The Lebanon has always been a friendly place, a haven of calm amid the storms of the surrounding countries. The unfortunate civil war, that raged for 16 years, was most untypical and we can be thankful that it now appears to be over and the Lebanese are well on the way to rebuilding their shattered country.
The Lebanon is a tiny country and the visitor will probably find that he can most conveniently see everything in the course of day-trips from Beirut, which has the advantage of being fairly centrally placed, blessed with a comfortable climate and provided with a wide range of hotels, from the merest hostel to the utmost luxury. If you wish to book ahead, our travel agent in the Middle East, Dakkak Tours will be happy to help.
Travel in the Lebanon is most conveniently done in a hired car. The roads are good, the traffic is no more mad than anywhere else in the Middle East, and charges are reasonable. On the other hand, the locals are not always friendly and on a recent trip, when we filmed the video Solomon's Kingdom we twice had our tyres slashed by people seeking opportunity to rob us. It may, in the long run, prove cheaper to hire a taxi by the day.
There is a very simple technique to surviving Beirut traffic (which applies in many other countries where the rules of the road are regarded as an optional extra). Drive steadily, but always a couple of miles per hour slower than the traffic around you. Let them pass you, rather than you pass them. At junctions, indicate clearly your intentions and then carry them out slowly and deliberately while the lunatics swirl about you. They are well used to these conditions and can judge to a nicety how closely to cut in front of you.
The worst thing you can do is hesitate or stop and start randomly at every sign of danger. Imagine that you are a driver and you see a pedestrian starting to cross the road. You calculate that at the pedestrian's present rate of progress you can pass safely behind or in front of him - and then, just as you come up to him, he slows down or speeds up, thus throwing all your calculations out the window and making a collision much more likely. Translate this principle into a car crossing traffic lights which everyone else is ignoring and you get the idea.
There is very little of interest to be seen in Beirut itself. Some excavations have been conducted on the site of the old city but they are not very well marked or signposted and small profit is to be gained from wandering among ruined walls and fallen stones.
The Archaeological Museum is worth a visit, but its hours of opening are erratic. It appears to be shut on Sundays, but it may shut, without warning, on other days as well. It would be an idea to build a certain amount of flexibility into your schedule so that if the museum is closed on one day, you can do something else and come back to it on another.
North from Beirut
The first place of interest is the Dog River, described in greater detail elsewhere on this site. Beyond that is the turn off to the Jeita Caverns, discovered in the late 1800s by missionaries and since developed into a prime tourist trap. Visitors walk through a few disappointing formations, then board a punt and are poled for another hundred yards or so on a lovely clear underground lake. The lighting makes the most of the rock formations. Photography of any kind is not permitted inside the cave, so if that is your interest, don't waste your money.
Another tourist trap is the teleferique or cable car that will convey you from sea level up to the Stella Maris statue of the Virgin several hundred feet higher. The views were beautiful but are now much disfigured by urban sprawl. The suburb here of Jounieh received its name from a tradition that the prophet Jonah was disgorged by his whale on the nearby beach.
Half an hour further north on a reasonable road will take you to Byblos, one of the most famous of the Phoenician cities. A welter of one-way streets combined with the random placement of misleading signs ensures a pleasant half hour circling the ruins without ever being able to find you way to them.
The most prominent of the remains is a Crusader castle which stills holds rusting canon balls embedded in its facade. Below this, however, is a wide sprawl of excavated ruins, adequately though not comprehensively signposted. The most famous of these are the Obelisk Temple and the Phoenician cemetery.
The Obelisk Temple consists of a small holy of holies in front of which is a courtyard not much larger than the average living room. The courtyard is crammed with an array of crudely cut standing stones whose significance is still disputed - though most agree that there is a connection with fertility worship. Some see the stones as symbols of the male part in fertility, others link them to the sacred grove of Asherah poles and thus representing the female part. In either case, it is likely that the rites performed here were not entirely chaste and may have served to inflame the puritanical prophets of the Old Testament against these heathen gods.
The Phoenician Cemetary consists of a number of deep shafts dug into the rock on the seaward side of the tel. At the bottom of these were found an equal number of fine stone sarcophagii, one of which bore an inscription identifying it as that of King Hiram, possibly the Hiram mentioned in connection with Solomon's building activities. The best preserved of these sarcophagii are now in the Istanbul museum, but several are still on site where the excavators left them.
Byblos grew rich on the trade in papyrus from Egypt and had such a monopoly on the valuable writing material that the Greeks came to refer to books of papyrus as biblia - the origin of our word "Bible". The trade declined when one of the Ptolemies, anxious to prevent his rivals in Pergamon building up a library to rival that of Alexandria, banned the export of papyrus. This "death blow" merely resulted in the technicians of Pergamon inventing parchment and instead was a death blow to the merchants of Byblos.
