Archive for the ‘Traveling in the Levant’ Category

October 24, 25, 26

Except for reading Queen Noor’s book a few years ago, I never knew anything about Jordan. Turns out, it’s action central in the Middle East, and has been critical to events here for the last hundred years. I’m sitting at a resort in Aqaba, on the Red Sea.  Israel and Egypt are clearly visible across the narrow water. The border of Saudi Arabia is 5 km from our front door. Jordan also borders Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, far up in the Northwest.

The Arab independence movement, led by Emir Faisal, his brother Abdullah and helped by TE Lawrence (as documented in Lawrence of Arabia) drove from Aqaba to Damascus during WWI, driving out the Ottoman Empire from the region. Their expectation from this effort, which helped the British in the War since the Ottomans were allied with Germany, was a free Arab nation “an Arab war, waged and led by Arabs for an Arab aim in Arabia” (Lawrence.) But there were many conflicting interests. Some land went to  Abdullah, but France and Britain became protectors of the rest of the Middle East, and the Balfour Declaration (1917) announced Britain’s support  for the eventual formation of a Jewish Homeland in Palestine.

Abdullah became king of Jordan when it was declared independent  in 1948. He was assassinated in 1951, then  succeeded after two years by his grandson King Hussein, who ruled until 1999. Hussein was a remarkable leader, who managed to stay neutral between the US and Russia, and who looked for compromises for the Palestine-Israeli situation during his rule.  In the 50’s, he suggested that the Muslim countries accept the Israel borders and declare peace. the other countries accused him of being an agent of Britain and refused. He allowed Palestinians to become full citizens of Jordan – the only Muslim country in the Middle East to do that.

Hussein was succeeded by his son Abdullah when he died in 1999. There are large pictures of the two of them everywhere.


There are a couple of really interesting things here. Jerash is the best example of a Roman city in the Middle East – preserved by the desert climate. The most fun, by far, was the Dead Sea. We stayed at a resort and were able to swim – or maybe float is a better word.  The Dead Sea is the lowest level body of water in the world. It’s salinity is nine times that of the ocean, so nothing can live in it, but everything floats in it! As you walk out, you can feel the buoyancy.  It’s important to float on your back, and not splash, to make sure no water gets in your eyes or mouth. But then, when its time to stop and go back in it’s virtually impossible to stand up. Like a turtle on its back, you keep struggling to get upright, then just roll back into position.

Petra is an amazing site – a canyon that snakes downhill for 4 km, its walls studded with amazing carvings of columns, animals and ancient religious icons. It’s heyday was the last 500 years BC, when the Nabateans used it as a burial site for their upper class, building the carvings and clever tunnels to divert and store water. The walls are striated with red, black and beige, and light plays dramatically down the narrow canyon. Fabulous!

Comments from Jordanians

–       [On Syria]  Over the years, Syrians were not to be trusted. There was a huge change when Fayez Assad died. He was only interested in the military, so technically they were way behind.  Bashir wants to build infrastructure, and has done much to bring the country up to date. Ten years ago, if a Jordanian went to Syria, sometimes he would never come back. You don’t hear about that anymore.

–       [On the First Gulf War] Saddam Hussein was in a difficult situation. There had    been an agreement among the Arab states on the cost of oil and Kuwait had undercut that. Saddam Hussein called the prince of Kuwait and asked him to stop underselling; the prince said no. Within 6 hours Iraqi troops occupied Kuwait. King Hussein of Jordan was trying to convince Saddam to withdraw, but Saudi Arabia convinced the US to come in. Kuwait gave money to Gorbachev/USSR to prevent them from getting involved, or from putting pressure on the US.

–       [What does Jordan want for Iraq today] They want peace. In general, Saddam Hussein was not popular in Jordan, but it is generally agreed that Iraqis need a strong leader. Hussein was such a person. It is not a country that would do well in a democracy.

–       [On women covering] The issue is not whether to wear a head covering or not. Covering the hair is a must for an Islamic woman.  The issue is whether the face and hands should be covered.  About 70 % of the imams interpret the Koran to say that only the hair need be covered.


