Lebanon probably remains familiar to most Westerners through horrific images of the civil war that convulsed the tiny country from 1975 to 1990, with heart-rending stories of hostages and lurid news coverage of massacres, destruction and human suffering. Two decades have now passed, but Lebanon cannot manage to stay out of the headlines for long, like a soccer or film star with a temper. One still reads of the ‘Lebanonisation’ of Bosnia or Iraq; but one increasingly reads of collaboration between formerly hostile population groups, of feuds and disagreements settled and power increasingly allocated at the ballot box. The headlines, bad or good, are (not unusually) far from being the whole story.
A comprehensive solution to the country’s dire political problems is still not on the horizon, but there is a noticeable if timid revival of tourism. It is once again possible to visit most parts of the country. After all the years of turmoil, the ‘Events’ as they are called, many people would have difficulty imagining what they would find there. The far-reaching changes of the last thirty years, seen against a background of abiding constants, mean that surprises await almost anyone, whether coming new to the country or coming back after a long absence or exile. What should you look for? What will you find?
Some of the places are obvious, such as Beit ed-Din (palace of the Druze Emirs who ruled Lebanon in the 19th century), up in the parasol-pine-forested Shouf Mountains. If you should (and you should, if you can afford to) stay at the Palace of the Emir Amin, a sort of mini-Beit ed-Din, now transformed into a luxury hotel, you might be forgiven for thinking that the ‘Events’ had never happened, or were long ago. Go on to spend a beach day at one of the resorts just south of Byblos. Margarita in hand, watch the sun set into the Mediterranean, the Crusader castle catching the last rays in its amber sandstone, mellowed by nearly a millennium of nestling like a parvenu among Phoenician, Greek, Roman, Persian and Arab ruins. Stroll through Beirut’s ‘Centre-Ville’, the slightly antiseptic redeveloped downtown area, with sidewalk cafés and ‘archaeological parks’. Tour the lush American University of Beirut campus with its graceful Moorish architecture and cosmopolitan student body (and, incidentally, a gem of a small archaeological museum).. Visit Baalbek, antique Heliopolis; Tripoli with its Crusader Castle of Saint-Gilles and bustling port; the legendary Cedars, still worth a visit though the dominant impression is of how few remain; the Canaanite Temple of Aphaca at Afka; broad-shouldered Mount Sannine, hovering oblique to the sunset in tawny regal solitude above the trees; the Anti-Lebanon, arid and austere to the east, dropping down into the broad and Biblical Bekaa Valley with its dreamy bride, Baalbek, and delicate Umayyad colonnade at Anjar beckoning out towards the desert.
Beirut is a world of its own, seeming to thrive on contradiction—and conflict. A Mediterranean port-cum-microcosm of the Middle East: rich and poor, diverse and turbulent, touching and repellent. Donkeys and Ferraris, hurried bankers, palsied beggars and strutting thugs; veiled ladies in black elbowing past golden girls in miniskirts. Any elegance it may have had when it was the sleepy port painted by David Roberts has been superseded by its modern avatar as a sprawling, chaotic, dusty, noisy sacrifice to unbridled commerce, ruthless geopolitics and automotive gridlock. Not without interest or even charm, in parts, but a heady potion all the same. Beirut must be experienced; but, fortunately,Beirut is not all there is to Lebanon.
This Mountain of Lebanon
Like the hedgehog, Lebanon knows one Big Thing, and that big thing is of course the mountain, Mount Lebanon or just Lebanon as Antiquity knew it. The west-facing littoral known in the West as the Levant or the Orient—both meaning ‘rising sun’—passes, on its way down to Egypt, through modern-day Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, and Israel/Palestine. The narrow, fertile coastal plain rises more or less abruptly into hills or mountains a few kilometres inland. The highest by far of those seaward-facing mountain ranges is in the middle: Lebanon, rising to over 3,000 metres. On the highest peaks, there are pockets of eternal snow, but the copious snows that do melt feed springs and streams and rivers that water the coastal plain and give it an extraordinary fertility, a legendary beauty. On the other side, facing east, the slopes are more abrupt and arid, leading down to the fertile upland valley of the Bekaa, itself hemmed in on the east by another mountain chain called the Anti-Lebanon or Hermel. Beyond, far below, lies Syria, and the ancient tracks of the frankincense or silk roads leading across the desert to Petra, Palmyra, Damascus, Aleppo, and beyond, towards Iraq, Arabia andPersia.
