Thursday, November 30, 2006

North And South

Thanks to the small size of the country I've been able to use Beirut as a base to explore both the north south of the country. Tripoli is the second city of Lebanon as well as an ancient Phoenician port (actually, all the major towns here in Lebanon were Phoenician towns originally). It has the standard neat, little old quarter, khans and citadel, although a fair number of buildings in the city centre are still gutted and empty after the war. Not the recent Israeli conflict, but the civil war when Syrian forces shelled PLO forces that had fortified themselves in the old town. Trying to understand the Lebanese civil war is causing me a bit of a headache due to the many different factions and their constant changing of allegiances. But for me Tripoli was just a stepping stone on the way to the gorgeous Qadisha valley. The fairytale canyon with its picturesque villages and many churches and monasteries have made the impregnable gorge the stronghold for the powerful Maronite community. At the head of the gorge is a stand of old Lebanese cedars, the emblem of the nation, and one of the few that are left after widespread logging in ancient times (just goes to show that deforestation isn't a new phenomenon). Beside the cedars is one of Lebanon's prime ski resorts, and possibly one of the only places in the world where the pistes have a sea view. But once you get down into the valley proper then you are away from the roads and cars, and apart from a solitary electricity line that snakes through the valley it's almost as if the last thousand years never happened. The few farms that dot the vertiginous slopes eke out their living on thin strips of terraced land and the monasteries are usually cut into natural grottos in the cliff faces. But the most magical for me was the lack of people that allowed me to see the changing of colours as the coming Autumn harvests another crop of leaves from the trees.

In the south, balancing Tripoli to the north, lies the city of Tyre. Also a Phoenician port and boasting the world's largest and best-preserved Roman hippodrome in the world (though, frankly, there must not be much competition). Partly thanks to its Roman ruins that confer it UNESCO status, and partly thanks to the human shield effect of the many journalists that were staying there, Tyre was largely spared in the recent conflict. The same could not be said of the surrounding locale. Many bridges and motorways, with no obvious military importance, were targetted making transport between regions difficult (work has begun on reconstruction but transport is still disrupted), raising the thought that the aim of Israeli army could certainly be improved. That sentiment would certainly be echoed by the residents of Qana. 10 years ago 102 civilians sheltering in a UN camp were killed by Israeli tank shells, the site has become a memorial and one of the buildings that was hit has been left exactly as it was after the attack (though minus the randomly scattered body-parts). There's even a man who seems to permanently loiter around the site to guide people around, show them a truly gruesome collection of photos from the event and sell CDs of other "Israeli massacres" (I drew the line there though). And now this year the unlucky village was struck again by a precision bomb that killed at least 28 people in a single building. Though what I found odd whilst travelling through the south (though admittedly I didn't see that much) was the fact that, despite this being the Hezbollah heartland, there were far fewer posters of Nasrallah or yellow flags on display than in Syria (though they were still there, along with the odd picture of Khomeini as well). Maybe most ordinary Lebanese are tired of war and would perhaps like a little peace for a change? And that made me think of a famous saying here: "Syria will fight Israel until the very last Lebanese."

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Fighting The Press

One would think that, given the recent political situation in the country and the fact that late November really isn't high season for tourists, finding accomodation would be the least of my worries. However I am experiencing stiff competition for bedspace from journalists. Actually, that's not quite true. Proper journalists stay in hotels that are beyond my meagre means. Instead I am getting the squeeze from a more insalubrious breed: wannabe journalists.

