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.
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.
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.