Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lebanon Week 2

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As a philosopher-architect-Lebanese-friend often says, “Beirut is a schizophrenic city”. It is truly hard to believe that just a few months ago, the now crowded streets of Hamra were full of men brandishing guns, all these shops were shuttered and instead of the loud techno music, all one heard at night was incessant firing. Our Lebanese friend, who has taken it upon herself to show us all sides of Beirut does a perfect job of balancing the two sides. The first day we spent having lunch at a chintzy organic lunch place and checking out the even chintzier AUB campus by the sea. Sunset was at the Corniche (the seaside promenade by the Mediterranean) - Beirut’s version of Venice boardwalk or Mumbai’s Juhu. In the evening, the Corniche is the perfect place to soak in some Beirut lifestyle. As the waves crash on the rocks below, couples and friends park their cars on the road but keep the music system blaring (different version of the ‘Habibi Habibi” song!), bring out their plastic chairs and rent a sheesha (Hookah) from the street-side sheesha seller and cups of Turkish coffee from the coffee-sellers. And here they sit enjoying the lights of the city – lights of the tall apartment buildings, the Hard Rock Café, McDonalds and the lighthouse. It has the perfect amount of noise and activity to jolt you out of your jet lag – but not as impossible to bear as the level of activity at Hamra.

We had been invited for a private party at some club in Gemayze, one of the most happening streets in East Beirut (yaha, we suddenly have a life beyond the Cambridge style 9 pm bedtime!) but our jet lag prevailed and we decided to crash early and rise early to make most of our weekend stay at Ashrafieh. Ashrafieh is one of the oldest districts in Beirut and is another fascinating example of the different ethnic pockets in the city – Shias ( and app'ly Hezbollah) dominating the South, Christians in the East (Ashrafieh area) and so on. It is also one of the chic-est places with stores that sell nothing for less than $200 (I guess we have to reserve our shopping for whenever we get back to the U.S!). Night was spent dancing at a (Gay) party in the basement of an old old hotel somewhere in Downtown Beirut. The people were dressed either crazy (read pink sunglasses and leopard print tights) or designer (leather boots, leather mini skirts and tight tight tight shirts) and we stood out like sore thumbs, as usual. This time our bedtime was wayyy past Cambridge bedtime hours – a little beyond 3 am….

Day 4 was possibly one of the most intense days of my lives. It started off with a mad drive up the hills to a place called Baalbek. I call it a “mad drive” because Lebanese people beat even Dilliwallas hollow at adventurous driving, no rules, no speed limits, no concept of one way/two way traffic, and no walk signs. Yet surprisingly most of the BMWs, Mercs and such (those are the common cars on the street) remain unscratched. Our Lebanese friend surmises, “The war has done one good thing. Taught the people here how to drive well in really stressful situations”.
Ok, I need to stop digressing and get back to the topic, an intense day and Baalbek:

The temple complex of Baalbek is situated atop a high point in the mountains surrounding the fertile (at least fertile enough to grow tons of Hashish!) Bekaa valley. Apparently the history of Baalbek reaches back approximately 5000 years dating to the Middle Bronze Age (1900-1600 BC), and this was built on top of an older level of human habitation dating to the Early Bronze Age (2900-2300 BC). Imagine this: if one starts digging under the existing level of excavated temples (which in any case are super super old), one would find another (older) level, and under that another (older still) level and so on. Don’t know about you, but that bit of info totally blew my mind…

Anyway, so getting back to history (or what I recall of our guide’s rant), the beginning of Baalbek can be traced back to as early as the time of Solomon, passed on to the Phoenicians, and then to the Greco-Roman times – when it got its name Heliopolis of the “city of sun”. Here my memory fails me so I am going to resort to google.

The golden age of Roman building at Baalbek/Heliopolis began in 15BC when Julius Caesar settled a legion there and began construction of the great Temple of Jupiter. During the next three centuries, as emperors succeeded one another in the imperial capital of Rome, Heliopolis was filled with the most massive religious buildings ever constructed in the far reaching Roman Empire. These monuments functioned as places of worship until Christianity was declared the official religion of the Roman Empire in 313 AD. By the end of the 4th century, the city had declined and lapsed into relative oblivion.
In the year 634, Muslim armies entered Syria and besieged Baalbek. A mosque was built within the walls of the temple compound, which was itself converted into a citadel. Over the next several centuries, the city and region of Baalbek were controlled by various Islamic dynasties.

I am usually a guide-hater but in this case it made sense to get one since I know zilch about such stuff and without a lil bit of info it is hard to appreciate the influence the Phoenicians, Greek, Romans and finally the Arabs had on the architecture of this place. With every conquest, new types architecture creeped in and so you have the Jupiter temple (place of worship) and its massive columns standing side by side with the arches and domes of later times. And the great court (place of worship and sacrifice) sits pretty along with Bacchus (the place of orgy!). As if the place was not crazy enough, the touts outside were crazier still. One came rushing at us and sold us (for $80) what looks like heavy silver coins from one of these eras. Locals tell us that if you start digging anywhere in the Beqa valley you will come up with a fistful of such ancient coins… ok, perhaps not, but fer sure whoever made the fakes did a darn good job.

Ok, take a short break. While I go scrounge for some old coins…!



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