Budget accomodation options in Tyre and Beirut are now packed with these odd specimens of humanity. They are easy to recognise by their Hezbollah T-shirts (their idea of trying to blend in I suppose) and their pseudo-intellectual conversations about world and Lebanese politics because they think that having read a book on the subject (usually the Ladybird guide to Lebanese politics) they are peerless experts on the topic. Nevermind that even politically aware locals have trouble following the convoluted histories and changes of allegiance of their own political parties. Some of these "journalists" actually do write for a living (though often for obscure publications such as the Buffalo Springs Socialist Workers' Weekly) and those that don't spend their time bombarding newspapers back home with spam demanding publication and press cards. I had a bit of a laugh this morning when two particularly zealous individuals got a tip-off that there would be a Hezbollah demonstration in town ... at 5 o'clock in the morning. So these two clowns stayed up all night so as not to miss the impending spectacle. Just listening to their plans on how to stay awake throughout the night, which mainly consisted of trying to find a pharmacy that would sell them some "uppers" or, failing that, getting a nutmeg (which has mild hallucinogenic properties) to chew on, was comedy enough, but seeing them passed out this morning after the inevitable no-show was just honey.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Two B's

Things have calmed down a bit on the streets of Lebanon and so I've taken advantage of this lull to explore some of the country's ancient ruins (because who knows when things might get "interesting" again). The most famous are undoubtedly those at Baalbeck. The town was already important before the Romans arrived on the scene, but they just went crazy and started building the largest temple complex in their empire I say started because after 200 years of building they didn't manage to finish. Not that you'd be able to tell from what remains, but what there is is truly monumental. There are only six columns left from the main temple of Jupiter yet they are all you need to feel as small as an ant. Standing at 22m and with a diameter of over 2m they are the largest in the world. Everything about the place is colossal, including the simple building blocks that make up the temple base. Just down the road is the quarry that was used by the Romans which still contains the largest cut stone in the world (unsurprisingly no-one has moved the 1000 tonne giant since then), providing me with another superlative to add to my list and a great photo opportunity to boot.

The other place I absolutely had to see was Jbail, more commonly known by the name the Greeks called it by: Byblos. In the second millennium B.C. it was the principle Phoenician city, having grown rich from the trade of cedar wood to Egypt and papyrus to Greece. It was from this close relationship with Egyptian culture that heiroglyphs were transformed from complex symbols that represented words to simple signs for individual letters. So, for example, the heiroglyphic symbols for ox and house (alep and beit respectively in the Phoenician language) were transformed into the first two letters of the Phoenician writing system, the precursor to almost every alphabet in use today, from our Latin script to the seemingly unrelated Khmer script of Cambodia. Unfortunately you have to dig deep into your reserves of imagination to picture what must have been a magnificent city with a gorgeous view over the sea. But being the bookish nerd that I am I didn't care as I paid my respects to one of the greatest inventions in history.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Interesting Times

The Chinese have a saying: may you live in interesting times. It sounds nice but is actually meant as a curse. It wasn't until these past few days that I got an inkling as to what that really means. Lebanon is certainly experiencing interesting times, and I am certainly experiencing disruptions. Since Pierre Gemayel was gunned down in his car a few days ago the country has ground to a bit of a standstill as three days of national mourning were announced (yesterday was Lebanese Independence Day as well, adding to the general non-activity) causing most shops and museums to close and reducing public transport. The only activity that has gone on unabated has been the erection of posters of Gemayel that have sprung up all over town, to join those of Rafiq Hariri and several other politicians who were all assassinated last year. This means that it is very difficult for me to get anything done on the tourist, or bureaucratic (I've been trying to get a visa but the embassy will be closed until next week), fronts. Add to that the fact that the downtown headquarters of the Phalangist party, to which Gemayel belonged, is right across the street from my hotel, meaning that since Tuesday there have been noisy demonstrations well into the night and frequent checkpoints in the neighbourhood. At least I was close to the demonstration and funeral ceremony that took place today in downtown Beirut when tens of thousands of Lebanese turned up to protest at the assassination and perceived Syrian meddling in their politics. It has, however, been reassuring to see that the protests passed off in an atmosphere of peace and calm, because such a protest, with open criticism of the government, would never be allowed in other Arab countries. Let's just hope that they have had enough with demonstrating for the time being and get back to running the buses and opening tourist sites tomorrow (and perhaps letting me get some seep tonight)!

