30 April 2017
Our second day in Lebanon started in Jeitta Grotto, which contains two limestone caves spanning some 9 kms. The lower cave was discovered in mid-1800 by an American and the upper cave was only found in 1958 after exploration showed a cave on top of a cave. The lower cave contains an underwater river and lake. Thank goodness Li Chin and I did not go in winter or else we wouldn’t get a chance to see it (water level rises and will submerge the cave). In the upper cave, one can find the world’s largest known stalactite along with columns, mushrooms, ponds and stalagmites. The mushroom is the most impressive along with one which grows sideways.
“This one (stalagmite) is strange since they normally don’t grow sideways,” said the guide, “Perhaps it is the wind. I’d go with Mother Nature and her magic.”
Yes, we can credit such sights to nature’s splendours. After knowing that it takes 1000 years to grow just 1 cm, Li Chin and I ended up having a chat about life and what time is. It was a thought-provoking conversation in a magical setting. However, there was a hint of sadness since life is so short and I really don’t want to say goodbye to this world. Our time in Lebanon is short and will we return? Who knows? Will we see each other again and most importantly go on another adventure? I don’t know. But, why must I leave? Why can’t the good times last longer? Being a spontaneous sentimental wreck- melancholy descended upon me- quickly dispelled by the coolness of the caves and all the colours that it offers BUT, I know it lingers. Time lives on but people come and go in the most unpredictable of fashions. Life is short and forever is definitely not long enough. So the only thing that I can do is to live life as it is- in the present and hold onto whoever is most dear to me.
The relaxing visit ended and we continued our journey up to a city that many would regard as wild and chaotic. We were not going to skip this opportunity to experience the rougher side of Lebanon. The drive along the highway is a smooth one with views of the Mediterranean Sea. Police checkpoints littered along the road to Tripoli. Yep- not the other Tripoli in Libya but close enough (I’d love to visit Libya: Damn the wars!). Second largest city in Lebanon with around 227,000 people, it dates back to the 14th Century BCE and was called the “Triple City” since it was a Phoenician confederation between Tyre, Sidon and Arados. As a former major port city between Europe and Syria, the city is littered with citadels, mosques, madrasas and more. Lebanon’s Tripoli like the Tripoli in Libya is lesser known for her historical past and more for the ongoing violence, bloodshed and unrest. Rewind the clock some 3-4 years ago, Tripoli was off limits. Locals wanted to get out, no one dared to go in- certainly not tourists. It was chaos. Tripoli was at war. Like all conflicts, it is about some religious ideological divide, territorial dispute, fight over resources, political control, greed…the list goes on. Tripoli’s unrest had hints of all this but in the end, it was more political than religious (at least that is how I see it).
Started in 1976 and still continuing until present day, the conflict that took place in Tripoli (89% are Muslims) is violent and recurring. This ongoing fight is called the ‘Bab al-Tabbaneh–Jabal Mohsen conflict’. You have two neighbors: Sunni Muslims who live in Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawite Muslims (Shia) who lives in Jabal Mohsen. They are rivals since despite being Muslims, their views vary politically. Shia and Sunni Muslims have always differ in their political interpretation of their religion. If you think this is a tricky matter, toss in Syria and Aiya! What a headache. The Alawites (led and supported by Syria) is smaller in numbers when compared with the more local Sunni Muslims. Neighbourhood clashed repeatedly during the civil war and although it ended in 1990, it started again in 2008. It continued in 2009, 2010 and escalated during the Syrian Civil War. Tripoli became a microcosm of Syria’s own war and given Lebanon’s on-off relations with Syria, fighting was evident. Whether it was the pro-government folks vs those who are anti-government or Sunni vs Shia or what not, there was one clash in June 2011 which resulted in more 7 more clashes in 2012 (February, May, June, July, August, October and December). Two more clashes occurred in 2013 along with assassinations + one clash in 2014 and one suicide attack in 2015.
