Into Lebanon’s Snowy Realms

45 comments
Asia, Lebanon, West

Arriving in Al Arz, Lebanon

On our final day in Beirut, it was drizzling, just like how the Lebanese capital was throughout most of our stay. While the city had been all I expected it to be – fascinating, chaotic, vibrant, sobering, inspirational – I couldn’t wait to continue the journey toward the alluring snow-capped peaks of the Mount Lebanon range to the northeast. Mahmoud, James’s old friend who had helped me obtain my Lebanese visa (which is notoriously hard to get for Indonesians) assured us a few days earlier, “you’ll definitely get a lot of snow in the mountains.” And there was a silver lining to the dreary, rainy weather that greeted us on the coast. “It’s unusually wet for early April,” Mahmoud added, pointing out a tell-tale blanket of white that crowned the hilly landscape visible from Beirut’s Corniche.

Due to the distance, the relatively limited time we had in Lebanon, and the fact that our next accommodation was located high up in the mountains, we decided to arrange a pick up in advance. Wafik was the one who would take us from Beirut all the way to The Cedars, or Al Arz in Arabic, home to the legendary Cedrus libani, also known as the Cedars of God. It was already 12 PM and Wafik was supposed to have arrived at our hotel, but he was nowhere to be seen. Then I got a voice message from him on WhatsApp. “Hello, this is Wafik. I will arrive in 30 minutes. Very bad traffic.” I texted him to say it was fine and we would wait for him inside the hotel lobby. I also asked him what his car was just to make sure I would immediately notice him once he arrived. “Ford, white Ford,” he replied with another voice message in a fashion that almost reminded me of 007’s most famous line.

About half an hour later he finally arrived and apologized for being late. Coming from a city with some of the worst traffic jams in the world, I totally understood and sympathized with him for he had left the mountains quite early in the morning. We soon departed, but not without having to endure a little more of Beirut’s congestion. “Ya Rabb,” he murmured, expressing his frustration of the traffic conditions and the constant rain while waiting for the light to turn green at an intersection. In Indonesia, this expression – which literally means Oh, Lord – is usually said only by Muslims. But hearing an Arab Christian saying it reminded me that I was traveling in a part of the world that is home to three Abrahamic religions which share the same roots, and later on the journey I learned how similar Christian and Muslim prayers sound in Arabic, to my Indonesian ears at least.

Once we left Beirut for its northern outskirts, we then took the coastal road that snakes along the Mediterranean Sea. We passed Jounieh, Byblos, and before venturing further on to Tripoli – Lebanon’s second largest city – we took a right turn and kept climbing toward the mountains from there. While the weather was fair throughout the coastal drive, as we went up a thick blanket of fog gradually obscured the sea and the mountains. Then it descended upon the houses, before making the road itself barely visible. Wafik remained calm and steady at the wheel. He must have known this road like the back of his hand since he’s native to Bsharri (also spelled Bcharre), the closest town to Al Arz. It was in fact Bsharri that made me dream of visiting this part of Lebanon in the first place, for all the photos of it that I had seen years before depicted a little town with a spectacular natural setting that seemed too good to be true. However, James who is more familiar with the story of the cedars convinced me to stay in Al Arz instead for our accommodation would be just a short walk away from one of the oldest cedar groves in the entire country.

A rare sight for me

One of the millennia-old cedar trees in Al Arz

Nana, a friendly souvenir vendor, engraving a piece of cedar wood

The Mediterranean Sea (on the right) glimmering in the afternoon sun

A local church in Al Arz

Last rays of the sun on our first afternoon in Al Arz

The so-called Cedars of God have been an important source of wood since antiquity for its durability. The Phoenicians used the wood to build ships that helped propel them to become a powerful nation in the Mediterranean region; the Ancient Egyptians used the timber for the mummification process of their kings and queens; the Sumerian king Gilgamesh built his city with loads of cedar wood; and in the Bible, King Solomon (known as Sulaiman in the Muslim world) constructed the Temple of Jerusalem using the same type of cedars; the Roman emperor Hadrian designated the cedar forests in the Lebanese mountains an imperial domain which helped prevent their over-exploitation; the Ottomans and the British used them to build railroads; and the modern Lebanese, understanding the trees’ significance for millennia and the country’s importance as the main source of the cedars, immortalized them on the nation’s flag.