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Culture Shock

During my time travelling, especially here in Asia, I've grown used to seeing poverty, filthy cities, litter everywhere, open sewers, buying food from stree-sellers, dodgy sanitary conditions and the prospect of showers only once a fortnight. Which is why Beirut has been such a culture shock to me. As you descend down the steep slopes of the Mount Lebanon range you see the metropolis spread below, nestled in a bay on the eastern Mediterranean and you imagine it could be a city on the French or Italian Riviera. As you get closer the impression is reinforced by the sleek cars, luxury apartments, broad, uncluttered pavements and outlets of large Western shops. Walking around the immaculately restored downtown area I almost thought the past two years were but a dream: Starbucks, Armani, Virgin Megastore, and many more. Browsing amongst the trendy youngsters, sporting the latest trendy clothing (well, I'm assuming they're the latest trends, though not having been home I can't be sure), sipping lattes and listening to hip-hop the only indication of being in the Middle East, apart from the increased presence of security forces, was the fact that with your coffee you could also get a nargileh (water pipe).

The calm image of peace was shattered today with the assassination of a prominent anti-Syrian politician. I wasn't in Beirut when it happened, but coming back by bus the streets were unusually jammed and the centre was cordonned off, in places with burning fires, and people were gathering in the streets waving flags and chanting (though in a peaceful and responsible manner). Hopefully this will not herald anything worse for this country that has already suffered too much.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

And Now...

...for something completely different. Sorry, dear readers, for waxing political of late. It must be something in the water. But I promise that this post will be a completely politics-free zone. At least I'll give it a try.

The monastery of Mar Musa (Saint Moses) is hidden away in the mountains northeast of Damascus. The place was abandonned about 150 years ago and largely forgotten about until an Italian monk stumbled across it some years back and decided to restore it to a functioning monastery. There are perhaps half a dozen monks and one can just pop in and stay with them for free in the relaxing surroundings, spend some time reading, contemplating and going for walks, and all that you are required to do in return is help out with the day-to-day work of the place. Some people stay for weeks, but two days were enough for me. Not that the experience wasn't pleasant, I had fun talking to the many Syrian Christians that come during the weekend for mass and also doing some Bible reading. Don't worry, I'm not likely to convert, but I think it's an important book to read as it forms the basis of much of our culture, and plus I am in the region where many of the events took place, and so it would give me a greater appreciation of the importance of places I visit. I only read the first 150-odd pages and was surprised by the content: a lot of begatting, and an incredible amount of detail on animal sacrifices (perhaps 20 pages). It seems that the early Jews had to sacrifice animals for pretty much every occasion; I'm surprised they had enough food for themselves. (Hmm, I think I might have failed in making my post apolitical.)

Anyway, that was my last place in Syria, and tomorrow I am off to Lebanon. It's a country I'm looking forward to visiting as I've heard so much about it from Syrians and other travellers, and because it's a bit of an exception in the Arab world being much more liberal than its peers (I've been told that Gulf Arabs come here to be able to do the partying and drinking that they are unable to do at home). Add to that a strong French influence that has lasted until today and it's supposed to be quite an exciting and cosmopolitan place.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Unresolved Resolutions

During the course of my trip I've developed a rather morbid obsession for the less dignified episodes in recent history: the secret jails of Argentina's Dirty War, Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan, Nagorny Karabakh, and the treatment of Kurds (pretty much everywhere) to name but a few. Not because I find them exciting or sexy, but because my generation in the West has no experience or contact with such events. Instead we are fed glamourised films where handsome heroes cut down battalions of faceless baddies before getting the girl, or 8 page newspaper supplements with maps and troop movements shown in big red arrows and sensitised 3-minute news slots. That's not real, it's just numbers on paper, and if the TV story upsets you there's no need to worry as the next story is about David Beckham's foot. When we hear about casualties and conflicts in far away lands our minds might perhaps react, but not our hearts, because we do not know these people, we cannot see these people, we don't understand these people. They are nameless, faceless, voiceless. And that's dangerous, as, when conflicts do arise, we end up regarding them as soap operas to be avidly followed, rather than tragedies of endless suffering that they are.