In Central Europe or the Andean countries, such a mountain would be, if not commonplace, at least less of a marvel. But in the Middle East, snowy mountains and trackless forests were—are—more than a novelty. They struck the ancients as marvellous in every sense. For many centuries, most human activity was confined to the arable coastal plain, with its string of natural ports. The forest and wildlife of the mountain was exploited as a boundless natural reserve. From the earliest recorded times, however, we find hermits and anchorites and solitary madmen, rebels and fugitives and fanatics of all kinds, taking refuge in the lofty wilderness, living in the caves overlooking the holy rivers: Kadisha (‘holy’ in every Semitic language); and the Adonis River, the name redolent of beauty, thwarted love, meddlesome gods, tragic death and mystical rebirth. It is as though the former nomads of the desert and steppe, lifting up their eyes unto the hills, found it natural that gods or God would live up there, and the mystical among them would climb up to be closer to the divine.
The texts in this book span three millennia and then some. If Lebanon cannot manage stability, it has perennity. Empires rise, dynasties fall, ideas and faiths come in from the sea or desert, then clash and wither in a high-speed newsreel that defies synopsis.
So, other than in passing—as we present the texts in each section of this book—we will let the writers speak for themselves and for their historical moment. And those writers are themselves an unruly lot. Natives tend to the mystical, while expatriates describe the place they visited to see if the rumours were true (like Herodotus), or the country they had to go through to get to the Holy Land (like many of the 18th- and 19th-century travellers). The more literary of our travelling writers dwell on natural beauty, while journalists and politicians record the perversity of men who persist in destroying the thing they profess to love.
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This book is organised thematically: first, texts from Antiquity and the Middle Ages to the end of the Crusades. Next, the country seen through the prism of several centuries of Western travellers, who saw in Lebanon varying proportions of the real country, an imagined ‘Orient’, and themselves. The third part we have called ‘Identities’. In it one steps aside from the world of Oriental Travel to something closer to the grittier world of real people and events. One of the main aims of this book is to try to understand what it means to be Lebanese, or at least, what Lebanon variously means to its people. Chosen to reflect the country’s religious, political, and literary identities, these texts are mostly written by locals—of various times, religions and political leanings. The literary selections are grouped under the title ‘People of the Book’: writing (of diverse kinds, from mystic prose to orally-composed popular poetry) by post-nineteenth-century natives of Lebanon, including some expatriates or exiles.
We end with ‘Wars’.
Of these, there have been all too many, their causes mostly now forgotten or meaningless to us; so we have started with the inter-communal strife of the 1860s. These events are described by observers, willing or unwilling participants, bystanders and invaders. Some are highly partisan, some less so. If we had expurgated or avoided all evidence of bias this would have been a very short section indeed. It, and the book, end with selections from recent fiction by Lebanese women writers; perhaps, as we suggest, not coincidentally. Many of these are set during the recent war—but Lebanon has been at or close to or recovering from war for much of the time since 1975. The best of these writers transcend their setting in time and place, and reflect Lebanon, its people, and perhaps the rest of us, under a brilliant, unforgiving spotlight.
Note on translation. As is now traditional in this series, in the case of texts in languages other than English, a published English version as close as possible to the time of the original has been preferred. Some of these are therefore written in the language of the time of Shakespeare or Milton, and we hope that the charm of these early texts will outweigh any difficulties. We have not regularised spelling but have respected the text as published wherever possible.
Many of the travellers whose stories we present had to rely on interpreters to make themselves understood, and to understand. There were, and are, many excellent translators at the service of the Levantine traveller; but the temptation to produce a culturally adapted version is sometimes too strong, and one suspects that some of the accounts, however entertaining, may have owed quite some debt to the interpreter. In his masterful Eothen, Charles Kinglake shows us how it works:
Pasha.—The Englishman is welcome; most blessed among hours is this, the hour of his
Dragoman (to the Traveller).—The Pasha pays you his compliments.
Traveller.—Give him my best compliments in return, and say I’m delighted to have the honour of seeing him.
Dragoman (to the Pasha).—His Lordship, this Englishman, Lord of London, Scorner of Ireland, Suppressor of France, has quitted his governments, and left his enemies to breathe for a moment, and has crossed the broad waters in strict disguise, with a small but eternally faithful retinue of followers, in order that he might look upon the bright countenance of the Pasha among Pashas—the Pasha of the everlasting
Pashalik of Karagholookoldour.
(to the Dragoman).—What on earth have you been saying about London?