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Friday, June 4, 2010

Baalbek Sunset, Sunrise

Yesterday we went to the ruins at Aanjar, remains of an Arab civilization called the Umayyads. It was a city built around 700 AD that flourished for only a few decades because the Umayyads were conquered by other Arabs. We had a really nice guide who added a lot of perspective -- I have noticed all of the guides seems to be older gentlemen and theorize this is because if no tourists come, you just sit around and talk with your buddies all day. It's amazing how empty most of these sites are.

The Umayyads were ruling from Damascus, so Aanjar was just one of their cities. The guide said their empire even stretched to Granada, so it reminded me of my time in Southern Spain and made me feel like I am starting to connect the dots from my travels.

The brochure from Aanjar is one of the best I've ever picked up at a historical site. It calls the Umayyads "early recyclers" because they helped themselves to ruins from Roman and Byzantine civilizations. This is evident in the fact one of the columns in the palace area is dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Latin. I think the defeat of the Umayyad dynasty and the rise of the other Arab group may have had something to do with the split between the Shiites and Sunnis over the successor of Mohammed, but it was not completely clear, and sometimes my questions just confuse the guides.

We tasted wine at a winery called Ksara, which was started by Jesuits and is now owned by Lebanese businessmen. The neatest part are the ancient caves, which were rediscovered at some point in the 1800s and are a perfect environment for storing wine. They told us Lebanese wine production benefitted greatly from the time the nation spent under the French mandate. Naturally I bought a few bottles, which may be consumed before we make it home! I took notes of the ones I liked most and will be curious to see what we can find at home.

Lunch was in Zahle, known as "the bride of the Bekka Valley." We had schwarma, which are basically meat wraps. It had lamb, onion, mint and tomatoes, drizzled with a tasty sauce. Chamoun also got us a fried chickpea one, but I could only eat a few bites because I was so full from the lamb.

We arrived at Baalbek around 3 p.m. and checked into the historic Palmyra Hotel, a colonial-era relic that has hosted a number of famous guests. Their photos line the walls, along with black and white snapshots of the ruins and drawings by Jean Cocteau. I need to Google him, but I guess he is a notable French artist; his work reminded me a wee bit of Picasso and Dali, so I assume he was a contemporary. The manager, who has worked there since 1955, told us Charles de Gaulle spent three years living in room 30 during WWII when his troops were camped nearby. I would not recommend staying there if you have a low tolerance for dust, but I absolutely loved it. Our room overlooked the ruins, and we had both dinner and breakfast on a nice balcony off an enormous upstairs living area. We practically had the whole place to ourselves.

Baalbek is home to some of the largest and best preserved Roman ruins in the world. It was a site for sun worship in Phonecian times, and when the Greeks conquered the area, they named it Heliopolis (city of the sun). Construction on the Roman temple began in 60 BC, and what I found most interesting about the site is the way it demonstrates the shift in the Roman empire from polythiesm to Christianity. There are three temples -- Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus. The guide pointed out several spots where you can see how work was unfinished, for example, a relief of Cupid never fully carved because the beliefs had changed. The columns of Jupiter, the largest temple, are the biggest columns in the world, but only six remain standing. The Bacchus temple is the best preserved, and even though it is smaller than Jupiter, it is actually larger than the Parthenon. We spent about an hour after the tour just sitting around marveling at it all and enjoying the fact we were own our own time and didn't have to hop back on some tour bus.

Had a few "Lebanese moments" (to quote Neil's Aunt Jackie) when we were waiting to cross the street to the hotel and saw a succession of four beat-up old Mercedes drive by with women wearing head scarves. Contrast later that evening when we saw two women, one with curly blond hair, driving a new red BMW with the top down.

One thing that amuses me is the way some businesses seem to use English words in their name to add class and panache. My favorites so far were Jewelry Florida and Barbie shoes. It is precious to see the little kids staring at us, and after I say "hello," they say "what's your name?" or something else they've learned in school. We are grateful French is still used for greetings and casual conversation, since I can say "bonjour" and "merci" much better than their Arabic or Lebanese equivalents.

Today we are driving over a mountain pass to arrive at the Cedars, a popular ski resort near the Qadisha Valley. We had a low tire this morning, which worried Chamoun a bit since it is Friday and many stores are closed for the Muslim holy day. As we tried to find a tire shop, Chamoun said, "Frank, your job looking left and right, see if anyone open." They determined there isn't a hole, so we aired it up and hit the road again.

Just made a quick pit stop at a monastery run by some rogue nuns who broke with the local Maronite bishop and literally built their own convent. Girl power! Chamoun knows them and promised they wouldn't mind the drop-in visit. It's even better than Quincy!

Better stop typing before I get car sick!

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