And that is why, whilst here in Damascus, I went to visit the Golan Heights. Well, more like the Golan Lows really. The area, which belongs to Syria, was captured by the Israelis during the Six-Day War of '67 due to its strategic importance as the Heights overlook all of northern Israel. Most of the area captured then is still occupied, although a thin sliver of land was returned and is under UN administration, although a couple of Security council resolutions explicitly call for the handing back of the Heights, which everyone seems to agree belong to Syria. (It almost happened though there were niggling differences over borders and so the deal fell through, and since then the Israeli stance has become less accomodating for a compromise. Technically the two sides are still at war.) Before handing back the little piece of land, the Israelis drove out the inhabitants, gutted the buildings of anything useful, and then sent in bulldozers to flatten them all (please note, however, that I have found articles suggesting that the town was ruined during Arab-Israeli fighting, aminly through Arab bombardment, but like many facts relating to the situation it's difficult to get objective and reliable facts). Since then the UN controlled ruins of Quneitra have become an icon for the hard-nosed, merciless attitude of the Israeli army. The destruction is pretty complete as you wander the streets (only the streets, mind you, as there are many UXOs around the site) under the watchful gaze of a Syrian intelligence officer, who shows you where you can walk and what you are allowed to photograph, and an Israeli military post on the opposite hilltop, bristling with antennae to listen in on their neighbours. The Golan has also become a symbol for the hypocrisy and double-standards of the West, as Israel openly flouts UN Security Council resolution 242 that stipulates that Israel must withdraw from the Golan (with Yitzhak Rabin, Israel's PM in the early 90's, going so far as to say: "withdrawal from the Golan is unthinkable, even in times of peace") without a peep from Western diplomats, whilst Syria gets scathing criticism for its support for Hezbollah, which the vast majority of Syrians see as a legitimate resistance movement. Such demonistaion of countries can only lead to their further radicalisation and is ultimately counter-productive.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Old Town

Damascus is often touted as the worlld's oldest continually inhabited city. Although it's a hard claim to prove (or disprove) history certainly permeates the narrow, windy lanes of the walled old town; and nowhere is this more apparent than at the spectacularUmayyad mosque, constructed when Damascus was perhaps the most important city in the world as the capital of the first Muslim empire that, at its peak, stretched from Spain to India. Built on the site of a former Byzantine cathedral, which itself was built on the site of a temple of zeus, which in turn was built on a temple of Hadad (an Aramaean deity), the mosque incorporates many pre-Islamic features. The central nave looks unmistakably like a church, the walls and columns include recycled Roman masonry and the walls are covered with golden, Greek-style, mosaics. There is even a shrine to John the Baptist, supposedly containing his head, within the main hall of the mosque making it a very important pilgrimage site for Christians, and Shi'ites, not to be outdone, come flocking to the shrine of Imam Hussein tucked away in a corner of the courtyard. A truly ecumenical place of worship, which captures the spirit of the old town where the Christian community is very visible and well-integrated, accounting for about a third of the population, and there is at least one church for every denomination (Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic, Anglican ...).

The old town souq is also regarded as one of the best in the Middle East, but I find it difficult to view shopping as a leisure activity. I try to only enter shops when I have something specific to buy, and then it's only a quick in-and-out affair, hopefully before any assistants can notice me and try and ensorcel me into buying crap I don't need (though I do make an exception for bookshops where I could happily spend a whole day leafing through musty tomes). Instead I preferred to winkle out the hidden architectural gems such as the Ottoman khans (travellers inns) with their characteristic balck and white banding, or ornately carved wooden balconies that span entire alleyways, or the tranquil courtyard of an old Damascene house with its shady orange trees, or even the odd Roman column that has made its way into a shop front. And so I stand contemplating for a while until a near-miss from a murderous taxi breaks the reverie and hauls me back to the present and the imminent task of surviving the lethal Syrian traffic.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Dead Cities

