Lebanon is officially known as the Lebanese Republic (Al-Jumhuriyah al-Lubnaniyah). It is the smallest recognised country on the mainland Asian continent.
Lebanon ranks the highest among the countries in the Arab world in terms of GDP per capita. Lebanon was known as the “Switzerland of the East” during the 1960s because of its financial soundness and diversity.
An estimated 8-16 million Lebanese live outside Lebanon, sending home money, while the population of the country is 4.5 million.
The US dollar is accepted alongside the Lebanese pound (also known as the lira). It is pegged at 1500 lira.
The country has the largest population of Christians of any Middle Eastern country. Currently, the population is 60% Muslim and 40% Christian. The country’s parliament is equally divided amongst the major religious groups. All 18 recognized religious sects in Lebanon are represented in Parliament. The president must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shiite Muslim. At times, the country has operated without a President, due to the mass exodus of Christians from the country.
Lebanon was amongst the earliest areas in the world to know civilisation. It was invaded in turn by the Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans, followed by the Mamelukes, the Ottomans and the Turks. It attained independence from France, finally emerging as a sovereign state in 1943. An Israeli invasion followed, to be succeeded by Civil War between 1975 and 1990, due to tensions between Christians and Muslims. Both Syria and Israel were actively involved and sent their troops to the region.
The advice given on travel to Lebanon changes often. Currently, there is political unrest and ongoing demonstrations, some of which have been violent. There is also the ongoing risk that conflict with Israel will escalate or the situation with Syria will deteriorate. The FCO advise against all but essential travel. Petty crime and theft exists, of course, but is said to be less common than in many countries.
My visit was trouble free and the locals exceptionally friendly, though the Hezbollah presence , especially as one moves east, is very evident.
This is a mountainous country with some dramatic scenery. Because of the uncertain situation and taking into account advice from friends I did a group tour visiting the classic highlights:
I’ve booked a group tour to Lebanon, after swearing never to do a group tour again. This is because Shane from Central Asia was here a few weeks ago and he says it’s hard going for women on their own. Lebanon is only just beginning to open up to tourism again after civil war, Israeli incursion and involvement in the war in neighbouring Syria. The FCO still deem part of the country to be out of bounds to sensible visitors. It’s territory number 200, so I feel there should be some sort of cautious celebration.
It’s not an auspicious beginning however - there’s no one to meet the five of us who have convened in the arrivals hall at the airport and after an hour of phone calling we give up and commission a cab.
Beirut, the capital of Lebanon likes to call itself the Paris of the East. It has a mellow seaside vibe, palm trees, a corniche and new yellow stone buildings springing up around patches of excavated ruins. There’s still huge amounts of war damage and constant reconstruction, especially around the Financial District and Martyrs Square. Here, three different types of Orthodox Church, as well as Church of England, Maronite and Moslem places of worship are built in close proximity. During the war, the protagonists shot at each other across Damascus Street until the cease fire was agreed and they all hugged and kissed instead. Ten percent of the then three million population of Lebanon died.
Our hotel is in a lively quarter of Beirut, crammed with pavement cafes and shish smokers. Our breakfast food is a mixture of Arab and European cuisine, but barely adequately cooked. They hope to detract from the paucity of the offering with a bizarre centrepiece - a chocolate fountain. Lebanon is the most western influenced Arab country I’ve been to. The ‘New Souk’ is a huge glossy mall, with high arched ceilings and restaurants charging exorbitant prices, while the adjacent streets are lined with shops bearing brand names that I recognise all too well.
The seaside towns of tiny Lebanon are spaced a useful forty kilometres apart, along the narrow coastal plain. The highway is cut into the arid mountains that run almost into the sea. First, a stop to view the impressive formations that are the Raouche (pigeon) Rocks. Think Durdle Door or Praia da Rocha. The rocks are is claimed to be the remains of a sea monster the Greek hero Perseus killed to save Andromeda. He turned Medusa’s head on the monster and so it became stone.
Banana and orange trees line the route, framed by the turquoise Mediterranean. Pierre, our guide, says it will be nothing but hotels in ten years’ time. We also pass numerous huge, barbed wire surrounded camps for Palestinian refugees. Their living conditions are very poor - they’re only allowed tin roofs, so as not to impede coastal development when they finally leave and their dwellings are demolished.