As we went higher, Wafik kept a steady speed while maneuvering the hairpin bends of the mountain road. We passed one town after another with an information board indicating our altitude before entering each locality. “Welcome to Bsharri,” Wafik proudly told us as we approached his hometown, its supposedly beautiful vistas completely covered in thick fog, although I could still see its main cathedral on top of a hill. Al Arz shouldn’t have been that far now, yet no snow was in sight although I tried to remain optimistic. After going through a tunnel and passing several other buildings in Bsharri, we finally emerged into a majestic landscape completely blanketed in the white powder. It was still very cloudy, but looking at that much snow so close to me for the very first time, I was overcome with a wave of excitement. So much so that I desperately wanted to get out of the car right away and touch the thick pile of cotton-like frozen water, something I’d only seen on TV and the internet. Half an hour after we left Bsharri, we arrived at our accommodation for the next two nights, a cozy mountain resort owned by a very hospitable old man and manned by equally friendly staff members who were extremely helpful whenever we needed them.

We had a simple yet very hearty late lunch at the resort, enjoyed in a cozy lounge warmed by logs that crackled and burned inside a rustic fireplace. It was very quiet and peaceful there, a stark contrast to the cacophony of the Lebanese capital where we had been for the previous three nights. From the lounge I could see a chairlift climbing up a mountain peak not too far from the resort. Rafael, the owner, told us that in high season guests from other Arab countries as well as Europe would flock to this part of Lebanon to ski in this Middle Eastern winter wonderland.

Perfect weather on our second day in this part of Lebanon

The Cedars of God amid thick blankets of snow

They have been standing for millennia

The tree that is depicted on the Lebanese flag

They come in different shapes

This one seems to have been split in half

That afternoon, we left the warmth of the resort and walked toward the cedar grove, a small group of the famous trees down the hill from where we were. Along the way, I couldn’t resist touching the fresh snow; as someone who has lived in the tropics my entire life, I was mesmerized by the sheer novelty of it all. The snow was piled up so high it blocked the entrance way to a house, and it cloaked the roofs of some houses and the mountain slopes save the tall trees where we were heading. Later on the trip we were told that the cedars in Al Arz are considered the oldest in Lebanon, dating back to 3,000 – 4,000 years ago. Unfortunately, today the population of Cedrus libani is dwindling thanks to over-exploitation in the past and its seedlings’ susceptibility to fungal attacks, which are on the increase thanks to global warming. Thick snow, like what we were experiencing, actually helps to keep the fungi at bay.

As we were approaching the grove, rows of souvenir stalls began to appear on both sides of the small road. A huge cedar tree stood up ahead, providing shade for the surrounding stalls. Walking underneath it was magical as I realized that this very tree has been there for millennia, silently watching the changes in its surroundings. “Hello, where are you from?” a middle-aged woman greeted us and smiled as we walked past her shop. She was the friendliest among other shop owners that we saw, so we thought we would drop by her stall after taking some photos of the cedars which still looked impressive even on a cloudy afternoon. Their trunks bore lines and cracks formed throughout the many years of their existence in the world, and the snow on the ground was like a clean canvas on which the cedars and pine trees were planted, becoming a source of admiration for generations of Homo sapiens.

We returned to that stall and learned that the owner’s name is Nana. While engraving James’s brother’s name on a piece of wood, she explained to us that she made all the souvenirs from fallen branches of the cedars. At the next stall, which apparently was still hers, her oldest son pulled out a jar of honey for us to try. Its woody fragrance and fruity flavor were very delightful, and we decided to buy a jar to bring back to Indonesia.

