Lebanon: Charming at Every Turn

71 comments
Asia, Lebanon, West

Place de l’Étoile, also known as Nijmeh Square

Mention the Middle East, and many of us would immediately think of endless desert, oil-rich kingdoms, conservative societies, and probably never-ending conflicts. As the second smallest country in this region (only Bahrain is smaller in land area), Lebanon appears to be the odd one out. As an entertainment hub of the Arab world, and home to what is often dubbed one of the most vibrant cities not only in the Middle East but also in the whole Mediterranean region, this nation doesn’t fit any stereotype about this part of the world. In addition to that, instead of dull desert, Lebanon has snow-capped mountains and lush valleys. However, the prolonged civil war that engulfed the country in the late 20th century (from 1975–1990) is unfortunately what a lot of people associate Lebanon with.

At school, I wasn’t taught much about the war itself, but rather on how Indonesia sent peacekeeping forces to Lebanon under UN command. “Isn’t there a war?” was a common reaction among my friends when I told them that I was traveling to this country. For me, I began to develop an interest in Lebanon when the country hosted the 2000 Asian Cup – the continent’s largest soccer competition – and I responded with exactly the same question. Over the years I learned how Beirut was once called Paris of the Middle East, and more and more travel magazines featured this seemingly beguiling city with images of the French-influenced Place de l’Étoile that only made me even more curious.

However, since going to Lebanon for me is not as straightforward as, for example, visiting Jordan (where Indonesians can get a visa on arrival as opposed to the complicated requirements for obtaining a Lebanese visa), and the fact that flying to most cities in Europe from Jakarta is much cheaper than flying to Beirut, I was forced to put aside my plans of visiting Lebanon for many years. That changed in early January this year when I finally decided to book a return trip to the Lebanese capital. It was by far the most expensive flight ticket I’ve ever bought, and for the visa application process I had to go to the Lebanese embassy in Jakarta multiple times. But oh my! It turned out that these hassles were really worth the trouble for Lebanon exceeded all my expectations.

Despite the far-from-ideal (unseasonably rainy) weather in Beirut, the Lebanese capital really was an exciting city. Its museums are world-class, the cultural scene is comparable to what major European cities have to offer, and its retail landscape is so creative it’s anything but monotonous. For sure vestiges of the civil war are still visible today, whether intentional to remind people of the country’s dark past, or for practical reasons, i.e. the high cost to tear them down. Away from the capital and up in the mountains of northern Lebanon, an area predominantly inhabited by Maronite Christians, lies the Qadisha Valley which is mind-blowingly beautiful. Up above the same valley is The Cedars, home to some of the oldest surviving Lebanese cedar trees which have been valued since antiquity (by the Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and other nations) and have held great significance in the Abrahamic religions.

Beyond the snowy peaks lies the Bekaa Valley, a fertile land sandwiched between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and where Shia Muslims make up the majority of the population. In the city of Baalbek stands what is officially recognized as the largest Roman temple ever built in the sprawling Roman Empire. From the photos I’d seen I knew this ancient monument would be huge, but walking underneath its towering columns and the highly-ornate ceilings of the no less spectacular sanctuary next door, I couldn’t help but feel insignificant. In the town of Anjar, also in the Bekaa Valley and located less than four kilometers from the Syrian border, lies another impressive set of ruins: the remnants of an Umayyad city built in the eighth century when this area was part of the second Islamic caliphate.

In the upcoming weeks and months, I will be publishing stories from my recent trip to Lebanon which has now become one of my favorite countries. This country is far from perfect, but I found it charming at every turn despite all its problems.