A friend of mine was very excited that I was going to Syria as he had always wanted to visit, imagining it to be a country of broad, yellow vistas. A bit strange as my friend is from Iran where they have deserts aplenty. Either way, he might be surprised if he were to visit the western part of the country which is lush and green. The Orontes valley, where I have been spending the last few days, used to be the breadbasket of the eastern Byzantine empire, and it's easy to see why from the rich, ochre soil. For some reason much of the area was abandoned with the advent of Islam. And so entire Byzantine farm towns now dot the landscape in remarkably good states of preservation. It is easy to imagine the thriving communities that once lived here, made prosperous by the trade in olive oil. Some of the buildings have withstood the past 15 centuries so well that modern-day resettlers have moved right back into them. Actually, in the one and a half millennia since their construction it seems as if construction techniques have regressed considerably: whereas the old buildings are made of large, limestone blocks, precisely cut, making mortar unnecessary, today's efforts look horribly slapdash and shoddy by comparison. At least the main economic activity hasn't changed much in the same period and olive trees grow amongst the more decrepit ruins. It being harvest time now many families are out collecting the olives with large plastic sheets spread out beneath the trees. Seeing as I like olives I thought I'd do a little harvesting of my own, until I bit into a fresh one and discovered that olives need to first be treated with sodium hydroxide before they can be eaten, otherwise they are horribly bitter. It just goes to show how eclectic an education travelling is.

Since the dead cities, as these remains are collectively called, are rather out of the way, getting to them is a bit of an adventure in itself and is half the fun of a day pottering amongst the ruins. After a couple of changes of bus the closest I could get by public transport was 13km from the sites I wanted to visit. And so, ruing the fact that I had overslept, I shouldered my bag and started jogging towards my goal. I needn't have been so fearful of the time as, Syrian hospitality being what it is, you barely need to stick out your hand and you will be picked up by a passing car ... or tractor. So I eventually made it out to one of the dead cities where I stumbled across a coachload of Syrians out on a day-trip from the Aleppo archaeological society who adopted me for the afternoon and used me to practice their English. Not that they needed that much practice, being members of the intelligentsia many were educated, or have family, abroad. One girl even had two brothers living in Scotland and she could put on a far thicker Weegie accent than I. And so, despite my inauspicious start, the day was quite a success and has reaffirmed my travelling mantra: don't worry, it'll all work out in the end.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Under Siege

These past few I have been on the Syrian coast not doing much. It would be convenient to say that I've been lounging on the beach (though not likely as it is rocky and not particularly inviting); or kicking back amid the olive groves that deck the mountains that rise straight out of the sea; or even that I've been taking advantage of the more liberal attitudes of the area (there are large Christian and Alawi minorities here) to get down and party. But, alas, the reason is far more prosaic: it has been pissing it down almost non-stop. As far as I can ascertain the Arabic for rain is shitty, and as far as I'm concerned they're absolutely right. Not only does it cause transport difficulties with flooded carriageways, but prancing about castle ruins becomes altogether less appetising when it means you will get cold and wet. Nonetheless some prancing has accomplished (in between long bouts of standing under eaves waiting for gaps in the unrelenting rain). And I am glad because the castles round this neck of the woods are amongst the finest in the world. And I do not say that lightly coming, as I do, from castle country. The fascinating thing about these castles is that they date from a famous episode in history: these are crusader castles.

