A first cultural approach to a complex country. Christmas time and Prophet Muhammad's birthday 20 km from the Syrian border.
"Two years ago it wouldn't have been possible to imagine anything like this."
We are in Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley in Eastern Lebanon. I had been invited spontaneously to a guided tour to this area which has been inaccessible to tourists in previous years and which keeps having security issues.
One of the most fertile regions of the country, it has been suffering for years from conflicts and tensions. The only thing one usually hears from this region is terrorist bombings, kidnapping and security problems due to the war in neighboring Syria. So, for me to go there was not initially planned.
But besides these sad and shocking incidents Bekaa Valley is also host of one of the most impressive archeological sites and cultural heritage of humankind - Baalbek. So I did some serious investigations and finally decided that it was safe enough and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to go there (especially remembering Palmyra).
I am traveling with three professors from Switzerland and Lebanon and a very experienced guide. She will bring us to the famous and stunning roman excavations of Baalbek.
But first of all, we start our day with Manoush... mhhh (man'oushe bi zaatar). And this is how they are made:
At our arrival local people welcome us with dates and cheerful music, it is Mohammed's birthday and the ambiance is very festive. (in the picture you see Lebanese scouts and behind them the scouts flag)
At our first stop the quarry of the ancient construction site, Abdul welcomes us with a warm smile and a welcome coffee:
And this is his territory, Hajjar Al-Hibla and this spectacularly huge stone of which nobody knows for sure, how it could be made and transported:
We continue our exploratory tour to the main site. Definitely one of the most beautiful archeological sites I have every visited. And there are no 3-hours queues as you would have them in Rome:) Stopping taking pictures was really difficult, some of my coups de coeur:
I felt very small, young and kind of a short term-product...
After our four hours visit of the endless temples and detailed explanations of our guide and surprisingly - lots of information panels in German (as a German team had done the first work on the site a 100 years ago) we sit down for a moment on a broken column of one of the temples. We can hear from one side the prayers of a muezzin in the nearby mosque while from the other side we can still here the Arabic version of Jingle Bells and O Tannenbaum.
A very confusing feeling, this fusion of muezzin melodies, American Christmas, German excavations and Greek-Roman cultural heritage, surrounded by beautiful mountains looking like Jura with snow cover (behind which the Syrian war is still ongoing) and Lebanese cedars.
"That is a clear sign that tensions have been decreasing, it wouldn't have been possible, not even imaginable to play Jingle Bells here still two years ago, actually even one year ago", says our guide.
Hope is in the air.
By the way, there is an amazing cultural festival taking place on the site every summer, good reason to come back....: