Media headlines surrounding Lebanon have been dominated with one question for the better part of the last two years. That question is whether or not the conflict in Syria will push Lebanon over the edge to similar instances of sectarian violence that has dominated its modern history.
Despite repeated ‘reasons’ for it to do just that, it has remained on its own strenuous course of keeping a relative peace – a somewhat overlooked credit to the people of this country.
As the rate of “adventure seekers” and independent travellers continue to flourish, Lebanon offers everything and more that these people claim to have such a yearning to find, yet few ever visit.
After travelling to over 40 countries, none have had a greater impact on me than my visit to the last remaining city-state in the Mediterranean.
Where the conquerors of each age overlap one other
My intrigue for Beaufort Castle started after hearing about it from another traveller in the common room of our Beirut hostel.
Getting to Beaufort from Beirut meant following a bouncing ball of transportation connections that vaguely looks like this:
-West Beirut to East Beirut
-East Beirut to the southern city of Saidon
-Saidon to Beaufort.
To add some colour to what this process looked like in real time, just include factors like Beirut’s chaotic traffic, haggling with numerous service-taxi and mini-van drivers and clarifying that “fifteen” actually means “fifty”. The journey to Beaufort still remains as one of the most vigorous tests of my traveller’s intuition, negotiation skills and situational awareness to date…
Built by the Crusaders during the 12th century, the remains of Beaufort Castle can still be found on a hilltop near the southern Lebanese village of Arnoun.
While the entire Middle East boasts many fine examples of crusader fortifications, Beaufort is somewhat unique in the fact that it has also played a significant tactical role in modern warfare.
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) occupied the castle between 1976 and 1982, when an Israeli military operation succeeded in capturing the castle. Beaufort was one of the last places held by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) before the withdrawal from their occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 – an effort that was made somewhat famous through the Israeli film “Beaufort”, which centres on the last IDF soldiers left holding the castle.
The grounds of this ancient beast of war have an eerie peace to them.
A single Hezbollah flag flies from the castle’s highest point and it’s from here that the original incentive for the castles location becomes obvious. Below the 300m cliffs to the castle’s southern walls are unbroken views across what is now southern Lebanon and northern Israel.
The ancient stonewalls and archways of the crusaders are drawn into a stark contrast with the drab, reinforced concrete defences left by the IDF.
Visiting Beaufort in some way gave me a clearer insight into life story of this region as a whole: A place of fierce natural beauty, where the conquers of each age overlap one another, leaving their mark that simply becomes just another piece in the colourful mosaic that is Lebanon.
To understand Lebanon, one has to first understand the uniqueness of its capital, Beirut.
The Lebanese American essayist, Nassim Taleb, once stated that “Beirut is the only remaining City-State in the Mediterranean. The multilingual, multi-religious, tolerant, obsessively mercantile, Mediterranean City-States have been swallowed by the modernistic nation states. Alexandria was swallowed by the nation of Egypt, Smyrna by the nation of Turkey, Thessaloniki by Greece, Aleppo by Syria. But luckily Beirut swallowed Lebanon. Lebanon was small enough a state to let itself be colonized by the City-State of Beirut.”
Just north of Beirut is a river called Nahr al-Kalb which, became the official borderline between the Egyptian and Hittite Kingdoms in the 13th century BC.
Ever since, the rulers and generals of conquering forces have traditionally built monuments to their victory at the river’s mouth. From Nebuchadnezzar to Napoleon (and even those bloody Aussies), all have left their mark, which almost all are still visible today.
What they don’t mention however is that Beirut has been destroyed seven times during the last 5000 years of these conquests – only to rebuild and thrive once again each time.
Today, Beirut and as such, Lebanon, is rebuilding for its eighth time after a civil war that lasted for 15 years. It truly is a city-state, over flowing with character and contrasts (Beirut boasts the world’s longest, continuously running Ferrari dealership as well as some of the world’s longest operating refugee camps) that ensure travellers an inimitable experience.
The energy of Beirut is simply captivating and as the scars of war are still very evident throughout the city, it’s little wonder that the ancient symbol of “Berytus” is none other than the Phoenix.
Each day I spent in Lebanon was drastically different to the one before it.
One day I would be amongst six-foot high snow (in the middle of summer) in Mount Lebanon to the country’s north, the next, I would be in the country’s east standing completely perplexed at how the monstrous pillars of the Roman temples of Baalbek were constructed nearly 2000 years ago. I was never more than “a few hours from Beirut.”
Beirut based, English journalist Robert Fisk once likened the political situation of Lebanon to a Rolls Royce with square wheels; “It has a lot to be worthy of praise but it doesn’t run so well.”
For the traveller though, this is exactly what makes Lebanon such an incredible destination to visit because, much like the various transportation experiences we can have on the road, it’s most commonly the unorthodox rides that we remember most.
Have you been to Lebanon? What were your experiences there? Or have you been to a country were there aren’t as many travellers as there should be? Let us know in the discussion below…