Anjar: From the Umayyads to the Armenians

35 comments
Asia, Lebanon, West

The main road of the ruins of the Umayyad city in Anjar

Since antiquity, the Armenians have always been known as brave, mercantile people who sought opportunities beyond their traditional homeland. For centuries, the Kingdom of Armenia was one of the most powerful entities in this part of the world with its territory straddling three seas: the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, and the Mediterranean Sea. But there were also periods when the Armenian highlands in the Caucasus region were controlled by foreign forces, including the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, and the Russians. However, there was one particular event that will always be remembered as the darkest chapter in the history of the Armenians.

In 1915, when the Ottoman Empire still ruled over vast swathes of land in the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and southeast Europe, an unimaginable horrific act was perpetrated by the state against its own predominantly-Christian ethnic Armenian minority. Fueled by anti-Armenian sentiment, the Ottomans systematically massacred up to 1.5 million Armenians in just a few years, which also resulted in the exodus of a large number of people from this specific ethnic group. Those who were fortunate enough to live had to leave the country, but in some areas the local Armenian communities were determined to fight the Ottoman army, including those in the Musa Dagh region in what is now the Turkish province of Hatay which shares borders with Syria to its south and east.

The local populace of six Armenian villages in Musa Dagh retreated to its namesake mountain to consolidate themselves in the face of the imminent threat from the Ottoman army. For 53 days from July to September 1915, this Armenian community held its ground until a French naval squadron noticed the distress signal raised by these people. In total, French and British ships managed to rescue 4,200 people from Musa Dagh and transported them to Port Said in modern-day Egypt. Following the Turkish defeat in the aftermath of World War I, the Sanjak of Alexandretta – where Musa Dagh is located – came under French control in 1918. This prompted the Armenian refugees in Port Said to return home. In 1923, Alexandretta was absorbed into the French Mandate in Syria, only to be detached and absorbed into Turkey to become Hatay Province 16 years later. This event sparked a mass emigration of Musa Dagh’s Armenians to Lebanon – at that time still under French control – where they resettled in the town of Anjar.

Founded as Gerrha in the eighth century AD by Walid I, the sixth caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, what is now Anjar was largely abandoned prior to the arrival of the Armenians in 1939. Its location at the crossroads of two ancient trade routes – Beirut to Damascus and Homs in modern-day Syria to Tiberias in present-day Israel – was the main reason for the caliph to establish the city as a commercial center. However, under the rule of Ibrahim, son of Walid I as well as the 13th caliph, Gerrha was partially destroyed in a military conflict before being abandoned. It wasn’t until the late 1940s, a few years after the independence of Lebanon from France, that archaeologists discovered the remnants of this ancient city which shed light on eighth-century Umayyad urban planning.

Gerrha was built as a rectangular city surrounded by fortified walls with 40 towers. It was divided into four quadrants along the north-south and east-west axis with each quadrant serving a specific purpose. The great palace of the caliph occupied the southeast quarter, while the harems and the baths were in the northeast. Residential areas were distributed in the northwest and southwest quarters. The most intact section is the ruins of the Umayyad palace, the very reason why James and I paid UNESCO-listed Anjar a visit despite its relative obscurity.

Bathed in the warm afternoon sun

The iconic tetrapylon marking the center of the eighth-century city

Behind the hills in the background is Syria

A look into the past

First sight of the partially-rebuilt Umayyad palace

A closer look at the palace

An empty colonnaded street in a tranquil setting

After lunchtime on our second day in Baalbek, we are at the Palmyra Hotel’s old but somewhat charming lobby, waiting for our driver who will take us to Anjar (also spelled Aanjar), some 50 kilometers to the southwest. Of all the places we visit in Lebanon, Anjar is probably the one that makes me the most nervous for its proximity to war-torn Syria – the ruins of the Umayyad palace are only about three kilometers away from the border. But I don’t have time to worry too much as our driver soon arrives and greets us. The young friendly man introduces himself as Muhammad Syuaib (the Lebanese might spell his name differently) and we hop into his old Mercedes car to begin the journey. A thick overcast sky persists during the first 10 minutes or so, before we suddenly hear a loud banging on the roof of the car. It’s hailing, and I can only hope that Muhammad’s car window will be able to sustain this sudden ‘attack’. Before long the hail stops, and slowly the sun emerges in the western sky, a promising afternoon to explore this even lesser-known part of Lebanon we’re heading to.