Development in downtown Beirut beside a gutted building from the Lebanese Civil War

Old and new skyscrapers in Sodeco, Beirut

Manoushe (Lebanese flatbread) with za’atar (a herb used in Levantine cooking)

Dolma (stuffed vine leaves)

The Cedars (Al Arz) in northern Lebanon

Qadisha Valley and the snow-capped peaks of Mount Lebanon

The town of Bsharri, hometown of the famous poet and artist Kahlil Gibran

The well-preserved Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek

The Great Courtyard in front of the Temple of Jupiter, also in Baalbek

Two versions of sfiha, a type of meat pie Baalbek is famous for

Umayyad ruins in Anjar, near the border with Syria

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

71 thoughts on “Lebanon: Charming at Every Turn”

  1. Selama ini underestimated dengan Lebanon karena informasi pariwisata di sana nggak terlalu gembar-gembor seolah nggak ada yang menarik. Ehmm atau saya yang kurang beruntung nggak nemu tulisan tentang Lebanon yah? Hehehe. Setelah baca tulisan Bama di sini, wowww, nggak nyangka obyek-obyek bersejarahnya kueren! Peradabannya pun terlihat maju dengan adanya gedung-gedung pencakar langit. Oke, akan mulai mencari banyak informasi sejarah di Lebanon. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sepertinya Lebanon memang belum terlalu banyak diminati turis Asia sih karena selama saya di sana mayoritas turis dari Eropa, khususnya Perancis. Ya, sama kayak orang Belanda yang ke Indonesia kali ya, mengunjungi bekas jajahannya. 🙂 Di samping itu, sebagian masyarakat Lebanon masih cukup fasih bicara Bahasa Perancis. Beberapa aspek dari Lebanon agak mirip Indonesia sih, misalnya kebiasaan buang sampah sembarangan. Tapi di luar hal-hal seperti itu Lebanon ini bener-bener luar biasa alamnya, dan peninggalan bersejarahnya pun keren.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I’ve seen Beirut and, if I’m honest, at some point I was glad to leave. The traffic drove me away. But, regardless, it was an education to be there, to see the Syrians and the Hezbollah posters, the Maronite yuppies and the Palestinians. I imagine that Indonesia’s a bit too far for news from there to have arrived (and the opposite also applies, obviously) but for me it was educational to see with my own two eyes the microcosm that is so often talked about.
    Don’t know if you’re a drinker, so if not please ignore the advice, but if you belong to the Gérard Depardieu club of wine aficionados do try a glass of Château Musar. And, as we already discussed, the Barbar restaurant in Hamra. By the way did you go to Beit Beirut?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The traffic in Jakarta is not much better, so I have that benefit to begin with. 😀 One of the days when I was in Beirut, my friend and I took a walking tour across the city with the focus of trying different food. We started exactly in front of Barbar but it wasn’t included in the list of places where we tried the food. Not far from it there’s a small, unassuming shop specializing in lahma bajeen, Armenian style. Interestingly it is located in what appeared to be a Hizbullah/Amal Movement stronghold. Some of the highlights of the tour were sheep tail fat and Armenian take on tabbouleh. Our guide recommended Domaine des Tourelles for wine, though, which I didn’t get to try. Speaking of Beit Beirut, we went there several times but it was always empty. You were so lucky to be able to enter the premises.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hezbollah and Armenians together, it’s quite bewildering isn’t it? There also was a Syrian National Socialist party or something like that in Hamra… which made me think that they ought to re-brand.

        Liked by 1 person

      • What I heard was that the Armenians were relatively neutral during the civil war, which probably explains their presence in Hamra despite being at the other end of the city from Bourj Hammoud.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful account and photos Bama. You are fortunate to have had a local show you around. Lebanon indeed sounds amazing and I cannot wait to experience it for myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Madhu! Lebanon really is very underrated. For a country that small, Lebanon has so many things to see. Had James not had a local friend, I wouldn’t even think of going.

