Probably the best way of traveling around Lebanon is by hiring a driver for the day and getting enough people to fill up a sedan and split the cost. Last Saturday we did just that for a trip to the Bekaa Valley, which is nestled against the Syrian border.
After finally freeing ourselves of the oppressive Beirut traffic, we found ourselves on the open road surrounded by mountain ranges on each side. As we weaved between cars on the road with Arabic music playing, I realized that I was actually cruising through Lebanon of all places and what an adventure we were on.
Our first stop was Baalbeck, which is renowned for its historic ruins that are larger and more majestic than any others in Lebanon. We first stopped by a Roman rock quarry that boasts the world’s largest rock, which had been cut out as a giant altar in the Temple of Jupiter, but was never moved. The quarry’s custodian is a local man who thought that it should be protected and not used as the town’s landfill, as it was at the time. He would open up bags of trash, find something with somebody’s name on it and deliver the trash back to these homes, asking them to stop depositing it in the ancient quarry. He is glad to tell his story, will pour you some Arabic coffee, and has a pretty respectable souvenir shop. From there, we went to the ruins of Baalbeck, which were more magnificent than anything we had expected. The diameter of the fallen columns of the Temple of Jupiter is bigger than my wingspan, and the “little temple” of Bacchus, which is essentially intact, is bigger than the Parthenon in Athens. It is a wonder that such a behemoth and such a work of beauty was constructed essentially in the middle of nowhere.
From there, we traveled to Ksara winery, which is the most famous winery in Lebanon. Jesuit monks founded the winery in 1857, and its most distinctive feature is a system of caves that extend for three kilometers where they keep their wine barrels. We went up to their bar for a free tasting, toured the caves, and bought a half-bottle of one of their red blends. We trust that we can find further bottles in our friendly neighborhood stores.
Our day concluded with a trip to Aanjar, which had originally been a Byzantine city, but was absorbed by the Umayyads, which was the first great Arab dynasty after the initial Muslim conquests. It was not as magnificent as Baalbeck, but it was in a quiet setting surrounded by mountain ranges, and the whole place was ours to discover and scramble over. It was also intriguing to see how seamlessly the Umayyads recycled Byzantine architecture, including a pillar we found on which the original Greek text and an inscription of the cross were still intact.
We continue to do well in the bustle of Beirut, even finding a coffee shop where we have decided to be regulars. However, we miss the freedom to drive ourselves and cook our meals, while random longings for things such as Waffle House, Chick-fil-A, and open space for ultimate Frisbee haunt us. However, the opportunity to explore a country of rich history and culture and the chance to learn more about Middle Eastern churches and Christian-Muslim relations are invaluable. Melinda and I are having conversations and considering ideas that we would not have had two months ago, so we know that we are learning a great deal. We look forward to learning more, though an American hamburger would be awesome in the meanwhile.