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October 18 – 22

These days are a heady mix of historic sites  (including mosques, churches and ruins,) observations of Aleppo (Aleppo DIY,) and conversations with local people.  The area covered is North to the border of Turkey, and West to the Mediterranean.

Historic Sites

As in the rest of the country, the historic sites are many and significant. A unique perspective is to consider them by the historical date of their prominence, rather than as the journey led us.

Ebla Ruins (c 2000 BC) Ebla was one of the most powerful city-states in Syria in the late third millennium BC, controlling most of northwestern Syria until it was sacked (~2250 BC,)  rising again briefly, until the Hittites came in 1600 BC. Most interestingly it lay undiscovered for centuries, until a farmer found a statue in 1955. Italian teams, under the archeologist Paul Metier, have been digging since then. Some 60 or so were actually on site when we arrived, brushing carefully, sifting dirt through leather baskets. It was fascinating to watch them – unfortunately, a few minutes after we came their day ended (10:30AM) and they were gone in a few minutes, buzzing away on motorbikes. It is thought that this area had a formal language since 5000 BC. Over 15,000 clay tablets have been unearthed in a Sumerian dialect, providing information on economics, local administration, and dictionaries of other languages.

Ugarit (c 1800 BC) Once the most important city on the Mediterranean coast, Ugarit is considered the birthplace of one of the world’s earliest alphabets, and the world’s first international port. Evidence suggests that a settlement here was trading with Cyprus and Mesopotamia in the 3rd millennium BC. In 2000-1800 BC Ugarit traded with Egypt, exporting timber and bronze. Ugarit became wealthy and innovative during this period; wealthy houses had piped water systems and drainage. The alphabet developed here was a huge improvement on cuneiform and hieroglyphics, both of which used hundreds of pictorial images. The Ugarit language consisted of 30 letters that represented sounds. Additionally, the first use of written music correlated with words (a musical score) was found here. Like Ebla, this area had been undiscovered until an accidental find in 1928.

Maalula (c 325 AD) A very early site of the Christian church, this is the only place in the world where the Aramaic language (the language of Christ) is still spoken. In the church of St.Sergius (and early Christian martyr) we heard the Lord’s Prayer spoken in Aramaic. There are some fabulous icons in the church. In addition, on this site another early Christian, St. Thecla, was being chased by Roman soldiers. Legend has it that the rock was struck by lightening and a cleft appeared through which she escaped. The cleft is still there, now lit by electric lights and dotted with trash. [The day we come here, bands are playing and young girls stand on the stairs to the church holding flowers. Alas, it is not for us, but for Bashir Assad who is scheduled to come by with Hugo Chavez, on a visit from Venzuela. Rosemary and Liz stand on the balcony while Audrey and Nancy prowl the streets below, getting in a good position for photos. We wait for almost an hour, but they don’t appear, so we finally leave. What a shame to miss them!!]

Hama (c 600 AD) Another ancient city that likely dates back to the Neolithic Age, then held by the Assyrians, Greeks, Romans, etc. The Romans built a series of water wheels (Noria) on the Orontes river – some are 20 M tall, and still operate in the summer. Most recently, Hama was the site of the 1982 massacre of 10,000-25,000 people. The Muslim Brotherhood (which had been declared illegal since a 1980 assassination attempt on Hafez Assad, father of the current president,) had removed the Ba’athist (Assad’s party) leaders fro town and declared it to be free of the Assad government. Within a month, the government began shelling the city and said that anyone who remained would be killed. Most of the city was destroyed along with many mosques, churches and historic sites. Somehow, in spite of this sad story, we manage to find an old shop where linens are made by hand, and we all buy some.

Mosaic Museum at Maarat Al-Numan (c 600-700 AD) An absolutely wonderful collection of mosaics from the floors of homes of the “Dead Cities,” clusters of now deserted Byzantine towns from the 5th and 6th century. In addition to the abstract and floral patterns, there are many depictions of animals: running, nursing, attacking and killing other animals. According to our guide, all of these animals were found in the area, And included elephants, lions, tigers, and leopards. Enchanting!

