica Lee’s Footprint Handbook Lebanon. For someone interested in ancient history, it is quite unpleasant to see that the author confuses Antoninus and Antonius or Alexander Severus and Septimius Severus (to name but two mistakes) but it is a good book.

I also liked Le Liban. De la Préhistoire à l’Antiquité by Guillaume Gernez and Ingrid Périssé-Valéro, which is an archaeological account of the country, with many photos. Had it contained more maps, it would have been perfect, but it was still an extremely useful book. It was recommended to us by the friendly lady of the Librarie El Bourj, a very nice bookshop in the An-Nahar building west of the Place des Martyrs. It has many books on archaeology in stock.

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Lebanese Antiquities: What to see

12 April 2012
Photo Jona Lendering

The cella of the Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

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The main ancient monument in Lebanon is, of course, Baalbek. The temple of Bacchus is bigger and better preserved than the Parthenon in Athens; the temple of Baal-Zeus-Jupiter next to it must have been one of the largest shrines of the ancient world (after the Egyptian temples, of course).

National Museum

Beirut is a very modern city, which is currently being rebuilt, so don’t expect too much of the ancient ruins. This is the place to be if you like modern architecture. Still, it has two of the best museums in the Middle East: the National Museum and the Archaeological Museum of the American University.

We loved the Roman ruins of Faqra and Machnaqa, but were unable to visit Yanouh, Afqa, and Sfiré. The Roman temples at Niha were splendid – do not forget to go into the cellar of the great temple.

Photo Jona Lendering

The Crusader Castle of Byblus

To the north, there is Byblus, which has been inhabited for thousands of years. You can see Neolithic and Chalcolithic buildings, temples from the Bronze Age, Phoenician royal tombs, a Persian terrace, Greek and Roman structures, a mosque, a perfectly preserved Crusader castle and ditto church, and so on. If you go up north from Beirut, do not forget to visit the reliefs at the Nahr al-Kalb, where about every army has left an inscription – from Ramesses II to the Lebanese army that forced out the Israeli troops in 2000.

Photo Jona Lendering

Remains Tyre’s Crusader church, with pillars from the Temple of Melqart

I really loved Tyre, which offers two big excavations. At Al-Bass, there’s a hippodrome and a large necropolis, while at Al-Mina, you will see the remains of the city itself. Here are also the remains of a Crusader church, which is more or less on the place of the ancient temple of Melqart.

This was only a selection. If you want to see all sights mentioned by Guillaume Gernez and Ingrid Périssé-Valéro, you will need about two weeks.

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Lebanese Antiquities: Other

12 April 2012

A modestly dressed woman in Beirut's modern Al-Amine Mosque

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We encountered some problems with ATMs, but could not establish the cause. It never became a real obstacle, but I think it is useful to take some cash with you as well. Dollars are accepted everywhere. Western Union appears to have offices in even the remotest villages.

I do not want to say something unkind about the people of Syria, Jordan, or Egypt, but there is no denying that over there, western women attract a lot of unpleasant attention. Nothing of that kind will happen in Lebanon, although a scarf is required in a mosque.

Beirut's Pigeon Rocks

To sum up: travel is not always easy in Lebanon, but it has a great potential for tourism, and there is very much to be seen. However, the most important thing we learned is that the Lebanese are, easily, the friendliest people in the Near East. I have already decided to return next year, with a group, and can recommend a visit to everyone.

(If you understand Dutch, you can read my travel notes here.)

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