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  4. Lebanon looks amazing, I wasn’t aware of how much rebuilding had actually been done. So many great looking historical buildings and the food looks delicious. Great post.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some of the redevelopment projects were rather controversial, though, and there seems to be a resistance toward the country’s main real estate company who has been in charge of those since the end of the civil war. Anyway, as for the food, I will dedicate an entire post on it. Thanks for reading, Jonno!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Heide says:

    I have three friends from Lebanon, but was shocked as I read your post to discover how little I know about this beautiful country. Thank you for making this reader’s world bigger today, Bama.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The pleasure is mine, Heide. In the region, Jordan is a lot more popular holiday destination than Lebanon. But after this trip, I should manage my expectations of the Roman ruins in the former for the ones I saw in Baalbek were so amazing — although Petra is enough reason to go to Jordan.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Heide says:

        Oh, yes … Petra is on my short list! But as you’ve shown so beautifully here, there is MUCH more to see and discover.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I didn’t know much about Lebanon as well, and reading this made me realize how different it is than what I imagined it. Qadisha Valley and Baalbek look absolutely stunning. Beautiful photos and writing Bama, looking forward to reading more stories about Lebanon 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Since you live closer to Lebanon than I do, you should go! 🙂 Make sure to visit in the winter or early spring for a better chance to see the snow in the mountains. Thanks Dixie!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It looks like you took full advantage of your long wait for the visa and the trip by visiting so many places in Lebanon, Bama. It must have been a very interesting country for you to visit, given your love of food, history and cultures 🙂 I am so excited to read about Lebanon on your blog! It has been a country I’ve considered visiting in the Middle East, but it’s not yet higher in my wishlist than say, Oman, but I will be glad to learn more about Lebanon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I surely did, Pooja. Ahh you know me so well — those three things that you mentioned are indeed among what I most look forward to seeing/experiencing whenever I travel. I’ve been thinking of going to Oman as well, and Jordan, and Egypt, and Iran. This part of the world is so intriguing for me.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know how Lebanon is compared to Jordan, but I have a feeling that you wouldn’t experience much of a culture shock when you do go to the former one day. I think ideally you should spend two weeks in Lebanon so you’ll have ample time to explore its many coastal cities which I didn’t visit, including Byblos and Tyre — both have been settled for millennia.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Can’t wait to see more about this peculiar travel destination, Bama! I have never thought that there was snow, not even mentioned a ski-resort, in the Middle East 🙂 And the Temple of Bacchus looks no less impressive than the Acropolis in Athen. It’s even better preserved, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lebanon certainly defies most people’s perception of the Middle East. You should go! 🙂 As for the Parthenon, although its length and width are roughly about the same size with that of the Temple of Bacchus, the latter’s height is more than double of the former’s.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. A wonderful introduction to your Lebanon series, Bama! I already miss the cooler weather and the fresh mountain air. As I told you repeatedly in Baalbek, it is going to be very hard to go to another ancient Roman site and be impressed with both the architectural grandeur and the lack of crowds. I’m looking forward to going back and exploring more of the Qadisha Valley as well as places we missed this time. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, right? Jakarta feels even hotter and more humid now after we spent more than a week in Lebanon. Baalbek was so spectacular it’s hard to describe it in words. But despite all that, I still want to visit other Roman ruins for I believe some of them have their own uniqueness and charm. I just looked up Jerash and it certainly has some architectural features that are not present at Baalbek. So Jordan is still on the list. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Hannah. When I was at your age I also watched a lot of movies and TV series (there was no Netflix back then). At least in Australia you have all those good Lebanese restaurants.

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  10. I’ve long had a wish to visit Beirut in spite of its war-torn reputation. We have friends who have gone, and they found it quite cosmopolitan and enjoyable. The countryside is another big plus. I wish we’d had time to include it in our Israel and Jordan trip a few years ago, but we didn’t so we’ll just have to go back to the region again some day! Look forward to your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lex! First of all I’m so excited about your trip to Bhutan (will go to your blog right after this). Lebanon has now become one of my favorite countries (with Japan, Nepal, and Bhutan also in the top 5). You’ll love the hiking opportunities (Qadisha Valley is spectacular!), and why not ski in the Middle East? Yes, Beirut is very cosmopolitan, one of the very reasons why James and I budgeted four days in the city. I probably will publish my first post on the Lebanese capital next week as I just returned from another trip yesterday.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. nice to go through your blog.. felt like I am travelling myself. pics are too good and explanatory. love to see your more post.. coz I like to travel n love photography too.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Your photos alone tell such a perfectly different story than what I would now associate with Lebanon ~ and I grew up with it being known as the Paris of the Middle East, but the past decades had made me think it was all a part of a forgotten past. “Lebanon has snow-capped mountains and lush valleys” and my vision of this place is now back to the place I dreamed about as a young kid 🙂 Great post, and thank you for the inspiration to make this dream of mine to visit this area happen. Cheers ~