Sidon is thought to be the oldest of the Phoenician towns . First visit here is the Temple to Eshmoun - the Phoenician version of Aesclepius. Here there are layered ruins, including a Babylonian pyramid, sited in a fragrant wadi just outside Sidon, which is known here as Saida. Next, a crusader castle (Sidon was the centre of many crusader struggles) with a picturesque setting on an islet. The souk in Sidon is refurbished, but seemingly authentic and quaint – brick arches topped with towers - facades with brightly painted shutters. The must-see here is a soap museum, beige bars all stacked like giant fudge slabs.
Pierre is an excitable little Armenian who refers to toilet breaks as technical stops. He has moved swiftly to dismiss the airport debacle as being ‘Nothing to do with me’. But he still hasn’t tracked down one of our party of eleven and two others had to be enticed out of bed before we set off half an hour late this morning. He’s then lost all but one of us in the Sidonian souk - we have to phone him. I’ve decided disorganisation must be a prerequisite for being a tour guide. Lunch here is a falafel sandwich in a corner café, as ’We have too much more to see today’. So we don’t have time to Tyre of Sidon before hurtling further down the coast to its partner Phoenician town.
Tyre is known in Lebanon as Sour or Walled City and is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, Though in medieval times the population was tiny. It was one of the earliest Phoenician towns and also the legendary birthplace of Europa, her brothers Cadmus and Phoenix, not to mention Carthage's founder Dido. From here we can see the Israeli border and the peak that is Cana, where Jesus’ first miracle took place. We are also regularly buzzed by Israeli fighter planes.
Tyre has UNESCO world heritage designated ruins, a huge Roman necropolis built over the ancient Phoenician streets and houses. There’s a stunningly beautiful arch and a partially preserved hippodrome, where they filmed Ben Hur. The thorns amongst the stone paving are even more vicious than the ones in the African bush. They’ve gone right through my flip flops.
Both Tyre and Sidon are famous for being the original source of the Phoenician purple dye, extracted from murex (sea snail) shells. The other famous product of this country is the cedar tree. The wood is used for building boats and the resin is apparently excellent for mummification. Very handy with all these sarcophagi to fill. A final rush to the last set of remains in town – more temples and a Roman arena right by the water, glowing serenely in the light of the setting sun.
It’s getting late. Time to re-Tyre. Apologies for all the bad jokes - they are enTyrely gratuitous.
Our next excursion takes us north of Beirut and a little inland to Jetta Caves. Our missing tour member has appeared – with an injured foot he’s been resting. That makes four of us from the UK, five Americans, one Russian Latvian and an Australian. I’ve already visited numerous caves, but these deserve their good reputation. There’s a lake, enjoyed in flat bottom boats, some gorgeous lacy caverns, some of the largest stalactites in the world and, thankfully, an absence of coloured illumination. But photography in the caverns is forbidden, so I’ve no proof. There’s also a toy train and a cable car, serving the upper caves.
Further up the coast is the pretty port of Byblos. It’s the ultimate tourist destination with fish restaurants along the quay (nice views, tourist quality food) and an upmarket reconstructed souk, complete with high–end bars. ‘Today’s offer, buy any two drinks and pay for them both’. English (or rather American) signage is replacing French and is more common than Arabic.. Here, we’re ferried around on a golf cart. That’s quite an assortment of transport in one day. The sloe gin cocktails are very good. Six of us are drinking, but the party is short-lived. Everyone retires to bed at 7.30.
The crusader castle at Byblos is built on top of the Roman ruins, thoughtfully providing amazing views across a row of columns and myriad excavated walls spreading to the sea. This is where the first alphabet originated,. It was developed from Egyptian hieroglyphs, according to the Lebanese, though competing theories attribute its roots to Canaan/ Israel/Palestine or to the Canaanites/Israelis in Egypt.