With his very limited English, Muhammad tries his best to communicate with us, and when he doesn’t understand what we say to him, he always gives us a big smile. As is the norm in the Beqaa Valley, we pass through several security check points manned by armed personnel from the Lebanese army. Nothing too intimidating, just long lines of cars trying to squeeze into a road made narrower by a series of concrete barricades purposefully installed to slow down traffic. Once we go through them, Muhammad speeds up on the smooth and mostly straight highway with villages and cities, mosques and churches flashing by on both sides of the road. Not long after, as we near Zahlé, a predominantly Greek Orthodox city which is also the capital of the Beqaa Governorate, we turn left toward the southeast. Muhammad has to stop by several times to ask people the exact location of Anjar – apparently this is also his first time going to the historic town.

After almost an hour since leaving the Palmyra Hotel, we stumble upon a place where the Armenian alphabet replaces Arabic script, and small Armenian flags along with Lebanese flags are mounted on the lampposts. That’s how we know that we have arrived in Anjar. The town’s modern layout takes the shape of a bird with its wings spread out, but its neighborhoods were named after the original six villages of Musa Dagh where the parents and grandparents of the residents of present-day Anjar emigrated from. At the entrance of the ruins of the Umayyad palace, only a few other cars are in sight, a telltale sign of most tourists’ reluctance to visit this UNESCO World Heritage Site. However, that has not always been the case.

Before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Anjar was on the itinerary of many organized tours across Jordan, Syria and Lebanon due to the town’s convenient location along the road connecting Damascus and Beirut. Therefore the closure of the border means a sharp drop of tourists visiting this predominantly-Armenian town. We walk to the ticket booth where a few locals are chitchatting, then one of them asks us a question.

“Where are you from?”

“Indonesia,” I answer.

“Welcome, and thank you,” he grins.

His warm welcome not only shows the locals’ friendliness and hospitality, but it also speaks volumes about the town’s struggling tourism industry, the very reason why every single visitor matters.

The restored section of the Umayyad palace

This must have been a great palace in the eighth century

Corinthian columns inside the palace

Muhammad Syuaib, our friendly driver

The ruins of what was once the center of a commercial hub

Snow-capped Mount Lebanon in the far background

The shrubs, the palace, and the hills

A quiet afternoon near the border with Syria

One last shot before going back to Baalbek

From the entrance, a series of arcades and fallen columns flank both sides of the cardo (the central axis of the citadel), all bathed in the warm afternoon sun. We walk toward the palace at the other end of the compound while marveling at its eighth-century beauty that was long forgotten until the 1940s. There are only a handful of other visitors here, and some local staff working in this quiet setting. Beyond the citadel to our left are hills which act as a natural boundary between Lebanon and Syria. Meanwhile, to our far right lies the majestic snow-capped Mount Lebanon, home to millennia-year-old Cedrus libani. A portion of the Umayyad palace had been restored, allowing visitors to imagine how the entire structure must have looked during its heyday.

We walk around, exploring parts of the city, taking a lot of pictures, and going to a section which is almost completely covered in thick shrubs, before eventually stopping to admire the scale of ancient Anjar while the fresh spring air caresses our faces. Muhammad also explores the ruins and takes a few selfies – and wefies together with me and James – against the spectacular backdrop. As the sun slowly sinks lower and lower toward the horizon, a big group of Italian tourists arrive and break the silence of this place. However, it is about time for us to leave anyway and head back to Baalbek before it gets dark.