You will certainly want to visit the Cedars of Lebanon, a small stand of these famous trees which are all that is left of the once famous forests that supplied the whole of the Middle East with timber. It is a long drive with small reward at the end of it, but the scenery along the way is magnificent and this is one of those occaisions when it is better to travel than to arrive.
The cedars have been reduced to their present parlous state primarily by goats rather than by over-exploitation. Goats do not damage the adult trees, but they devour every seedling starting to sprout, with the result that there are no young trees growing up to replace the ones that die or are cut down. The remaining stand of timber has been preserved by the simple expedient of building a wall around it!
South from Beirut
The two main sites for the tourist are Sidon and Tyre, again two famous Phoenician cities. The road south is excellent - dual carriageway for the most part - and Sidon is only about an hour from the centre of Beirut (including battling through the city's traffic).
The only thing to see in Sidon is the Crusader castle which stands on an island a hundred yards or so off-shore. Notice how the builders used ancient columns embedded in their walls to strengthen them. Unfortunately, they are about all you will see of ancient Sidon, for the modern city is so effectually built over the ancient that very little excavating has been done and most of that has been filled in again and built over as soon as the archaeologists were finished.
Development in the 1990s gave opportunity for much more excavating and some quite remarkable discoveries were made, including the remains of royal feasts of hippopotamus, but there is not much on show and I have not had the opportunity to visit these excavations.
Another hour will bring you to Tyre, where it is worthwhile turning off to the right before you reach the city and finding the beach, from where you can appreciate how the modern city is built on a peninsula. In fact the city is built on an island to which Alexander built a causeway to enable his troops to capture it. Since then the causeway has silted up and become a wide peninsula onto which Tyre has expanded.
The ruins of Tyre stand on the neck of the peninsula and to its south. There are two main areas which should be visited, the larger of which is approached along a street lined with elaborate tombs. Inside the city gate there is an aqueduct on your left, its arches much disfigured by stalagtites of tufa where the mineral water has leaked. Through these arches you come to the stadium, an enormous structure of which little remains but which once provided entertainment for vast multitudes.
If you have the time on your way back, you may care to turn off the coastal highway drive up into the hills to visit some of the quaint little towns and enjoy the magnificent scenery. Be warned, however, about the Kfarhim Grottoes, heavily advertised along the way. This entertaining fraud attempts to rival Jeita with the magnificence of its stalagtites and stalagmites, but as nearly all of these are hand made out of concrete, the effect is somewhat less than convincing. You can see a film about the place on the NWTV website.
East from Beirut
The only place worth visiting here is Baalbeck, though the scenery as you climb out of Beirut to the top of the Lebanon Mountains is spectacular. The Beka'a Valley, which lies between the Lebanon and Anti-lebanon Mountains, is the continuation of the Great Rift Valley which runs from northern Syria down into the heart of Africa via the Red Sea. You descend the mountains to a crossroads on the plain, where you turn left for Baalbeck.
Baalbeck is a sanctuary complex consisting of three great temples - the temple of Venus, which lies outside the main complex and is not open to tourists (though the determined visitor will not find it difficult to climb over the wall and through the rents in the wire fesh fence); the temple of Bacchus, whose main portal is graced by a keystone dislodged in an ancient earthquake and hanging precariously ever since; and the temple of Baal or Zeus, which surely has to be one of the wonders of the ancient world. The scale of this massive temple can only be appreciated when you find, lying on the ground beneath it and the temple of Bacchus, carved stones that have fallen from the roof and whose fellows still sit on top of the huge columns, reduced by distance to their proper proportions.
Look out for the relief of Cleopatra being bitten by the asp round the side of the temple of Bacchus, the altar in the great courtyard which was, alternately, a heathen sanctuary, a Christian church, a Muslim mosque and fortress, and now a tourist attraction. There is a museum in one of the vaults under the temple, but the objects in it are few and ill-lighted.
Baalbeck is still a stronghold of the Hizbollah, the radical Muslim group responsible for most of the kidnappings of foreigners in the Lebanon, and the town is covered with posters of the Dome of the Rock, with or without the addition of symbols like hands clutching Kalashnikovs, mad-eyed mullahs or feet stamping on the quailing zionist oppressor. It is probably best not to show too much interest in the people you see about you, but to view the ruins and then leave.
On your way out be sure to stop and visit the unfinished stone, believed to be the largest quarried stone in existence. You will have noticed similar stones in the foundations of the temple of Bacchus. I simply cannot conceive how such enormous blocks of stone could be moved, but quite clearly they were. One can only salute the accomplishments of our forebears.
You may wish, having come so far east, to continue on to Damascus. Provided you have a visa for Syria, the crossing place is only a quarter of an hour from the crossroads and Damascus half an hour beyond that.