I’ve adopted my usual practice of avoiding lengthy guide explanations in broken English. So, I’m up the top of the tower looking down onto the rest of the group listening obediently. Pierre was once a history teacher. I’ve anticipated that he will bring my fellow travellers up to enjoy the incredible views once he has finished his monologue. Perversely, he chooses not to and I spend the next hour pursuing the group around the site. It’s huge and every time I set off after the row of bobbing heads in the distance, they have disappeared by the time I arrive at that spot. It’s very frustrating. And hot work. It’s pushing 30 degrees today.
Now, inland, winding through soaring mountains and misty grey olive orchards, a mass of ancient gnarled trunks, and along the top of the Qadisha Valley, home of some of the last remaining cedar groves in the country near the hilltop town of Bsharri.. A wander under the branches is obligatory. Then, a stop at an atmospheric museum dedicated to Khalil Gibran, who was born here. It’s carved out of the rock face and mainly decorated with his art. His writing is much better than his painting.
The major roads are mostly in good condition and often full dual carriageways, but there’s still an obstacle course of parked vehicles to navigate in towns. Pierre always opts for participation, as opposed to patience, in these situations. Most of his interventions consist of superfluous arm-waving, but he has also so far encouraged a struggling female driver to reverse into a bollard and gesticulated alongside a truck taking out an overhead electric cable. Despite the relative affluence most of the cars on the road are from the last century. The model of choice is a 1980s boxy Mercedes.
Lunch is in a friendly Lebanese mezze restaurant in the centre of the largest cedar grove, right at the head of the valley. This falls away dramatically. Its small ledges provide superb settings for red roofed Maronite and Greek Orthodox monasteries.
The summits of the surrounding peaks are sheer, bare of vegetation and dusted with the first snow, icing sugar on gingerbread. We dip over into the Beqaa Valley and the temperature plummets. The furry parka I brought with me from a newly wintry England doesn’t look so stupid now.
Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern country without a desert, but most of the agriculture is located in its portion of the Fertile Crescent, the 129 km long Beqaa Valley. The valley is, astonishingly, part of the Great Rift system, which stretches from southern Turkey to Mozambique. A huge chunk of the area, including the famous Temple of Baalbek, is coloured orange ‘essential travel only’ on the FCO advisory site and Baalbek is perilously close to the red no-go zone abutting Syria, a small kink in the line some official has drawn on the map.
It’s very different to the coast. The buildings are less western in design, Arabic script predominates and yellow Hezbollah flags fly. (We can buy matching T-shirts with guns on if we wish.) There are plenty of army road blocks and the Palestinian refugee camps are replaced by Syrian ones, with similarly squalid living conditions. It’s pitch black as we make our first foray into forbidden territory. It doesn’t help that the driver is clutching his rosary in his left hand as he steers.
In Greek and Roman times Baalbek was also known as Heliopolis (Sun City) and it is truly astonishing. It’s on a par with Karnak and Abu Simbel - an incredible complex of three Roman temples. The local gods Baal and Ashtart were pragmatically (and confusingly) conflated first with Greek and then Roman gods .The Temple of Jupiter (Heliopolitan Zeus or Baal)) is huge and magnificent. . It was constructed (on the foundations of another temple) during the mid -first century.
The Temple of Bacchus, with its amazing carving and complete facades of ornate pillars, virtually escaped demolition over the years, as it was later utilised as a church and a fortress. It’s open to debate whether or not the third temple was actually dedicated to Venus. (or Ashtart) Notwithstanding, Pierre clearly enjoys telling us all about the prostitutes who were imported and the orgies that took place inside. I’m glad I’ve left Lebanon to the end of my ancient Roman occupied countries to visit. It’s going to be hard for other sites to measure up now.
Tourist lunch at Anjar, an Armenian area, in enormous tented restaurant, Al Shams. There are at-the-table tricks performed by a magician,. This is a veritable banquet - the amount of food provided is frankly ridiculous. An assortment of flat breads, salads, hummus, baba ganoush, labneh, kibbeh, fries, melt in the mouth chicken livers, shrimps in creamy sauce, olives, pickles and mixed grilled kebabs. There’s no room to fit all the dishes onto the table and we can only manage to eat half of it. Everyone protests that they are totally full. Then the waiters ask us to move to another table, where desserts are laid out: crystallised sweets and platters of fruit. And of course everyone manages to find room for more. We are assured that the leftovers will be delivered to a Syrian refugee camp.