Before the day got darker, we walked back to our accommodation up on the hill, past roads that had been cleared of the snow – beside the asphalt, the snowdrifts piled up more than two meters high. As we were getting near the resort, the sun was slowly setting behind us. We turned and watched how the Mediterranean Sea glimmered on the horizon. Three days earlier we had seen Mount Lebanon’s snow-capped peaks from Beirut’s Corniche on the eastern end of the Mediterranean, and now we were standing at a vantage point that showed us the complete reverse. What a most pleasant way to end our first day in Al Arz! But little did we know that we would be extremely lucky the following day as we went down to Bsharri and explored a portion of the majestic Qadisha Valley in the most perfect weather.

A Cedrus libani on top of a hill

This one provides shade for some souvenir stalls underneath

Cracks and curves formed since antiquity

A Marian shrine beside the grove

Wishing these ancient trees thousands more years of good health

Posted by

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

45 thoughts on “Into Lebanon’s Snowy Realms”

    • I guess the cold weather kind of made my nose numb, so I don’t recall any particular smell when I was near the cedars. How do the cedars you know smell? Is it different from that of pine trees?

      Liked by 1 person

    • I absolutely understand why. Despite my excitement touching snow for the first time, I would rather live in a warmer place. 🙂

      Like

  1. Loved the post. That chapel looks lovely, and I like that shot of the lady surrounded with her carvings. Interesting observation about how different prayers sound very similar in Arabic.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you! There was a lady sitting inside her car who told us a way to get closer to the chapel. Thanks to her we could get that shot! Upon hearing Christian prayers in Arabic, I could actually notice a few words which are also used by Muslims in Indonesia, so I was able to kind of guess what the prayers were about.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. daveslaght says:

    Great post Bama. I loved your description of seeing snow close up for the first time. It’s great getting to experience the ‘firsts’ throughout our lives! I didn’t know Lebanon experienced that much snow! Wow. Beautiful photos!

    Dave from ‘Travel Tales of Life’

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Dave. I guess snow for you is like the sun for me. The only place in Indonesia where you can find snow is high up on the peaks of this remote mountain range in the far eastern part of the country, and sadly it’s disappearing fast because of global warming. So you can imagine how ecstatic I was to finally touch it for the first time, in the most unexpected place no less.

      Liked by 1 person

    • And apparently this part of the country gets a lot of Swiss, French, German, Italian and other European tourists despite the fact that they can get snow back home.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is my first time seeing the Cedar Forest of Lebanon, and I must say I can’t take my eyes off it. Simply beautiful! An oasis in the middle of a snowy realm. I was also impressed by how old these trees are. Hope they can stand there for a few more centuries 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • And what made the view even more impressive was the fact that I could see the glimmer of the Mediterranean Sea in the afternoon sun! It’s definitely among the most magnificent places I’ve ever been to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Did you make snow angel on that white blanket? 🙂 Honestly, I have never seen that much snow in my life. There was very little snow in Hamburg, and they melted fast. What left is a lot of mud…

        Liked by 1 person

      • I wish I did! Although according to James doing that would be more fun in Japan because the snow is very powdery.

        Like

  4. That is a crazy amount of snow! I’ve never seen anything like that, even in the Arctic! And with the cedar trees piercing through, it looks unlike any snowy landscape I’ve ever even heard of! So damn beautiful. Did you manage to go skiing or do any other winter sports while in the mountains?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was very lucky then. Prior to this trip to Lebanon I always imagined experiencing snow for the very first time in places like Japan, Canada, or somewhere in northern Europe. Now I understand why even the Europeans think this part of the Middle East is worth going for some cold adventure. The owner of our hotel told us that a lot of people usually come for skiing on the weekend. However, we arrived on Tuesday, and stayed until Thursday, so we didn’t really do any winter sports and walked almost everywhere instead.

      Like

  5. Thank you for sharing. Love the picks an article. That’s why I live in Florida. By the way, I lived in Alaska for 12 years, so I can relate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And thank you for reading. I have a blogger friend who used to work in Alaska but is now based in Bangkok. Although snow is beautiful, I don’t think I’d enjoy living in a snowy place that much.

