Feb 14

What Was It Really Like in Ancient Times?

“Oh, and beyond that wall, if you look down you’ll see stone blocks weighing around 800 tons.”

Quick calculation: 800 tons…times around 2000lbs……1,600,000lbs….zzZZzz;*brain connections fried*

We just stare down in amazement at the massive stones, lined up neatly outside the temple compound.

“Ohhh…I’m scared of heights.” My companion says and steps back from the ledge.

“You’re looking at 1.5 million lb perfectly carved stones and you’re talking about heights??”

He walks over to one of the massive broken ruins lying about the dirt and snaps a few pictures on his phone.

I take a picture of the blocks, knowing it won’t do the justice of actually seeing them in person.  It takes a real skilled photographer to be able to do that.

We’re in Baalbeck, the most popular archeological site in Lebanon and it’s almost sun set, so we’re on a bit of a hurried guided tour. This site has seen a significant decline in tourism in recent year’s thanks mostly to the war raging in neighboring Syria, whose capital Damascus is situated only 75 km to the south beyond the Anti-Lebanon Mountain range, which separates the two countries.

It’s a strange feeling being so close to a place you hear terrible things about on the television but you never thought you’d actually see, like somewhere between forbidden and exhilarating. I got the same feeling driving along the Dead Sea in Jordan, looking across and seeing Israel on the other side with the lights of small towns along the beaches. I couldn’t help but wonder what it’s like there; In Israel; In Syria.

Looking up from the massive blocks and gazing into those distant mountains I get that same feeling. Here I am taking pictures of huge rocks while just an hour’s drive from me are people living each day not knowing if it they or their loved ones will be killed. It shakes me up and I feel somewhat ashamed.

Why am I here and they are there? They weren’t even given a chance.

I hear the guide yelling about some ancient columns nearby and I turn and head towards him, away from the dark side of humanity.

I use the ‘creative-auto’ feature on my DSLR (think Instagram filters) to make my pictures a little more interesting. I’ll admit I have little idea which ones I should actually be using but I like the monochrome ones the best because well, black and white photos can be pretty dramatic. This place doesn’t have much color anyway; There is just a lot of brown, tan, and off white, like most Middle Eastern countries. The sun is nearing the horizon.

I snap some pictures of the Temple of Venus, Jupiter’s Temple, and the Temple of Bacchus all while listening to the guides’ words, getting somewhat confused about the history.

“The site is named after the Phoenician God Bal; This was the site of a Byzantine Church with the altar lying over there; There are so-and-so number of granite pillars, typical of the Romans who quarried them in Aswan, Egypt and transported here; The Temple of Jupiter sits on top three 1,000 ton blocks.”

…2,000,000 pounds? *zzZZzz*

I ask how they were able to quarry and move such massive blocks and I get the same response I did when I asked our guide in Cairo how the Great Pyramids were built: Lots and lots of slave labor. Over 100,000 slaves over decades he says. There is a camp that houses much skepticism that ancient people, supposedly with primitive wooden, bronze, and other metal tools, were able to accomplish such magnificent feats. This leads to some very interesting debates.

Both sites lack any clear information about their original construction which only adds to the mysteriousness of their origins. I begin to think maybe there was some civilization here before humans and we merely found these massive structures and made them our own. Man is arrogant and quick to claim any new discovery as his own. His thirst for power and proneness to greed and jealousy has skewed history so much I see it obviously now. Our guide thinks he is absolutely right and doesn’t second guess the ability of the ancients to move such huge stones so perfectly into place.

“See those holes in the rock, that’s where they placed wooden poles to help move the stone.” I look at the hole, which is a mere speck in the side of the massive stone and just nod my head.

I’m open to all kind of theories, especially those that go against mainstream thinking, and if you look into megalithic structures, or “relating to or denoting prehistoric cultures characterized by the erection of megalithic, or massive, monuments”, found all around the world, you will be confronted with mystery and left with a puzzled mind. Or you can just believe what you hear, take a picture, and carry on.