Aleppo Citadel and Krac des Chevaliers (c 1100-1200 AD) One of the most important stories of this region is that of the coming of the crusaders and their century reign before being chased out by Saladdin and others. The Citadel in Aleppo stands on a high mound in the southeastern part of the city. The first fortifications were probably built on this site in the 3rd century BC, but its most important use was as a power base for the Muslims during Crusades. It was never conquered by the crusaders. Not so the Krac des Chevaliers, built originally by the emir of Homs in 1031. This castle stands high in the mountains and could control the flow of goods from the Mediterranean to inland Syria. It was first attacked by the crusaders in 1099, and they remained in power there until 1271. During this time the castle was enlarged by the Knights Hospitaller into what has been called the “finest castle in the world (T.E. Lawrence.) At it’s peak, 2000 people were garrisoned there, along with their horses. It is in great shape, and the significant rooms are identifiable and interesting.

Aleppo DIY

Aleppo is a jewel – a center of commerce since Roman times and a key stop on the silk route, as it is positioned between the Euphrates and the Mediterranean – and it is still vital and interesting today. We spend lots of time in the old souks –  hundreds of shops  on covered cobblestoned alleys snake around the old mosque, and still the place to shop for the locals.  There are spices, textiles, brocades, gold and silver, carpets and….soap.  This region is famous for its olive oil soap, which comes in various qualities – the best being good enough to use as shampoo. There are huge towers of the bars in the soap shops. Using it takes some getting used to – it’s greenish brown, and looks that way until it’s rinsed off. The souks are crowded and exciting. Several of the shops we go into give us tea to drink (in hopes that we’ll buy something, and we often do.) Along the narrow lanes we often have to hunker against buildings as donkey carts and minivans go by.

To the Northwest is the Christian section, and here is the real action of the city. There are shops doing metal making (a cacophony of sounds on that street), roasting vegetables, making bread (one baker tosses Rosemary a large flatbread which she has to bounce in her hands a few times to let it cool enough that she can hold it), making pizza, making ice.  The streets here are also filled with people. Most interesting are the many women in black abiyahs – often with sheer black veils completely covering their faces and black gloves.

People are generally OK with having their pictures taken, but one man says no to Rosemary, then takes her picture with his phone and shows it to her.

The drives around Aleppo are also informative. The country is very dry (the water supply in the country has dropped 50% in the last 6 years, and the desert is encroaching quickly in the north.) There are thousands of pistachio trees (which don’t appear to be irrigated) and olive trees. Along the Mediterranean coast are many high rise apartments that appear to be only partially completed, but yet are already partly occupied – so there will be a row of empty cement windows, then a couple that are painted, have curtains and windows and laundry hanging out, then more empty ones. Strange. Audrey says she has seen the same in Egypt.

Comments from Syrians

Syria has been worrisome. People say constantly that they don’t know or care about politics, but a few share comments:

–       The increased number of women with head covering comes from the increase in poverty and in religious extremism.

–       Syria has ~1 million Palestinians and 1 million Iraqis. The Palestinians are mostly poor, yet will not take the lowest paying jobs. The Iraqis are mostly rich, but are still a burden on the country.

–       If we’re not careful, we’ll be like Lebanon.

–       A man tells the story of a Palestinian friend. In 1948, when he was six, he was loaded onto a train and told by the Israeli’s that they were taking them away to protect them from the Arabs, and that they would return shortly. He was shipped to Aleppo. His mother had been taken off at an earlier city and it was a year until they were reunited. Some Palestinians still keep the keys to their homes after 60 years.

–       One very intelligent, well-spoken Syrian explained that he hates the Israelis. He sometimes is forced to deal with them in business and cannot bring himself to do it. He understands that he is probably wrong to feel this way, and he hopes the next generation is better, but he himself cannot change.

–       Today’s Syria is going backwards in terms of education for women. Theoretically education is mandatory to the 9th grade, but many poor people never even register the birth of their children, and then never send the girls to school at all.

–       Now we are opened to tourists, so it has become a problem that many non-tourists can come in to the country. But, we know who they are, we follow them. [How do you know who they are?] It’s not my business. Security does.

