Dropped off literally on the side of the interstate by the bus, I wasn’t really sure we’d ever find the ruins and old town of Byblos. We wove our way through the new town until we spotted the remains of the large Crusader castle, which then led us to the old town of Byblos. Tossed between the Phoenicians, Romans, and Crusaders, Byblos has developed a long and rich history, attested to by the ruins remaining in the city today. These ruins, combined with the rambling alleyways, old tan-stone homes, and blossoming trees tucked here and there throughout the old market, transport the visitor away from the noise of modern Lebanon. We roamed through the Crusader castle, saw our first Lebanese cedars, and took in the stunning view of four Roman columns in front of the cerulean sea for quite some time. I simply loved it.
This is now our second full week of classes, and it goes well. The introductory Islam class is proving incredibly educative, particularly since we are reading (a translation) of the Life of the Apostle. This book, written roughly 100 years after the death of Muhammad (d.632), attempts to compile the various narratives about the life and actions of Muhammad. I have been intrigued by the author/compiler’s concern to place Muhammad in the monotheistic and prophetic line of the Old and New Testaments. Like many Christian apologists arguing that prophetic words of the Old Testament point to Christ, Muslim apologists have historically also used the Old Testament (and New) to point out prophetic material pointing to Muhammad. It really is fascinating. I look forward to exploring more primary source materials.
Outside of NEST, we continue our somewhat torturous Arabic lessons. I must note that I did successfully say “I would like two beers, please” in Arabic and actually get the result I wanted. That’s really the extent of my skill. I have also managed to “insult” one of the professors here. We had been kidding at lunch one afternoon about the very proper way to say the beginning of his last name- Awwad. I mean, it’s not that hard, but the vowel is a little different from English. The next day I tried it again, and my pronunciation of the vowel was off just enough that, instead of “Awwad,” I managed to say “cross-eyed.” We had a nice laugh.
We remained in Beirut this past weekend, touring the really nice National Museum on Saturday and attending an Assyrian Church service with our Eastern Churches class on Sunday. Nathan and I both found the service fascinating, despite our inability to understand the Syriac language. The priest, attired in gorgeous ivory vestments with gold and red embroidery, led the service, which seemed to mostly focus on the Eucharist. Incense and chanting by the priest and a “choir” of young women appareled in burgundy pervaded the service, and, as in many Orthodox Churches, for a time a curtain closed between the nave and the altar area to symbolize the doors of the kingdom. Punctuating the service, latecomers would walk to the front of the church, kiss a gemmed cross, and accept the peace via a sort of handshake from the choir members. As is the church’s custom, we were invited to partake of the elements with the other believers, provided the women in the group donned a headscarf. Standing in line with all these other believers waiting for the bread, a sense of the oneness of the church overwhelmed me, and I was again reminded that “we are all beggars” when it comes to grace. No one has special standing, no one has one “right” way to worship- we are all God’s children, coming to him with open hands and hearts to receive anew God’s incomprehensible grace.
From Beirut, where the interstates have no traffic lanes, the motorbikes go any direction they please on any road, and the taxi rides leave me needing an Advil but feeling a bit thrilled,