    Liked by 2 people

    • Despite its problems (every Lebanese I met blamed the politicians for those), Lebanon has so many potentials to be a great travel destination, although I would admit the fact that it’s not too touristy yet made my trip there even more memorable. There were still military checkpoints, especially at places that are not too far from the border with Syria. But that shouldn’t dampen your spirit to go.

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  13. Lebanon has intrigued me for a long time. So much diversity in such a small country. Your account only reinforces this. The cedars! So iconic. The lingering specter of war doesn’t turn me off from visiting at all. Fabrizio (awtytravels) posted about Beirut not too long ago, which set my mind in motion. But we shall see…

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was Fabrizio who introduced me to Beit Beirut, which he was fortunate to be able to get in. The Lebanese are tired of war, and they do what they can to prevent another one from happening again, although that means implementing an imperfect system that keeps the country together, for the time being. Hope you’ll set foot in Lebanon sooner than you think, Julie!

      Like

  14. I have just read James’s post on Lebanon and now seeing yours, I’m totally captivated. It looks like such a diverse country, especially for its size, and your food photos have me drooling. So true how war sticks in people’s minds. I recently went to Sri Lanka and I was surprised how many of my acquaintances still thought there was conflict, and that it’s unsafe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Prior to the trip, James superimposed the map of Lebanon onto that of the province of West Java in Indonesia, where the former only occupies roughly half of the latter. It gave me a context on Lebanon’s size, and exactly because of that I was so amazed by how diverse the country is.

      I think it will be a matter of time before places like Syria and Iraq become safe to visit again, yet images of war will remain in most people’s minds.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. jmokhiber says:

    My sister is headed to Lebanon (from Jordan) on Thursday, and I am so jealous. My dad is Lebanese and I am dying to go. Trying to convince my husband to go with me in 2020 for my 40th birthday, and I am sending him this blog post to convince him! Thanks so much for sharing your journey!

    Liked by 1 person

    • How exciting! If your husband loves Lebanese food, it will be easier to persuade him to go, because most of the things I tried there were really good. Hope this blog post helps you convince him. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I know that ‘wow, just wow’ has become somewhat of a cliche comment but that was what I said (and meant) over and over again as I scrolled through this post. Thank you for taking me to such an off the beat location and for showcasing it so beautifully. Honestly, Lebanon was not on my list but now it is …in the top 10.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I understand that Lebanon is not on everyone’s wishlist because of its turbulent history. But hopefully through this and the upcoming posts I can help give more nuances on people’s perspectives on the country. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hear you but also know that turbulance is everywhere. You’ve totally encouraged me to visit Lebanon and I am looking forward to doing so again virtually with your next post.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You really should visit Lebanon, Lisa. Maybe combine that with a trip to Cyprus by boat?

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  17. So cool that you’ve made it to Beirut Bama! I’ve been so curious about how cosmopolitan the city is for ages so it’s great to read your thought and see those food pics haha. By the way, how did you find the nightlife there? Like I’m sure there’s heaps to see and eat and do but how did that translate after dark?

    Also I was totally take aback by that snow pic. I’m less surprised by snow in stereotypically hot places compared to most people, but this is something special!

    Liked by 1 person

    • My post on Beirut is coming up next. Beirut is a very lively city after dark. I didn’t really experience its famous nightlife, but I did go out to have dinner at its “trendy spots” one night, and at its Armenian quarter the other night. There were some power outages, though, because … politicians.