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October 14, 2010

When we arrive in Damascus, we have a guide. She has lived many years in the US where her husband worked for a US company. She is the daughter of a Christian mother from Czechoslovakia and a Muslim father (this sort of mixed background is very common in these countries), has two teenage sons, and knows world politics, electronics, lots of modern culture, US TV shows, etc. She’s a delight. She is covered – a head wrap covered by a long scarf, and wears long sleeve shirt and a long skirt, with walking shoes. She has an itinerary that she tries to make us maintain, and it is a relief to relax and leave that to her while we focus on trying to disrupt it to take pictures.

Damascus is different from what we have experienced in Lebanon. The people are much more friendly; as in Iran they constantly stop us to ask where we are from, they all have a relative somewhere in the US, follow US sports. They are proud that it is a safe country. Our guide, in fact, does not like to travel to Lebanon because it is so dangerous, with its many militaries lining the streets and the constant danger of uprisings. There is no visible military presence here, and the people seem to feel safer for that.

But this peace comes at a price. The country is a dictatorship. Hafez al-Assad was president for 30 years of bloody and tight-fisted rule, and when he died in 2000, his son Bashir took over. There is hope that Bashir may introduce reforms, but none are yet evident.

At our first dinner in Damascus we met with the man who owns the tour agency that set up our trip. It was a continuation of our education in the perspectives of the area on the forces that are at the root of the conflicts here. He is a wealthy, well-educated, well-connected man, with multiple business interests. He is a Christian whose wife is part German. (10% of Syrians are Christian.) He complains that Syria is constantly thwarted by the US, which won’t let any companies sell to Syria, and prevents other countries from doing so. He explains to us that it should be clear that 9-11 was executed by a hi-tech group, and could not have been engineered by Al Qaeda, who do not have enough education. This is not a wild conspiracy theory in Syria, it is accepted. Nancy, who lives in Abu Dhabi, UAE, says it is also accepted as truth there.

The first full day in Damascus is spent seeing monuments. It’s an ancient city, so there are many, and they are, to be fair, interesting.  St. Paul was struck blind, converted to Christianity and given his sight back in Damascus. His church is here. The Umayyad Mosque is Syria’s most important mosque and second only to Mecca and Medina in importance. The site was originally a pagan temple dedicated to Hadad then Jupiter. Under Constantine, it became Christian, and then, in 636, the Muslims converted part of it to a mosque. Interestingly, for ~ 70 years both Christians and Muslims continued to use different parts of the building for worship, entering at the same gate, just heading different directions. Finally, though, in 708 Caliph al-Walid (head of Damascus) tossed out the Christians and built a really impressive mosque with wonderful mosaics and a huge courtyard modeled after the one in Medina.  It has survived for 1200 years in spite of successive invasions, Mongol sackings, earthquakes and fires. We wander around here for a time. It is filled with people – some tourists, but many families in the closed area and also the courtyard, some praying, some just watching their children run around.  We go to the Azem palace (home of the Caliphs and really quite posh) and then to the tomb of Saladdin (scourge of the crusaders). The Historical Museum of Damascus has the original alphabet of Ugarit (the first Cuneiform alphabet) and the first written musical text, with notes and words recorded next to each other.

By mid afternoon we have seen a church, a mountain top vista, a mosque, a palace  and a museum. A rebellion is building among the troops, and we turn on our poor guide. She finally takes us to a covered bazaar adjacent to the mosque, where we see a man selling fruit juice from a 5 foot silver pitcher attached to his body (he pours by tipping himself at the waist – two sizes of plastic cups are held in stacks on his belt and he sings as he does it. Next is an ice cream shop – a man is making ice cream balls with his hands – he mixes the cream and sugar in a large bowl set in dirt and ice – then tosses each ball into a container, where it’s dipped in nuts and put in a cone and sold immediately – the lines are long. The market is filled with families with dress from all over the Middle East and beyond. Many are from Iran – you can tell them by the long black abiyahs the women wear;  we see one Emirati family with a nanny for each child.  The bazaar is filled with life, people to talk with, places to shop and wonderful people to photograph.