This rivalry is not a contemporary one since it has been this way for centuries. The Alawites were also oppressed during the Ottoman Empire but gained power when the French recruited them as soldiers. Nearly half of all Alawites in Lebanon live in the Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood and with close ties with the Alawites in Syria including the Assad family, not all locals welcome this since one of the reason why civil unrest erupted was to dispel all Syrian influences from Lebanon.
- Religious tension TICK
- Political divide TICK
- A city inhabited by mostly Sunnis but also where one finds the most number of Alawaites in a country who feel threatened thus the tension TICK
The violent past of Tripoli made our trip even more precious in a way since we got the chance to experience relative peace and to visit her top attraction: Chateau de Tripoli. Named after a Count and Crusader Commander, this fortress was built around the 1100s. Burnt down in 1289, it was rebuilt and restored by Ottoman Emir and Governor. Free to the public, the walk around the castle gave hints to the scale and numerous structures within the panoramic views of the city. The Army occupies the Chateau with their heavy presence evident around the base of the chateau. Soldiers also stay within the citadel and have set up offices there. The army will never leave since no one would abandon such a strategic location: up high and close to the mosque, the bustling souq and with great views of all surrounding neighbourhoods.
After a walk around the markets where we had the chance to talk to locals, eat local snack and see a very odd but tasy ice cream in the making, we headed to our last stop in Tripoli- the bathhouse. Some 800 years ago, this Mamluk City was well known by travelers as a city filled with water-channels and gardens. Therefore, it was not surprising that with Arab influences, Turkish Bathhouses can be found in Tripoli. Small and not too excessive in decorative when compared with the ones in Iran, this particular bathhouse is more plain. The only colours in the whole of the bathhouse are the yellow, blue and red on the walls of the main hall.
We took Syria Road as we left Tripoli. From our car, we could see the bullet holes and battered apartments. Khaled explained to us that back 4 years ago, this road was the great divide. It marked the official ‘entrance’ to each other’s’ neighbourhood and for some- death. I could cross it with ease now yet 4 years ago, that would be impossible.
“Locals used to cover their apartment blocks with huge cloths. It was to keep the snipers away,’ explained Khaled. “Back then, you are not allowed to cross here. But now, things are fine because people decided that enough is enough.’
Let’s hope it stays that way.
Tripoli was short and sweet. It was an honour to be able to see her since who knows what the future will hold. What is the point of all this killings when deep down, they are all Lebanese and most importantly, human beings? People are getting on with their daily lives but it takes one shot, one punch, one unrest to erupt into something bigger again. I hope I’m wrong on all accounts since there is nothing as important as peace. While I’m at it, may poverty and unemployment be properly addressed so that the two won’t be used as excuses to feed further sectarian tensions.
To finish the afternoon, we headed to relaxing Byblos. Inhabited by mostly Christians, the UNESCO city overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (since 5000 BC). Relics have been uncovered dating to the various Neolithic periods and Byblos Castle, build by the Crusaders in the 12th Century overlooks the port.
The castle complex which also contains ruins of temples and other mini-sites is the main attraction. Un-missable due to the scenery it offers, the great panoramic sights and the history; Li Chin and I strolled casually around the site. The flowers and plants were a bonus during the month of April. Man- are we blessed with good weather! Like Lebanon, Byblos saw different rulers and groups taking control of the place and along with it, various influences, expansions and destructions. It used to be an Egyptian colony and an important military base during the Crusade. It was taken by Saladin then re-taken by the Crusaders and became part of the Ottoman Empire before being placed under French rule from 1920 to 1943. Nowadays, it sits peacefully, watching over the Mediterrean Sea and the sleepy fishing town of Byblos. A plesant attration filled with more than just a castle but various other structures (ampitheatre, columns etc), we definitely stayed longer than expected.
The day ended at the bay of Byblos. It was hard to imagine that only a couple of years ago, this country was devastated by war and tension still lingers. It was most enjoyable to see the locals get on with their lives, playing in the shallow waters of the Bay and just relaxing. If every country can stay this way then that would be splendid!