Beirut, Lebanon

Perhaps you think we're mad to go to Lebanon, or perhaps you're from Beirut and think people are crazy not to visit? Well, Beirut has always been somewhere I have wanted go  but to be honest I wasn't considering it on this trip until Abdul encouraged us. We squeezed Lebanon onto our trip to Syria and Jordan, and so only spent two days there; but it was enough  time to know we should go back.

On the Corniche in Beirut, there was an Evangelical American woman giving out free bibles nearby - crazy!
View along the coast

In the summer it's all about the coast, trendy beach clubs and bars which are rated and touted as the latest thing in the European press. Beirut seems to be constantly rediscovered or revealed these days. But we were here in March, and the "scene" was subdued. At Byblos, where we stopped at the legendary Pepe's for lunch (a haunt of the Jet Set in the 1960's) the locals seemed surprised to see foreigners, "Come back in the season" they told us cheerfully.

I'm not sure if I'd like the season, a little too much glitz perhaps. Large sections of central Beirut are dedicated to shopping. There's a lot of 'flash' among the restoration and rebuilding. Large malls filled with designer shops catering to Gulf tourists and wealthy locals. There are a lot of expensive handbags sold in Beirut! It's  a contrast to Damascus where we didn't see the familiar brands being touted or sold.

But the glitz is sometimes skin deep, while there may be glossy retail space on the ground floor, when you look up the building may still be unfinished or still displaying damage from the war. Our hotel room looked out on unrestored office block below.
Opposite our hotel
In the newly restored downtown area you can understand why Beirut was dubbed the Paris of the Middle East. The buildings glow. Built from  a warm caramel stone, reminiscent of the Cotswold villages outside of Oxford, they shelter sidewalk cafes, and perhaps the most elegant McDonalds I have ever seen. It even rivals the McDonalds in Delhi, where a doorman opens the door and ushers you into the air conditioned cool.

In the photos below you can see the 'before and after' restoration work which gives you an idea of the extent of the war damage throughout the downtown area. The amount of money that has been spent in the restoration is extraordinary, but as you can see from the photos, on the day we visited the streets were almost empty.

A closer look at the contrast

They are still repairing and resorting the downtown
You can see the French influence in the architecture

It was almost empty when we visited

Pavement cafes and an Art Deco clock tower

Alameen Mosque, where Rafik Hariri is buried
I loved visiting the National Museum in Beirut, which has a wonderful pillared, Neo-Assyrian, Art Deco exterior. It has been beautifully restored, and the collection was courageously hidden during the war years. The lighting and the presentation of the art work and sculpture was very good as you can see in the photos below. I was particularly interested in several small Phoenicians figurines (see below) which were no more than six inches high. 

The Phoenicians  have always seemed like one of those fictive groups to me, perhaps the people that founded Atlantis? It's because when I was in Zimbabwe, I read that colonial Rhodesian scholars, and politicians, claimed that Africans could not have built Great Zimbabwe, and that it was built by the Phoenicians! Of course the Phoenician civilization was much earlier, and their influences never extended anywhere near Matabeleland where the local people constructed  their city at Great Zimbabwe.

National Museum, Beirut

For me, it was lovely to see these Phoenician artifacts in their proper context, claiming their own place in history, rather than being used to displace someone else's.
I loved these small Phoenician figures

So many beautiful things to see

We headed  to Byblos for lunch. It  has some of the charm of the Cote d'Azur, without the crowds; a modest,  well situated village with wonderful views down the coast towards Beirut. It's a good place to stop for lunch, check out the fort and look at the fossils they excavate locally.

The coast at Byblos, you can see how evocative it is of the French riviera

View from Byblos - back towards Beirut


Belletje said…
Your pictures are amazing, what a dream to be able to travel to all these places!

ryc - Thanks for the suggestions. Who would've thought Gillian Anderson on BBC!