October 15, 2010

We leave Damascus much too soon to go to Palmyra. The drive is interesting – we make only one stop – at the “Baghdad Café Rt. 66,” a Turkish chain filled with Syrian Tchotchkes, clothes for Audrey to try on. We’re able to get a Diet Pepsi so all are happy. On the road, we make the driver stop at a road sign on the highway telling the distance to Baghdad. The driver is worried – last time he did this the police held the group for three hours asking questions. Somehow we get away without that.

Palmyra was a huge city of great historical importance. There is an Agora, a colonnaded street, a theater, temples. baths and burial sites. New discoveries are still occurring. The sheer quality and quantity of these ruins, from eras covering thousands of years, attracts archeologists from all over the world. But not us.

October 16, 2010

Today we drive to Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria at 1.7M and site of fabulous souks (markets.) The plan is to see three sites on the way, but another rebellion breaks out as we plot a way to avoid another day of walking in the hot desert seeing rocks. We manage to cut out several sites. The drive is all desert: small Bedouin towns, a few sheep and camels. When a town appears, it appears as beige squares sandwiched between the endless flat beige of the desert floor and the haze of the sky.

Along the road we see the Raqa Market– a couple of acres of makeshift tents – so we stop. Limes, olives (huge bags) cucumbers, squash, eggplants, rugs, fabrics, plastic furniture, sheep, goats, chickens. Typical. The women are all covered – wearing black scarves and heavy black coats in the hot desert sun. Young girls work with their mothers to shop or to sell, while the boys run free. Unfortunately, it is starting to shut down for the day.

A man begins to follow us, making sure no one bothers us. When we go to the Euphrates River an hour or so later he gets out of his car to tell us about it. Then, when we stop for lunch, he is there again. Our guide explains later that he is “security” to make sure we are not hassled by anyone.

The guide tells us a wonderful story about the people of Homs, a nearby city. When the Mongols came through and sacked a town (in the 9th century) they would kill everyone, then stack the bodies at the city gate. In Homs, before the invaders showed up, the whole population put their clothes on backwards, their sandals on the wrong feet, and walked around babbling nonsense. The Mongol general took one look at them and decided he couldn’t kill such a ridiculous people and rode on.  Still today, the word “Homsy” means someone who is crazy.


October 17, 2010

The perspectives of the people we are meeting here are so far afield from what we know that it is dizzying, and we spend much of our time talking about them. Our guide is Moslem. She did not cover until her children began to be old enough to notice, and she decided that she wanted to be consistent with what she was trying to teach them. They were living in the US at the time. She explains that there were a series of prophets, Adam, Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed. Mohammed was the last one, and there will be no more.

When we broached the subject of the unopposed elections in Syria, she explained that she believes that the US system is pretty much the same. There is a power base (that she refers to as “they”) which is deciding who will be President, then using the two party system as a process to do it.

Liz and Nancy had a fascinating conversation today with the Archdeacon of the Armenian Church in the Christian corner of town. He is a young man (30-35), serious and intense, who gave us a tour of the church. There are about 50,000 Armenian Christians in Aleppo, 2% of the population. Armenian Christianity is the “true way” because Armenia was the first country to officially adopt Christianity (in 301 AD.) I said, “I never knew that.” He stared at me for a moment and then replied, “Now you do.” The head of the church is called the “Catholicus.” There is no relation between the Armenian church and the Roman Catholic church (he was almost offended at the question.) There were several monuments to the Armenians slaughtered by the Turks in 1915, and he went on to explain that the Turks really don’t have a culture. They have only existed for about 600 years, and didn’t even develop their own alphabet, whereas the Armenians have a 3000 year history. Fascinating!

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October 10, 2010

It’s finally the muezzin that does it. I’ve been awake for a couple of hours, hoping that the last molecules of ambien will pull me back into sleep, when the nasal chant begins, floating through the window at 5 AM.