Although in the West the Crusades are known to most people, the details, more often than not, are hazy. Many people picture gallant knights, feats of heroism and chivalry in the face of barbarian hordes. The Arabs, however, view the Crusaders as a bunch of hooligans who were spoiling for a fight. Personally I think the Arab point of view might be closer to the truth. At the time the Arab civilisation was more advanced than the European and they were altogether more tolerant of Christians. For almost 200 years the Crusaders battled to obtain, and hold, a thin strip of littoral stretching from Sinai to Antioch and including the holy city of Jerusalem. Initially they were quite successful, setting up several kingdoms and principalities and building a score of formidable fortresses to defend their positions. The ingenuity and skill with which these monuments to military engineering were built are perhaps the greatest testament of the crusading knights, surpassing anything I have seen in Europe. This is seen most notably with the castles of Krak des Chevalliers and Saone (now called Qal'at Salah El-Din). Indeed, even T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia) felt compelled to call Krak "the most wholly admirable castle in the world." (To see some pictures have a look at the following site, as I'm having problems attaching pictures to my posts.) But finally, due in large part to their lack of numbers, the Crusaders were driven out by the Islamic forces of Saladin and the Mameluks. During their time in control the Crusaders didn't do a very good job at winning the hearts and minds of the locals. Muslim towns were regularly put to the sword and even Christians weren't spared as on one famous occasion the 4th Crusade swung past Constantinople en route to the Levant and did a bit of looting there too. One of the lowest points in Crusader history occurred at the town of Al Ma'ara where, after the usual siege and subsequent massacre of locals, the knights, disappointed at not finding any food, proceeded to eat the bodies of the dead Muslims. So bad was the conduct of the knights that the biggest hero to emerge from the Crusades, even for Christians of the time, was Saladin.

It is due to images like these that Western politicians (by which I mean American politicians) should be more circumspect when using the term crusade, for in the Arab world the term is far from positive. And, if I may make an observation, in today's political world it seems to me that the history of the Crusades is repeating itself. But this time it is the jihadist fundamentalist Muslims (al Qaeda et al.) that are doing the crusading. Their holy lands are occupied by infidels; perhaps not militarily, but certainly politically and economically. Their worldview is blinkered and archaic whereas the West is generally more accepting of differences among people. And the way they are waging their war they do not seem to care about innocent casualties, even amongst people who they claim to be fighting for. OK, that same reproach can be levelled at the West, but still, two out of three. Though this comparison might seem strange at first sight at least, if history really does repeat itself, it is optimistic. Because in the end the Crusaders were comprehensively beaten. But not only that, the Crusades ushered in an age of increased contact between the Christian and Islamic worlds from which the Christian world benefited greatly: we would have had no Renaissance (and the subsequent advances in science and technology) without the Arabs. Once can only hope that this current period of turmoil between the cultures will end as well (though I could do without it taking 200 years!).

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Bride Of The Desert

In the middle of the Syrian desert is a large oasis, and although tarmac roads and the motor car put paid to the camel train in this part of the world some time ago, 2000 years ago this oasis and its city of Palmyra were strategically important on trade routes between the Parthian and the Greek and Roman empires. Although initially a simple, Roman vassal outpost Palmyra quickly grew in wealth and independence and eventually, in the late 3rd century under queen Zenobia, not only revolted against Roman rule, but also tried to rival it. They didn't do too badly, managing to conquer Egypt and getting as far as Antioch before the Romans pushed them back and taught them a lesson by sacking the city. And although Palmyra limped on as a town after that it never got close to regaining its former greatness. Luckily for us the dry, desert conditions preserved much of the site so that it is not hard for one to imagine what once was as you stroll down the main thoroughfare, still lined with 15m columns, for 1km; or as you stand in the shadow of the temple of Ba'al, dwarfed by the huge stone blocks that make up its immense walls; or even as you pass through the 5m high door of the agora. There is grandeur here on a colossal scale. Yet despite that it was something altogether more life-sized, and life-like, that marked me the most.

Outside the city walls extends another city, a city for the dead. And in this necropolis people were not buried individually, as is the general custom today, but instead families would build towers for the dead. These towers would be arranged somewhat like beehives, with niches, called loculi, in which to place the dead bodies much like the cells in which bees store their honey. And when a cell is full of honey it is sealed up with wax, and so too with the Palmyrenes, except they did not use wax but instead used a stele with the carved bust of the deceased. So now it is possible to walk through the Palmyra museum (for the stela no longer grace the tombs as they would be prime targets for grave-robbers) you see row upon row of faces: old and young, men and women, each unique, individual, staring back at you through the millennia. Such intimate contact with people long departed makes you wonder about the lives they led, the troubles they had, the joys they experienced. It is very haunting to realise that, in a strange way, they have achieved a sort of immortality.