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Monday, February 7, 2011

Baalbeck and Aanjar

Nicole and I held off visiting the Bekaa Valley until my family came to visit. Well worth the wait and already I'm looking forward to other out of town guests so we have a good reason to return to the region. The Bekaa lies between the Mt. Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges of mountains, close to the border with Syria, and for centuries has been one of the most fertile areas of the middle east. The area boasts enormous production of grapes, wheat, and all types of veggies. Tents and shacks full of nomadic, itinerant workers (called "gypsies" by many) line the highways. A rough life, especially on the wet and muddy day we visited. Most of the Bekaa is Hezbollah country, too, and the area received significant Israeli damage during the 2006 war. Many in the West don't know that Hezbollah provides various social services in the area. This partly explains why vendors around Baalbeck sell Hezbollah t-shirts, some bearing slogans like "Islamic Resistance," some simply bearing the organization's flag.

Naturally we enjoyed some of the culinary delights of the area. We ate lunch in Chtoura, where locals spread a thin layer of raw kefte (ground lamb that's usually cooked on skewers) on pita and flash-bake the sandwiches in really hot forns. Earlier, we stopped on the side of the road to Baalbeck for honey and arisha (sort of like cottage cheese, only much more flavorful) spread on a crepe-like bread.

Baalbeck is the crown jewel of Lebanon's ancient ruins. The city has a temple complex from the Roman empire that rivals anything in Italy. The small Temple to Venus and the Muses whets your appetite as you head toward the massive complex that houses the Temples to Bacchus and Jupiter. The image of six massive columns which stand inside the complex is on the cover of many UNESCO World Heritage brochures and documents and for good reason. It's magnificent. It was cold and rainy but we were in awe anyway. In the middle of the courtyard between the two big temples, you can still see where sacrificial animals were bathed in large pools and then burned on a huge stone slab. At the Bacchus Temple, our guide talked about how priests in the Bacchus cult used both wine and opium, not to mention sex, in their rituals, which is commemorated in the intricate stonework, containing images of grapes as well as poppy plants.

Aanjar is less well-known than Baalbeck, in part because the old city was just discovered during the middle of the twentieth century. Aanjar is a tiny Arenian town close to the Syrian border that is home to a remarkably well-preserved Umayyad city from the 700s. The Umayyads were an early Islamic dynasty whose capital was in nearby Damascus. For about fifty years, the Umayyads had a city in the Bekaa with a mosque, palace, marketplace, and tiny residences. Now you can wander through the remains of the city, which is surrounded by a dark pine forest. The rainy weather added to the place's mystique (and made the city muddy too), and its stone architecture could have been the backdrop for a surreal scene from Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same." If the band had survived into the 80s, they would have filmed a video here! Because the city is so well-preserved, you can really get a feel for how people lived. Less famous than Baalbeck but even more amazing in some respects.

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