M.E. and I recently visited Lebanon. Why visit Lebanon, it is next to Syria? Well, for several reasons. One, M.E. and I always had a fascination with Beirut. Two, it is only a 2-1/2 hour plane ride away. And three, the real reason, M.E. works with many men from Lebanon who continually talk about their wonderful country. These men are very proud of their country, of their heritage. They talk about the Lebanese as being very welcoming, fun loving people, about the great food and the wonderful historic sites. They have been asking M.E. for the past year to visit their country. We recently expressed interest and a colleague immediately worked up an itinerary for us. So earlier in November we visited Lebanon and we were glad we did.
But first a little background. Putting it on the map. It is situated right in the middle of a conflict area with Syria to the north and east and Israel to the south. The past 5+ years has been very difficult for Lebanon. Taking in over 1.6 million refugees from Syria, Palestine, Iraq and Sudan. Its own population is only 4.1 million. It has its own problems too. It’s been without a president for the past 15 months because no candidate reached a majority vote. There is also a lot of corruption among the politicians and the infrastructure needs much work.
At one time it was at the intersection of where east meets west, a very cosmopolitan, prosperous and progressive city. In the 60’s Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. It was the financial hub of the Middle East before the oil money. Sitting on the Mediterranean it has an ideal climate and wonderful beaches, it was a very popular tourist destination. But all of that ended. Between 1975 to 1990 was the Lebanon Civil War, which devastated the country. Over a million people left during that time. In the 2000’s the city was rebuilt. Lebanon recently has seen a period of relative calm. It seems to be moving in the right direction despite the adversity around it.
Historically, Lebanon was at the heart of the cradle of civilization, it lays at the crossroads of the Mediterranean. The country has roots going back seven thousands years and just about every empire at one time or another has ruled the area. It is very diverse with a mix of Muslims 54%, half Shia, half Sunni, Christian 40% including 21% Maronite and Druze 6% and the balance of Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and Mormons. Lebanon was occupied by France for many years. Many Lebanese speak French and Arabic and now the schools are teaching in English. The Lebanese are very well educated, they are globally ranked fourth best in math and science education.
Lebanon is a small country, most sites are within an hour or two drive from Beirut. M.E. and I stayed in Beirut and took day trips visiting the different areas. The next several posts will be on our travels around Lebanon.
Eleven miles north of Beirut is the Jeita Grotto consisting of two limestone caves formed over several million years. The upper cave consist of huge chambers and has the world’s largest known stalactite. It has an impressive walkway that takes you deep into cave. The lower grotto has an underground river flowing through it and tours are given on an electric boat. The grotto is a candidate for the “New 7 Wonders of nature”. Cameras were not permitted in the grotto so I do not have any photos. Here is a link with more info and pictures.
Harissa is a mountain village several miles north of the grotto heading up the coastal highway. A gondola lift takes you up 6500 feet to Our Lady of Lebanon, a shrine built on the top of the mountain. It is a 15 ton statue of the Virgin Mary that can be seen for miles around. It has been a long time Christian pilgrimage site. There are wonderful views of the coastline from the top.
Traveling another hour north along the coastal highway is the ancient town of Byblos. Believed to be first occupied between 8800 – 7000 BC, it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It is an archaeology paradise with over 15 layers of debris from thousands of years of human habitation. We took a tour of the castle and walked around the old medieval areas of the city. In the late afternoon we enjoyed a early dinner on the patio of a restaurant overlooking the ancient harbor watching the sun set.