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  18. Bama I must say I have never considered Lebanon as a destination. I will look forward to reading of your travels and especially about safety aspects. We have a trip booked ot Jordan in the fall so have been learning a bit more about the area.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Later today I will publish a post on Beirut (and more posts in the upcoming weeks). Speaking of Jordan, I’m actually thinking of going also this fall (nothing has been booked so far, though). It would be fun if we bump into each other there!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi John and Susan! I’m glad my series on Lebanon gives my readers more information on this country than what we usually read on the media. My friend and I spent nine days there and throughout our stay we didn’t experience any issue with safety (the most terrifying thing for me was the aggressive driving). The people were incredibly welcoming (more on that later). So yea, you should definitely plan a visit!

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  19. I definitely don’t think of snow capped mountains and European architecture when thinking of the Middle East but that part of the region is quite a bit different than the rest. Were there very many other tourists at the ruins? That looks incredible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We didn’t see that many tourists in Beirut, and when we were taking photos of the ruins in the city, we often found ourselves the only foreigners there. The temples of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley seemed to be more popular, although most people did a day trip from Beirut — we opted to stay two nights in a hotel near the UNESCO-listed Roman ruins.

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  20. Wonderful photos and hey I would go JUST for the food which is one of my favorite cuisines! I have been to Israel but not Lebanon and Israel too, has lush scenery and some snow capped mountains. We tend to think Middle East means desert but of course this is a misnomer. It is interesting too how civil wars tend to linger long in tourists minds… often the conflict us long gone but still the average tourist is wary. Sometimes we need to update and this post of yours Bama does a wonderful job of doing just that!

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can imagine some parts of Israel (probably the north?) sharing a similar look with this corner of Lebanon. I can understand why you love Lebanese food so much — za’atar, moutabbal, saj bread, beetroot tahini… I can go on and on. I will dedicate a post entirely on the dishes I had in the country because they were that good.

      I’ve been living in Jakarta for almost 11 years now and this city has seen some of the worst terror attacks, traumatizing riots, and crippling floods. But those are the things most people read about the city, and as soon as the media publishes other stories, people’s attention moves to another place while life goes back to normal for Jakartans. The latter is something I experience in day to day basis, and it is what most people don’t read about. Because of this I’m always curious about places that are often depicted in a negative way because at the end of the day people, millions of them, call those places home.

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  21. Baruuu banget kemarin temen ku cerita suaminya baru ikut ujian untuk jadi pasukan perdamaian di Lebanon. Terus aku kaget, seram betul dengernya! Tapi lihat ini, jadi tambah seram hahahaha kok sepi amat gak ada orang wkwkwk. Mas Bama fotonya pagi-pagi kah?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Nah, orang Indonesia memang banyak sekali yang menyangka di Lebanon masih perang karena negara kita dari dulu rutin mengirim pasukan perdamaian ke sana. Tapi sepanjang perjalanan saya di sana sekitar 8 hari saya gak pernah merasa gak aman atau waswas sih. Kalau di Bsharri ini terkesan sepi karena dia sebenarnya untuk ukuran Indonesia adalah desa. Jadi bayangkan di desa dengan lembah menganga sebesar ini jadinya terkesan gak ada manusia lain, hehe. Ini saya fotonya sekitar jam 9an waktu setempat sampai kira-kira waktu makan siang lah.

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    • Wawancara sih gak ada, cuma ribet bolak-balik aja. Total ada kali 3-4 kali bolak-balik ke kedutaannya untuk urusan administrasi.

      Ini entah karena pas di Dieng jaketku kurang tebel (dan pas di Lebanon jaketku tebel banget) atau gimana, tapi menurutku Dieng masih lebih dingin lho. Faktor angin juga kayaknya, soalnya pas lagi di gunung di Lebanon anginnya sepoi-sepoi.

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  22. Pingback: Jordan and A Travel Resolution Fulfilled | What an Amazing World!

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