Our last visit is to the eighth century Umayyad ruins near Anjar. Baalbek is a hard act to follow, but it’s a peaceful late afternoon stroll. And it might burn off a few of today’s unwarranted calories. The toilet block is teeming with cats.
Back at the airport, at the end of another delightful journey. My passport is checked five times and I’m body searched three times. My bags are scanned twice and examined four times. Each check is perfunctory at best. One of the cubicle ladies is too busy skyping her husband to be bothered with patting me down. And no-one has mentioned my laptop – even though there are large posters at the gate warning that these are forbidden on flights from Lebanon to London. That’s all right. I’ve decided to carry on my small (ish) suitcase, as well as my backpack, liquids, the lot. Do as the locals do.
Read more information about Lebanon here
It was Egypt that really ignited my travel curiosity. I was already besotted with the ancient history – all that history and those myths. Mummies and weighing of hearts. Tombs and curses. This is one of the cradles of civilisation with with recorded habitation along its iconic Nile (longest river in the world), dating back to the sixth–fourth millennia BC. The great majority of the Egyptian peoples live near the banks of the Nile. They have to - much of the remainder of the land, in the Sahara Desert, is arid and unhospitable. This is the most populated country in the Arab world a melange of Islamic(since the seventh century BC) Mediterranean and African culture. Modern Egypt dates back to 1922, when the country gained independence from the British Empire as a monarchy. It later became a republic (firstly in union with Syria).
"Egypt" is the English name for the country of course. The Egyptians call it Maṣr. The English name "Egypt" is derived from the Ancient Greek "Aígyptos." Anyway, a friend’s husband, Ian, showed us slides of his student travels. He only took canned food along to avoid the stomach bugs. I was hooked.
Several years later I finally get there, on a package tour to Cairo, Giza, Luxor and Aswan. (It was a long time ago- you can tell by the pictures).
My tour doesn’t begin very auspiciously. I take a photo of a donkey pulling a rubbish cart on my first day in Cairo and am immediately ‘arrested’ and escorted down to the police station. The Egyptians, it seems, are not keen on having their garbage collection advertised. I hadn’t even realised that it was rubbish. I was only interested in the cute donkey. After an ear-wigging (how was I to know? – not the best way to encourage innocent tourists I think), they remove the film from my camera and let me depart. It is a rude shock and almost cures me of my travel ambitions. However, I recover and carry on.
Cairo is huge and sprawling - it is the biggest city in the Arab world, with an urban population of over 20 million. The traffic is terrible and there is (it seems) no Highway Code. There are a lot of cemeteries alongside the roads. The name Cairo is derived from the word for Conqueror, but Egyptians generally refer to Cairo as Masr (as in the name of the country) as their capital is so important to them. It sits right at the junction of the Nile Delta.
We're visiting the Ottoman Muhammad Ali Mosque, the Sultan Hassan Mosque and al-Rifa'i Mosque and the Egyptian Museum. The renowned museum, a ‘trove of antiquities', is almost an antique itself, still very thirties, with wooden glass fronted cases guarded by men with AK 47s. It’s fascinating, but my run of luck isn’t getting any better - the most famous exhibit, the Tutankhamun Mask, is touring and is in Germany. And I can’t find the entrance to the celebrated bazaar, the Khan el-Khalili. Surely there must be more shops than this? There’s also a very famous authentic café, El Fisahwi, which at least is a good place to relax after all the stress…
The history of Cairo, of course, goes back a long way too. Ancient cities nestle around it. Heliopolis was associated with the sun god Atum, who came to be identified with Ra and then Horus. It was home to several obelisks. One, the oldest in the world, remains, the others were stolen (the so- called Cleopatra's Needle now lives on the banks of the Thames).
Giza is very close to Cairo, but it's a city in its own right. In fact its the second largest city in Egypt, close to the site of the ancient pharaonic capital, Memphis. The must see is the necropolis on the Giza Plateau: the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of Khafre, and the Pyramid of Menkaure, along with their associated pyramid complexes and the Great Sphinx of Giza, several cemeteries and the remains of a workers' village.