Over a city that seemed as unremarkable last night as any of the score I’ve come into after a 24-hour airplane/airport odyssey. I had expected scarred buildings, burned out hulks, curfew-deserted streets to comprise Beirut. For the years of my young adulthood this was the center of Middle East troubles, where every small community had hunkered down to fight the next one, and the major religions and countries of the world fueled the violence with money, arms and troops, sacrificing a country and generations of its people. Yet it was plain and dull as we drove through.

We met the driver last night. He’s from Syria, doesn’t particularly know Lebanon, doesn’t particularly speak English. At breakfast, Jim and Audrey and I plan our two days here, since we have no guide. It’s a rough start for Audrey, who had to deal with a bathroom festooned with peeling paint. When she called to complain they told her that it was due to be fixed in a few weeks. We settle down to plans – today in Beirut, historical areas in the morning, current city sights in the afternoon – and then go meet Fayez with guidebooks and maps in hand. It was a hoot.

Fayez: “Do you want to see a museum?”

Jim, Liz, Audrey: “No, we want you to drop us off on Rue Weygand near the Souks Project. Then in three hours pick us up on Rue Gerard near the Place des Martyrs.”

F: “Maybe you want to see Corniche. It is lovely. Mediterranean Sea. Right there.”

J, L, A: “Ummh, no. Can you just take us to the al-Omari Mosque?”

F: “Maybe you want to drive out of Beirut, to Baalbek?”

J, L, A: (more slowly now): No. Drive to Rue Weygand.” (This is the main street of town.)

F: “Rue Weygand? I don’t know it.”

L: Holding up the map. “Here, see it here.”

F: “I’m sorry M’am, I don’t know map of Beirut. I don’t read English.”

L: “Then just take us to the AL. OMARI. MOSQUE.”

Fayez gets out of the car to ask directions, then comes back and begins to drive confidently.

A: “Is it close?”

F: “No, it’s open I think.”

Fayez drops us off at the Al Amin Mosque (almost the right one) which is like a small version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Liz and Audrey don long black abiyahs and scarves and wait for an important male visitor to leave before we can go in. We spend the next hours seeing the sites listed in the Guide. St. George’s Cathedral (the actual spot, it turns out, where he slew the dragon) is a Maronite church dating back to the Crusades, cardo maximus is the ruins of a Roman era market, and, at last, the Al Omari mosque, built in the 12th century by crusaders as the Church of St. John the Baptist. It is mostly memorable for the special black robes that Audrey and Liz wear – pointed hoods here that make them homesick for the witchery of Christine O’Donnell.

The downtown itself is newly rebuilt since the Civil War (1975-1992.) The Place d’Etoile and the newly rebuilt Beirut Souks, (reminiscent of Paris and Rodeo Drive) are brand new, beautifully architected high end stores and restaurants, standing virtually empty in the hot sunshine. When Fayez picks us up again, we want to see something more real, reflective of the city today. We drive to the area around the fancy new Phoenician Intercontinental, where a clutch of burned out buildings remain – most notably the old Holiday Inn – floor upon floor of empty cement rooms and garages, riddled with bullet holes.

October 12, 2010

Byblos (Jbail locally) lies 1 ½ hours up the Mediterranean Coast. It is a real wonder! Dating from ~6000 BC (!) it has been occupied by 17 different civilizations, including the Phoenicians, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Amorites, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Muslims, Crusaders and French. There are relics from all of these periods, over 8000 years: kitchen tools, weapons, storage jars used to bury the dead, temples and royal tombs. The relationship with Egypt was especially strong, exporting Cedar and importing papyrus. The linear alphabet, the most significant invention of the Phoenicians, was developed here during this period as a more practical way to record trade transactions than cuneiform script.

Most of this history of Byblos was unknown until, in 1860, a Frenchman found some Roman artifacts. An intense effort of excavation took place in the 1920’s, displacing many homes and digging 18 m down to lay bare all of these eras. In addition to sarcophagi that showed the first use of the alphabet and statuary of kings were remnants of houses, and six sets of walls around the small town, going outward as successive eras took place. Fascinating!

