Nicole and I have begun to socialize with a nice group of new AUB faculty. The entire group is new to Beirut and everybody's keen on getting to know the city and experiencing everything the culture has to offer. After a Friday night dinner party (the first of others to come), we took a Saturday trip down to the south of Lebanon. Like last weekend's hiking expedition in the north, this trip was organized by Vamos Todos, whose founder/leader Mark puts together these great expeditions all over Lebanon and beyond.
I already posted an entire set of pictures from the trip, but I wanted to offer a brief narrative too. Our first stop was Tyre, an important Phoenician center of trade. Tyre was larger than Beirut in the ancient world and pops up in the Bible several times, including the story of the building of the temple, when the Hebrew Kings sent for builders from Tyre. We walked the streets and enjoyed the view of the Sea (like Beirut, Tyre sits on the Mediterannean) and the old stone buildings. We went to one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, a subterannean chapel underneath a cathedral (Our Lady of the Sea) and took a very short boatride around the harbor. Mark from Vamos Todos told all of us from countries other than Beirut to get our passports ready to show the army. But unfortunately the army decided they weren't keen on the idea of foriegners out in the bay without "permission." Nobody was sure just what the problem was, but we didn't have much choice but to cut our ride short. The south, apparently, is like that--unpredictable, in large part because of the threat of incursions from the nearby Israeli border.
So we hit the beach. Nicole and I both jumped into the sea and enjoyed the salty, warm water. It was in the 80s and sunny, but this is already considered "late season" in Lebanon, so very few people were partaking in the joys of the water. We got to swim for a few hours and work up an appetite for a lunch of fish (of course) cooked over a fire. Vamos Todos had arranged for lunch to be served in one of the cabanas along the beach. They're not fancy but sell nargileh, mineral water, juice, and so on, and have small kitchens where our chefs for the day made french fries (fun fact about Lebanon: fries are very popular, in sit-down restaurants as well as take-out places), salads, and fried eggplant to go with the fish.
We toured around Tyre some more, including a nature reserve with organic gardens and an extensive irrigation system, all in an area heavily damaged by various skirmishes with Israel over the past few years. Also got to see loads of Roman ruins in Tyre, including the remains of an old bathhouse. You have to wonder whether the Romans and their slaves knew their work would still be standing (at least partially standing) twenty centuries later. Our friend Colleen had told us that a lot of the ancient ruins just kind of sit in the middle of fields without fanfare of any sort. That was definitely true in Tyre, where grass and brush was growing in most of the ruins.
The Vamos Todos bus took us to nearby Qana, believed to be the site of Jesus' first miracle. You know the story, right? Mary and Jesus attend a wedding feast where the supply of wine begins to run low and, sympathetic for the embarassed family, Mary convinces Jesus to lend a hand. So he fills vessels with water and turns the water into wine. Good wine, too, as several guests wonder aloud why the family saved the best stuff for last. Anyway, we walked down steep steps into a valley where a grotto has been built in a cave where locals believe Jesus and Mary slept the night of the wedding feast. Centuries old stone carvings of Jesus and the Apostles line the path. A hunter was shooting at birds at the bottom of the valley and the shots were more than a little disconcerting, given this part of the country's volatility. Other than that, though, the scene is very peaceful. Needless to say, a lot of Christian pilgrims visit the town. But the Shia Muslims in the area (the south is a heavy Shia area) also revere both Jesus and Mary very much, so the place is commemorated and maintained in a sacred way.
A quick stop in Saida (Sidon) on the way home for sweets. Word is that Saida has the greatest baklawa in Lebanon, but we were tempted by the ice cream, which was some of the best I've ever had. Ice cream is very popular here--most places have both booza (Lebanese ice cream) and gelato. This little bakery in Saida encourages you to mix a bunch of flavors together, so I enjoyed a nice lemon, rasberry, and strawberry mash-up. Fortification for the trip back to Beirut.