Editor’s note: another incredible glimpse into a part of the world I’d never have thought to go by Sam Spector, our wandering rabbi. Check out all of his articles here!
This is the second half of my writing on Lebanon, a country that I visited and found fascinating. I decided to write about Lebanon in the aftermath of the explosion that took place in August. When tragedy strikes a faraway place and you have been to that place and have met people who you know are affected, it ceases to be a news story, but rather it becomes something personal and emotional. When a place is dealing with the aftermath of a calamity, I like to consider visiting it once it is again safe in order to help the people economically rebuild their lives, and Lebanon is a fantastic place to consider going on a future trip. The country itself is small, as in smaller than Connecticut small. Small countries with rich history and culture are gems for a couple reasons; while larger countries have many highlights, they are spread far apart, meaning that you have to be more selective about your choices, whereas in places like Lebanon, you can choose one place as your main location and do day trips to the nation’s highlights easily. Doing such saves lots of time, meaning that you can easily pair Lebanon with another place in the region like Jordan, Turkey, Cyprus, or one of the Greek Islands as part of an extended trip. In Lebanon, the bustling cosmopolitan metropolis of Beirut is an ideal jumping off point as it is located in the center of Lebanon’s coastal border. Read my last article about Beirut and Southern Lebanon for tips on that day trip, but this week, I am writing about my journey to the eastern part of the country.
For these two day trips, I arranged a small group tour and recommend doing the same as some of these locations are difficult to get to by public transport, and also the United States State Department recommends not going to the Beqaa Valley in the eastern part of the country due to its proximity with the border of Syria and the presence of Hezbollah forces there. That said, in my group setting, I saw no conflict, felt perfectly safe, and the only inkling of Hezbollah that I experienced there was seeing a couple of flags and some souvenir stands selling t-shirts with the Hezbollah logo on them. The calmness I felt was a welcome relief because visiting the Beqaa Valley and one site in particular was my primary reason for coming to Lebanon.
Of all the attractions that Lebanon boasts, there is none that is more impressive than Baalbek. For many travelers of the Mediterranean, Greco-Roman ruins are a familiar stop in nearly every country. From Caesarea, Jerusalem, and Beit She’an in Israel, Jerash in Jordan, Ephesus and Hieropolis in Turkey, and Volubilis in Morocco, the region’s ruins start to blend together to someone who has experienced many of them. However, there are no ruins like Baalbek, which are incredibly imposing and will make someone feel so small. As the bus is approaching the UNESCO World Heritage Site, you will understand that you are approaching something massive, and then you arrive at Baalbek, a site that has the largest monolithic stones ever quarried, each weighing over one thousand tons, intended by the Romans to have been used for construction of temples at Baalbek, but were incapable of being moved from their quarry. Baalbek has been inhabited for over 8000 years and received its name after being a worship site of the Near Eastern god Ba’al. However, during Greek times it was known, and is still known to many, as Heliopolis, due to it being the center of worship for the Greek sun god. While the sprawling city ruins of Baalbek are impressive in itself, the highlights that you will never forget are the two largest temples in the entire Roman world (you read that correctly), the Temples of Jupiter and Bacchus. While the Temple of Jupiter, the largest temple structure, is in ruins, there are still several columns that are standing, giving a person a sense of the magnitude of the colossal building. However, even for a person who has seen numerous Roman ruins, their jaws will drop upon laying eyes on the Temple of Bacchus; the massive, beautifully ornate and incredibly preserved structure that still stands 217 feet in length, 115 feet in width and 102 feet in height over 1800 years after its construction.
The Temple of Bacchus. Note the people for scale.
Near Baalbek, your day trip can be combined with a stop in Anjar, another UNESCO site. Anjar today is a village populated by the Armenian Diaspora community of Lebanon that has also become an example of progress for the nation. In Anjar, there are numerous Syrian refugee camps, and the city has also over the past decades become known for its low pollution and crime rates, and imposed strict measures during the COVID-19 pandemic to spare it from the toll of the virus. Located beautifully in a valley beneath snowcapped Mount Lebanon, Anjar, today a small village of about 3000 inhabitants, reveals that it was once a large city during the Umayyad caliphate of the 8th century. Today, you will walk among the scenic ruins of former mosques and palaces, many of which were modeled in the style of the Romans who had dwelt there hundreds of years earlier.
Ruins at Anjar
At the end of the day, go to the nearby winery of Chateau Ksara, Lebanon’s most famous winery that produces millions of bottles of wine annually and exports them to over forty countries worldwide. As the Beqaa Valley from late spring to early autumn is hot and humid, ending the day of sightseeing in a place that was appropriately picked for honoring the sun god for a wine tasting is the perfect way to end your day and perhaps to have it come full circle as an homage to Bacchus, the god of wine, whose temple awed you earlier. Much like everything else in Lebanon, Chateau Ksara is more than just a winery, but rather a historical experience in itself. The winery was built in 1857 by Jesuit Priests and for decades was owned by the Catholic Church before being privatized. In the basement of the winery is a vast, widespread system of tunnels (you might want to bring a sweatshirt as these get cold) where hundreds of barrels of wine are stored. Believe it or not, the tunnels actually preceded the winery and were the reason for the winery’s existence when the Jesuit priests discovered the network of tunnels that had been used by the Romans nearly two millennia prior for the very cause of wine producing. When you drink wine from Ksara, it is as though you are not just indulging in delicious wine, but rather you are drinking the history of the nation.
Roman wine tunnel
As we made our way back to Beirut, our guide asked the bus of tourists, mostly from Europe and the United States, who had had family tell them not to visit Lebanon? Nearly every hand went up. She asked whose governments had issued travel advisories against visiting Lebanon, and in particular the Beqaa Valley? Again, nearly every hand was raised. The tour guide then asked who felt unsafe today or saw militants with guns at checkpoints or anything that you had been warned about? Not a single hand was raised. This is why I travel to these places; it is always important to take precautions, to stay safe, but also to come in with an open mind, and more often than not, your preconceived conclusions will be radically changed.
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