After we returned to Beirut we visited the American University of Beirut (AUB), particularly interesting to Liz since her father was involved in construction there in the ‘60’s. It has a lovely location on the Mediterranean. The buildings are all new – it was completely rebuilt after the Civil War. The campus is heavily guarded by the army and identification was required enter the gate and walk around.

October 13, 2010

We begin our drive out of Beirut at ~ 10AM to find the city at a standstill – military everywhere tanks on the street, helicopters overhead. Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is coming to town today. By 10:45 we are still circling packed roads trying to find a way out; we finally break clear after 11 and drive to Baalbek.

The area around Baalbek has been populated since c 4000BC with people trying to raise families and make a living on the shores of the Litani and Al-Aasi rivers. Alas, it was at the center of two major trade routes, so the Phoenicians came to rule it in the 3rd M BC. Around the 1st M BC, they built a temple to Baal. Worshippers of Baal and his sister Anith were bloodthirsty and licentious; prostitution of young girls was practiced in the temple, making raising a family riskier.

Several hundred years later Alexander the Great drove out the Phoenicians and renamed the city Heliopolis. The Baalbekians had to become “Greek” until Julius Caesar came through in 47 BC to found a Roman colony named after his daughter Julia. It became the premier Roman city in the Middle East and a major center of paganism centered around a colossal temple to Jupiter which was built over 200 years by 100,000 slaves. The Baalbekians became Roman pagans.

In 324 AD, Constantine the Great became emperor, paganism was suppressed, the emples were turned into Basilicas and Christianity grew, at least until 361 when Julian the Apostate took the throne. Basilicas were reconverted to temples. Those who had turned Christian were punished, young Christian girls were made temple prostitutes and many were martyred. Paganism rebounded, until 379 when Theodosius took the throne of Rome and the tide reverted again to Christianity. Most of the Baalbekians, still trying to raise their families and stay out of trouble, became Christian; the few that didn’t were forced by Justinian in 527 to be baptized. To make it emphatic, he ordered the temple torn down and the large temple stones shipped out of town.

The city was safely Christian until Arabs invaded and many became Muslim. Despite this acquiescence, there was a long period of invasions, sackings, lootings and devastation by Arabs and, in 1000, by the Mongolian Tamerlaine. Eventually the Ottomans came and chased everyone else away. They stayed in power until WWI when Lebanon became a French protectorate.

The ruins of Baalbek are testimony to much of the history of this last 6000 years and all the glorious powers that ruled. Meanwhile, the local people continue to try to raise their children, make a living, and keep their heads down.


The military are everywhere in Beirut. The soldiers are serious, constantly watching, and they carry weapons.

About 25% of women are covered – the percentage is higher outside Beirut. Interestingly, at AUB, the covered students wore the same tight jeans and tight shirts as the other women, hung around with them (they seemed totally mixed,) just happened to be wearing tight scarves that covered their hair and neck.

There is a lack of confidence in Lebanon, and most young people are trying to leave. Currently there are 4M Lebanese in the country and 18 M living outside of it. Most of them left in the early years of the 20th century, and many of them live in Brazil. In the book store at AUB there were t-shirts for sale that said “Future Ex-Pat” and “In-Transit.”

There are signs in English everywhere, and many US chains: Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Applebee’s, etc.

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We leave for Lebanon tomorrow. I finished packing. After a lot of angst, I decided to go with a large duffle bag rather than two smaller suitcases. The duffle is 38 pounds, not too bad. I am using a roller camera bag and it is 25 pounds! I am trying to figure how what major item I forgot.

There are six of us on the trip. Folks are coming and going all the time. Audrey Stein will fly with us from Paris to Beirut. She will be on the Lebanon and Syria portions of the trip, departing the our first day in Jordan. Nancy Williams and Carl Sardegna will meet us in Damascus. We hope. Carl is having an extremely difficult time getting a visa. Time is running out. Getting a Syrian visa in the US was no problem; a few days, tops. Carl is getting his (or not getting his) in Abu Dabai. Carl should be with us through the Syrian part of the trip. Rosemary Cook joins us in Aleppo. Rosemary, Nancy, Liz, and I all depart on October 29 from Jordan.

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