What started as a slightly nerve-wracking excursion ends up being an unforgettable one. The biggest ‘danger’ was probably the hail, while the rest of the trip went smoothly. Just a few minutes after leaving Anjar, Muhammad pulls over and tells us something about tea. We take that as his request to stop by for a while to have some tea, and we open the doors. But then his hand gestures tell us that he wants us to stay in the car, and he asks us the same question again about tea. At this point we’re all confused, and just before he restarts the engine, we signal to him that a cup of tea is fine. Then he gets out again, makes some enigmatic signals before we finally understand that what he really wants is to buy us tea without us having to leave the car. Although a little bit lost in translation, this is a perfect case of Lebanese hospitality.

Muhammad takes us back to Baalbek, and as the city comes into sight it reminds us that our time in this beautiful, complex, and friendly country is nearly at an end. For me the hassle was really back in Jakarta where I had to go to the Lebanese embassy several times to get a visa, and the flights were among the most expensive I’ve ever booked. Nevertheless, it is all worth the trouble for this small country has turned out to be among the most incredible and spectacular places I’ve ever visited. However, there’s still one more good thing about Lebanon that I have yet to write about: the food. But that requires a post of its own – even just thinking about it makes me hungry.

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

35 thoughts on “Anjar: From the Umayyads to the Armenians”

  1. Beautiful account of your travel. Lebanon’s civil war and continuous problems in middle East has taken it off from tourist map.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Both regions have some of the world’s finest architectural heritage, a reminder of their importance in the Old World many centuries ago. Wars and politics have unfortunately reduced the world’s perception of these places into merely troubled areas.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Bama I have to say I gulped as i read that you were going so close to the Syrian border. Must be the overprotective mother cat phenomenon. so ad for the beautiful town that has lost all of its tourism. I am certain your presence was appreciated. The beauty of the ruins can not be argued. I don’t think it would be a trip i would take but I am very grateful to see it through your fabulous photos and eloquent narrative.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the things that made me not worry too much about it was the fact that the part of Syria across the hills from Anjar was controlled by the Syrian government, and it wasn’t really the main battleground in the country’s civil war. When I told my mom about this place she had the same reaction like you, Sue, which is understandable. It’s so surreal to think that before the war, Anjar was a popular place among tourists.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the detail in your blog posts, it’s refreshing to see someone who properly does their research on destinations. Visiting Anjar and realising that the Syrian border is just over that hill is definitely a sobering and surreal experience!! I’m glad that you enjoyed your time in Lebanon (for such a small country it has so much to offer doesn’t it?!), if you’re interested in visiting more Arab countries feel free to take a look at my site where I will soon be uploading posts on my time in Israel and the Palestinian territories 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Much appreciated, Amy. I just took a look at your blog and your posts on Lebanon immediately caught my attention. I’ll be coming back to your blog to read more stories on the Middle East. It’s such a fascinating, beautiful, troubled corner of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Those arcades are among the most striking features of these ruins. Imagine how the entire city must have looked like when it was still a bustling center of commerce!

      Like

  4. Those walls, with rows of small and flat bricks placed at an interval with other, taller rocks reminds me so much of Istanbul. I could swear I’ve seen, time and again, buildings made that way there. It’s amazing to see those arches, so impossibly thin and fragile, resisting for so many centuries.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m trying to think of that building in Istanbul that you mentioned, but I can’t recall any. Probably it’s located in an area in the city that I didn’t have time to explore. I’ve been thinking of returning to the Turkish city, but I always end up being distracted by other places. Maybe when I do go back I’ll notice more similarities between Istanbul and some of the places in Lebanon.

      Like

  5. Fascinating travel, Bama! I learned a lot from your post, it’s sad and worrying about what happened to the region.
    “..a loud banging on the roof of the car” Oh my! What travel it must be for you and James..!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Indah. The Middle East is a region that is home to many great heritage sites which unfortunately has also seen some of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. However, there have been and will always be periods of peace here and there, every now and then. It’s during this time the region’s beauty and magnificence can be truly appreciated.

      When it was hailing, it was thrilling, to say the least. 🙂

      Like

  6. I loved how the turbulent past of the Armenians has been brought to bear upon the perfectly composed images of the once bustling place. Carry on enlightening, my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Such kind words, Umashankar! This trip to Lebanon has put Armenia higher on my list of countries I wish to see the most. For a small country, it certainly has an intriguing history.