They were all built during the Fourth Dynasty of the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, between 2600 and 2500 BC. The Great Pyramid was one of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World, listed by the ancient Greek poet Antipater of Sidon. (Despite being far the oldest of the Ancient Wonders it's the only one still in existence).
The pyramids are three huge edifices (though not as big as the ones in Mexico it has to be noted). magnificent when viewed from expensive hotel rooms or during the nightly Son et Lumiere. However, it has to be said that they are all slightly disappointing inside, empty and smelly. I’ve read that they are still discovering internal hidden passages in them.
The Sphinx is enigmatic, as promised, if a little battered. This iconic statue is 73 metres long, with the body of a lion and the head of the pharaoh Khafre. Sadly, it seems that the story that Napoleon shot his nose off with shells is not true. He didn't have the explosives necessary at that time in history and apparently it's been missing for over a thousand years.
A camel ride in Giza is almost compulsory, but the camel owner leads me round the back of the pyramids. ‘Nice long ride’, I think naively. But he refuses to bring me back until exorbitant amounts of baksheesh have been paid. Egypt isn’t the most comfortable place to visit, I’ve decided.
Saqqara was the necropolis for Memphis, the ancient capital. The step pyramid here (for Djoser) is not only the oldest pyramid in the world, it's also the oldest stone building complex. It was built in the 27th century BC. The complex was built by the chancellor (and high priest of Ra) Imhotep. He certainly set some impressive precedents.
Luxor is reached by overnight train. This is a Russian relic and the toilet is a steel cuboid free-for-all. But Luxor is amazing, It is built over Thebes, the ancient capital of the Pharaonic, Middle and New Kingdoms. The colossal temples (hieroglyph-lined Karnak and Luxor) are incredible,
You can't miss Karnak. It's the biggest religious building in the world and dates back over 4,000 years. It is staggeringly enormous and would swallow dozens of notable European cathedrals without blinking. It also boasts the largest room of any religious building. The Hypostyle Hall is 134 columns spread over about 16,500 square metres. You'll recognise this from James Bond, (The Spy Who Loved Me), Agatha Christie (Death on the Nile) and numerous other film sets. It's dedicated to a triumvirate of gods, Amun, Mut, and Khonsu and has been added to and altered over the centuries of pharaonic rule. Although much of it is now decayed and damaged, as with most of the temples, there's still enough to leave you thoroughly open mouthed.
The Luxor Temple Complex dates to 1400BC and is dedicated to 'the rejuvenation of kingship', rather than any particular deity. It's thought this is where the pharaohs came to be crowned. It's joined to Karnak by a 2,700 metre long row of statues called the Path of God, or more colloquially, The Avenue of the Sphinxes. An annual procession took place along this avenue during Opet, the 27 day festival of regeneration,. It was developed to bring fresh energy to the rulers and their kingdom.
On the opposite bank of the river to Luxor is the astonishing Valley of the Kings. In an attempt to thwart grave robbers the pharaohs of the New Kingdom (16-11th century BC) began to construct hidden burial tombs, cut into the rock in this huge necropolis. They weren't entirely successful. Many of the tombs were robbed not very long after they were built and sealed (despite builders, servants stuck inside to keep the secrets, we are told.) Famously, the only tomb to survive more or less intact was that of Tutankhamun. That's the most expensive to enter of course, along with the most highly decorated tombs, like that of Amenhotep IV. There's also a Valley of the Queens and Valley of the Nobles, but you don't hear so much about those.
Also classified as part of the Theban Necropolis, and close by, is the fascinating Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut built into the cliffs of the rocky desert at Deir el Bahri. This female pharaoh ruled during the first dynasty of the New Kingdom (or the 18th Dynasty counting from the beginning). That's 1550/1549 to 1292 BC. This temple is built over three levels, capped by a small pyramid, that covers the tomb. It's directly aligned with the Eighth Pylon that Hatshepsut had added to the Temple of Karnak. Hatshepsut means "Foremost of Noble Ladies". She looks very kind in her statues.