      Like

  6. I know Lebanon is a diverse country but your beautiful photos are not at all how I imagine Lebanon—A Middle Eastern winter wonderland indeed! I love your photos of the perfect sunny winter day, and that shrine scene looks so peaceful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I guess it would be like seeing a tropical beach in Canada (if there was any). Snow is probably not something you want to see when you travel abroad, but if you do go to Lebanon one day, I hope you’ll be able to visit the mountains and experience this snow wonderland yourself — our Lebanese friend said this much snow doesn’t happen every year, though.

      Like

    • The fog on the day we arrived in Al Arz was like a curtain on a stage. Only when the audience is seated does it open, just like how the thick fog completely disappeared on our second day in this part of Lebanon.

      Like

      • What a beautiful way of describing it, Bama, and glad you could experience the landscape with and without the fog. There is a very different energy to fog, and although it doesn’t allow one to experience any vistas, it makes for a very interesting experience.

        I can remember crossing the Pyrenees in a thick blanket of mist, when walking the French leg of the Camino de Santiago. I felt let down, as I could hardly see a metre in front of me, yet the experience has stayed with me perhaps far longer and more vivid than if there was none.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Indeed, I often get frustrated by fog. But it actually creates a unique ambiance which usually makes a good travel memory.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I had never heard of that place until you mentioned it. I just googled it to see how it looks like and it does seem like a place to go for winter sports.

      Like

  7. I really felt your excitement about the snow both here and in James’s previous post. I can’t even imagine such a feeling, or the fact that engendered it – that you had really and truly never seen snow! It seems you already have a knack for photographing the white stuff; perhaps those majestic cedars added the perfect dark, textured contrast to the white mounds. I loved seeing and reading about the trees, as well as your drive and the people you met. Such a great trip even if short. On my list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • If only I had a video to show you how excited I was! After we checked in all I wanted to do was to be outdoors to touch the snow, to make snow balls and throw them, and to find out how it would feel to fall on it — although I ended up not doing the last one. Lebanon is a kind of place you would enjoy as much as we did, Lex. On my next post I will write about the journey pass the Anti-Lebanon mountain range to get to the Bekaa Valley which in itself was epic.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Actually it’s for the post after the next one. I remembered it wrong. 🙂

        Like

  8. Awesome. I had no idea there was so much snow in Lebanon. And how in most civilisations, there is something I nature, like cedars here, that propels them forward…

    Liked by 1 person

    • We all rely heavily on plants. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to breathe and eat like we do today, sustain great civilizations, built some of the world’s most impressive monuments, and done many other things. Unfortunately, in some big cities nature becomes harder and harder to access.

      Like

  9. Pingback: Bsharri and the Holy Valley | What an Amazing World!

  10. Bama what I loved most about this post was your delight with the snow. Living in Canada we often see snow as more work, something to shovel or something that makes traffic more challenging. Always good to see another perspective.
    The ancient trees are a true wonder. Not something I will likely see in my lifetime so am delighted to have travelled ‘with’ you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s exactly how we in Indonesia feel about the sun. The first time I truly appreciate it was when I returned home after spending one month in Europe back in 2007. Sun bathing never felt so good!

      Like

  11. It was such a pleasure to be there and witness your first encounter with snow – it’s not something I will forget for a very long time! And who would have thought you would see and touch the powder in such big quantities on our very first trip to the Middle East? The contrast between these pictures and our everyday existence in smoggy, humid Jakarta has me thinking about our next trip to colder climes – perhaps someplace where you can learn to ski!

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s one of the best and most memorable travel experiences I’ve ever had. The feeling of walking on snow, touching it, making a hole into a thick pile of it, just marvelous! I miss this part of Lebanon, especially during this time when Jakarta’s air quality is really bad. Ski for the next trip to a place with snow? Yes, please.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: A Valley Between the Snows | What an Amazing World!

  13. Pingback: Anjar: From the Umayyads to the Armenians | What an Amazing World!

Leave a Reply to Bama Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.