It’s my second ancient site in as many days. Having arrived less than 36 hours ago, I was able to meet an eco-tour group at the crack of dawn on my first day in the country and spend the entire day hiking through the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains in the Baqa’a valley (pronounced “bahka”) surrounding the nearby town of Aanjar, maybe 20 km from the Syrian Border. It was beautiful countryside, filled with Armenian history, organic strawberries, newly planted trees, and the rockiest mountainside trail I’ve ever seen.

That day started with a visit by the mayor of Anjar, which is a small town consisting of mostly Armenians who settled there around 1939. The town is famously home to an 8th century palace-city stronghold belonging to the Umayyard Caliph, whose empire extended the Muslim world from Central Asia to the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus). The stronghold is still mostly surrounded by walls and contains a Grand Palace, a roman style thermal bathhouse and houses for over 100 concubines, family members, and slaves. We proceeded to hike across the mountain side, passing strawberry patches and following a natural spring from its source to something like an irrigation system that is used to help keep the land fertile for farming.

Check out this video of the Beqaa Valley

Back in Baalbeck, the sun sets and we dish out a mixture of American dollars and Lebanese pounds and politely decline our guide’s offer of Hezbollah t-shirts that are for sale outside the site. On the way back through the mountainous terrain that is Lebanon, our shared taxi stops and picks up many passengers, and as we near Beirut we make a turn off the main highway and pick up a young man and his girlfriend. They come into the back seat and we chat for a bit. His name is Mohamed Fahes, and he is a forward for the Lebanese National Football team. They had just left a meet and greet and are heading back to Beirut to Mohamed’s apartment. He shows me his Facebook page which is full of pictures of their last match against Iraq to prove his story.

We part ways in downtown Beirut and head back to our hostel, a real classic backpacker hostel, housing Arabic language students in the summer interspersed with the frequently shifting of nomads, misfits, and groupies. There’s a large cooler full of two types of Lebanese beer and a large open living room connected to a just as large balcony. On the walls are the words of hundreds of travelers in many different languages professing their love of Beirut and the hostel’s friendly staff, Mariam and Shadhi. The bunks are basic and in the middle of night you may get interrupted by a kind cat insisting he sleeps under the covers with you.

My second day at the hostel, I met a German who had been traveling for seven months and I am introduced to my first long term backpacker. She’s been on the road as a solo female traveler and has made her way through the Central Asian “Stans” including Pakistan and the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Over the next couple days we would travel together and it was fantastic to be with someone who can see past the initial chaos of traveling in a foreign land. We navigated the side-show bus service with some help from my beginner Arabic and managed to find a hotel in the northern city of Tripoli. There isn’t too much to see in Tripoli besides an old citadel from the Crusades and some mosques but we stayed the night anyway, I forgot my hat at breakfast the next morning, and we headed up in elevation to the little mountain town of Bsharre, situated nearby Lebanon’s first ski resort.

Arabic music played loudly from the front of the bus as the driver sang along and we snaked our way through the mountains and watched the beautiful Kadisha valley around us grow deeper and deeper as we rose to 1500m above sea level. There was snow up here, and the temperature was much cooler than the coast. It was one of those winter days where it’s nothing but blue sky and sun without a hint of wind, but frigid. We passed statues of the Mother Mary along the road and I was really thrown for a loop when I saw all the crosses and churches in the town.

Lebanon is something like half Christian, half Muslim and some consider it to be half European while half Middle Eastern. It’s an interesting blend and it’s pretty eye-opening to see Catholic prayers being read out in Arabic and Arab people exclaiming to you that they are Catholic, not Muslim. The Christmas spirit was all around as Christmas songs were being played softly inside shops and restaurants with Christmas symbolism hanging from street lights, household doors, and windows.