Egypt is definitely one of those places where you run out of superlatives. It's seeing a favourite story book come to life. Perhaps my favourite sight, also on the opposite bank of the Nile to the city, is the the Colossi of Memnon, two massive stone statues (18 metres) representing Amenhotep III, the pharaoh 3,400 years ago. Shelley's great poem Ozymandias, sums the scene up beautifully and has to be one of the most evocative pieces ever written. How can you not want to come and see that?
My only complaint is the early departure times. But it’s August and hitting 50 degrees in the shade by noon, so a dawn start is a necessity. Throughout our tour of the towering Karnak Temple we are harangued, through the railings, by the driver of the horse carriage, who has taken us there. It was arranged and paid for by the tour company, but he feels he was not sufficiently (additionally) rewarded for his efforts.
Down the river to Aswan, stopping at smaller temples dedicated to mummified crocodiles, cats and monkeys. Edfu is the site of the Ptolemaic Temple of Horus, with inscriptions that depict the pharaonic death rituals. Delicate pillared Philae has been moved to safety, when the Russians built the giant Aswan dam. Philae’s ruins include the columned Temple of Isis, dating to the 4th century B.C. The architect who supervised is there to tell us all about it.
The azure Nile is mesmerizingly beautiful, the local felucca boats dotting the skyline, sails billowing. Downriver, a felucca ride away, Elephantine Island holds the Temple of Khnum, from the Third Dynasty. Just below is the so called First Cataract and this area has important links with Nubia (in modern day Sudan). The kingdoms overlapped in later years, with the Nubians even dominating Egypt at one point. The desert is atmospheric, and Aswan suitably relaxed, if still baking hot. The irrigation is fascinating; there are still numerous Archimedes screws just visible as we drift along the banks. I’m trying to photograph them successfully. Eureka, I have it!
The stone quarries of ancient Egypt are located here. They used a granitic rock called syenite. to build the colossal statues, obelisks, and monoliths that are found throughout Egypt, You can visit and walk on The Unfinished Obelisk, commissioned by Hatshepsut. This is the largest obelisk ever attempted, It began to crack as it was hewn, and so was abandoned in situ.
I'm also intrigued to stay at the renowned Cataract Hotel, built in 1899 by Thomas Cook. All manner of celebrity guests have stayed in this colonial edifice: Tsar Nicholas II, Winston Churchill, Howard Carter, Margaret Thatcher, Jimmy Carter, François Mitterrand, Princess Diana and Queen Noor. I'm more interested in the Agatha Christie connections. She set part of 'Death on the Nile' here and it was used as a set for the film too.
Sadly, I'm in the newer budget wing (built in 1961). This was known as the New Cataract Hotel, until Sofitel bought up the whole site and renovated it.
A final visit to another relocated temple site. Abu Simbel, 200 miles south, is the highlight of Egypt for me, headless statue and all (there was an earthquake which dislocated one of them). The story of the reconstruction of the gigantic two temples (30 metres high, just look at the tiny people) to save them from the inundation forming Lake Nasser, when the Aswan Dam was finished, is enthralling.
The twin temples were originally carved out of the mountainside in the 13th century BC, during the 19th Dynasty reign of the Pharaoh Ramesses II. to commemorate his victory at the Battle of Kadesh. His wife Nefertari and children are included as smaller figures by his feet,(because they are less important) in Ramesses temple, but Nefertari is permitted a temple of her own, as well.
The flight there and back isn’t much fun. Nearly everyone by now has travellers’ diarrhoea (as foretold by Ian) but the plane toilets are forbidden - too much desert turbulence.
Sharm el Sheikh, sandwiched between the desert of the Sinai Peninsula and the Red Sea is a return visit.
Naama Bay, is beyond touristy, with its all inclusive hotels, palm tree-lined promenade, shisha bars and kebab restaurants. Camel rides and desert adventures galore. But I've come for the snorkelling. Ras Muhammad National Park delivers here - these are amongst the most famous reefs in the world. We take out a boat, (and see dolphins) but there is really excellent snorkelling, just off the beach. There's a huge drop off at El Fanar (Lighhouse) Beach, though, sadly you have to walk over the coral to get to it. The water is surprisingly chilly, though it is February.
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