      Like

  7. Love this!! I was just walking to a friend last night about Beqaa Valley is one of the places I want to visit. I adore how you share a mix of history with your personal experience. Thanks for travelling and sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. You are truly amazing!! And soooo intrepid!! Beautiful intricate stonework so good to see in such a damaged part of our world… i really look forward to your posts! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re too kind, Trees. Thanks! For a small country Lebanon offers so much, including incredible ruins like this one. Hopefully peace will also return to the land behind those hills for it’s also home to some of the world’s most magnificent ancient sites.

      Like

  9. I only had time for photos this week, so if you wrote about this somewhere, I apologize for not reading it! That is, the horizontal pattern of the stone in so many of these structures is new to me. I like it; it’s kind of different, and the contrast of the bigger stones with the flatter ones is very cool. I’ve seen similar horizontal patterns used in the Mediterranean, but not stacked quite like this. I find it amazing how different people used common materials to create such different types of architecture and design!

    Liked by 1 person

    • No worries, Lex. This is my first Umayyad ruins, and you can tell the different architectural influences on the palace. Visiting this compound really made me want to visit Damascus one day — geographically it’s really not that far from Anjar but the current security and political circumstances make it seem difficult to reach.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. It looks like you had these wonderful ruins virtually to yourselves. What a treat, but as you say, tough on the local economy. I can feel your passion for Lebanon. Thanks for sharing its sites, natural wonders, history…and I’m looking forward to the food!

    Liked by 1 person

    • For about one hour we were indeed among a handful of visitors to these ruins, and there were moments where I was by myself. If I got the chance to go back to Lebanon, I would certainly do that in a heartbeat. It’s an immensely fascinating country!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Nice photos as always Bama, and an informative post. Lebanon has been a cultural crossroads for centuries, and as your post shows, it has a lot to offer. But also, as you point out, there’s no getting around the security issues in this part of the world. I’ve never been an overly cautious traveler, but as an American, Lebanon will just stay on the list until things calm down. Sadly, that may be never. In the meantime, thanks for this interesting glimpse. ~ James

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks James. Things can escalate really quickly and unpredictably in Lebanon. A little over a week ago Israeli drones were reported to be spotted in southern Beirut — one of Hezbollah’s strongholds in the country — followed by a missile attack by the group into Israel, which sparked the latter’s retaliation by launching artillery shells into Lebanon. At the moment things to remain relatively calm again — no one knows for how long. However, when you do get the chance to visit Lebanon, I’d say grab that chance while at the same time stay updated with the latest security conditions of the country.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. If it weren’t for my brother, I would never have heard of Anjar’s ancient ruins – there was something about the way he described them that made the place a must-see on our Lebanese itinerary. I recall reading somewhere that historians in Lebanon realized the country contained built heritage from every single major epoch in its history, except for the Umayyad period. And then archaeologists stumbled across Gerrha.

    It’s quite lovely that the Armenian community in Anjar has become the custodians of these wonderful, less-visited ruins. Had we a few more days in Lebanon, I would have loved to stay overnight to learn about the town’s Armenian culture (and eat more Armenian-Lebanese food!). Your shots of the Umayyad city remind me just how tranquil the place was – and you found some gorgeous angles (like the symmetrical view of the Corinthian columns inside the palace) that I didn’t even notice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can’t thank you enough for suggesting Anjar. I had no clue about this place at all prior to planning this trip to Lebanon. I must admit when I read about the town and how close it is to the Syrian border I was a little hesitant to put it in our itinerary. Fortunately when we went the skirmishes along the border were very much nonexistent, otherwise there might have been an even heavier security presence in this part of the country, if we were able to go there at all.

      Those Armenian dishes we had in Lebanon is enough to convince me to choose Armenia as the first country in the Caucasus to visit should the opportunity arise. I loved the spices they used in their cooking as well as the fact that some dishes we tried were quite spicy. Speaking of the ruins, I liked how peaceful it was during our visit. However, I do hope the local tourism industry will rebound soon, one way or another, for it will give a much-needed boost to the economy.

      Liked by 1 person

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