We managed to find a small Inn called the Tiger House and were the only two in the whole place. The name seemed odd as there are no tigers in Lebanon but we soon found ourselves with the reason: All the beds were covered in tiger striped blankets. In order to get a good Wi-Fi signal we had to sit in the living room where the lady of the household smoked continuously and her servant, or maid, tended to the fireplace and sat on the couch nearby blankly staring at the television patiently waiting for her next orders. A lot of people in Lebanon have maids, aka servants, from African countries like Ethiopia or Kenya, similar to how Saudi’s have maid from the Philippines. It’s uncomfortable for me to see someone be so submissive to a person who feels they are superior and I again question my faith in humanity.

Two kilometers from the Tiger House, about an hour’s walk, takes you around 500m up where you’ll find the Cedars of God; a small forest of 2,000 year old Cedar trees. Shortly after arriving to the small collection of tress we found out they were closed for the winter.  We could easily see the massive trees from the perimeter fence and took a few pictures and left. At this point we were starving having last eaten breakfast in Tripoli who knows how many hours ago and all I could think about was food. We agreed that when we got back we would look for a restaurant to eat at. It still being the offseason for skiing, the town was rather empty and lifeless but we managed to find the only restaurant open and treated ourselves to a scrumptious meal ending with a giant Nutella pizza with sliced bananas on top.

The next day we caught the only bus out of town and headed back to the coast, aiming for a small city near the other most famous site in Lebanon, the Jeita Grotto, a massive limestone cave system that was discovered by an American back in early 20th century. The bus ride was smooth and comforting as the sun warmed us through the windows and by the time we got back to the coast we shed our jackets and stepped out into the welcoming warmer climate.

My friend made her way to the city of Byblos to check out another citadel while I ended up attempting to get a taxi to the Grotto. There was so much traffic on the main road here I was confident I could get a cab. The downside was I was a white male who spoke English so every cab driver charged me about 10 times the normal price and I couldn’t find a single one that would let me pay the local price. So I eventually ended up paying only about 8 times the normal price and sharing a taxi with some friendly African dude who was so pumped to meet an Arabic speaking American.

Arriving at the Grotto is what I imagine arriving in Horrorland would be like. Horrorland being the sinister amusement park depicted in R.L. Stein’s series “Goosebumps.”  The huge parking lot was empty, give for a few old cars near the main gate with old men stood outside smoking, always smoking. A soft, melancholic tune echoed over the lot through speakers situated on the light poles and not another tourist was to be seen. Walking towards to gate, dense pine forests rose from either side and seemed to be on the verge on swallowing up the whole place. Again, the sun was heading towards the horizon. I paid for my ticket and stepped into the lift that would take me to the Upper Grotto, before we would take a train-on-wheels back down to the Lower Grotto.

Inside the cave was simply incredible. As someone who used to have a rock and mineral collection as a kid and devoted a shelf to just “nature stuff” I was ecstatic in a scientific nerdy way about finally seeing a real life stalactite (from the roof) and stalagmite (from the ground). No cameras were allowed inside the cave so I just meandered along the concrete path slowly, soaking it all in. Such strange formations! The path stretched for maybe 100m and with each step you felt the air getting more humid and stuffy as water dripped continuously around you, the way it had been for millions, maybe even billions of years.  There were no bats, although sometimes they could be found in there according to one of the staff. Lights accentuated the odd formations and cast great shadows around the cave walls. At the end of the path the cave plunged deeper into the earth and there was a light way down there and I thought how cool it would be to be that guy who put the light all the way down there.

The next couple days I stayed in Beirut back at the hostel, and spent some time walking around the sea-side walkway, visiting the Lebanon History Museum (Did you know Lebanon had a Civil War that lasted from 1975 to 1990?) and trying in vain to find an Arabic language school. There is definitely so much more to see and do in Lebanon but a week is never long enough to visit an entire country, even one as small as Lebanon, which for your information is smaller than the state of Connecticut.




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