Lebanon: Going South

1 May 2017

In Lebanon, do go down South. The beauty of traveling in Lebanon comes down to her size. Easy to navigate yet packed with a blend of cultures and sights, Lebanon was easy to plan. Beirut was the base and day trips to various cities in the country were conveniently pleasant. Unlike the North (Tripoli) where there was fierce fighting between Muslim groups or the East (Baalbeck) where it was affected by the Syrian War spillover, the South of the country remained peaceful. WRONG! WRONG conclusion because the South is equal in violence, unrest and instability.

War in the South of the Country

South Lebanon was the place for a 15 year conflict between the Israel- backed Christian proxy militias SLA and Lebanese Muslim guerrillas known as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah. This conflict was also known as the security zone conflict. Like so many other civil wars in Lebanon, the reasons are complicating with deep historical roots. Come to think of it, how many wars in the world are purely just “Hey look, I just met you and I hate you so SLAP.” Palestinian refugees and Lebanese factions have always had tension. To make matters worse, throw in Israel, Iran and other foreign involvements – what do you get? An escalation of violence, backings and let’s not forget that religion comes into play as well. Since conflicts are a tad difficult to follow, I’m just going to simplify the whole thing. Before the 1982 Israeli invasion, Israel tried to get rid of PLO bases from Lebanon. Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) based in Lebanon is an eye-sore for Israel since their main focus is to muster support to continue their armed fighting against Israel. So, Israel offered their support to the Christian Maronite militias and once the PLO left after 1982, a security zone was created but only benefited the Israelis and not the Palestinians or Lebanese so no one is happy. When people find something foreign in their own backyard, what do they do? Retaliate. This is how Hezbollah and other groups started to form. Fighting went on for 15 years with the Hezbollah winning since Israel departed from the South and a serious of killings, fighting, kidnaps and deaths from 2000 to 2006 in a small strip of disputed land along the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights led to their eventual victory. This 6 years of conflict known as the Shebaa Farm Conflict saw frequent unrest between the two groups (roughly 30 battles over 6 years).

Will the fight continue?

Khaled, our driver shrugged his shoulders, “Maybe. The tension is always there.” It is unfair that having to deal with civil unrest, Lebanon is also bearing the burden of global war. I asked whether it is possible for the country to avoid it but Khaled said ” No choice. We have no choice given our geographic location.”

He then pointed to some tents before we took a turn into Tyre and said: “You know who lives there? A couple of terrorists but we can’t do anything to them since that zone, under UN law is protected. Anyways girls- enjoy Tyre then we will head to Sidon.”

Tyre, the fourth largest city in Lebanon with several major ports has always remained a commercial and trading hub throughout her history. Often attacked by Egypt and besieged by other rulers and empires, this ancient Phoenician city was known throughout the region for being the producer of a very rare and expensive purple dye. Made from shellfish, this Tyrian purple was used by royalty and nobility thus it came as no surprise that Tyrian merchants were the first to venture into the Mediterranean waters and launched trade with other colonies in the area with their prized dye.

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Mentioned earlier, the fighting that happened in the South of the country meant that Tyre, the base for the PLO was the major hit when fighting escalated. Our times in Tyre was peaceful. If it weren’t for the couple of UN presence and the Hezbollah flag, one would not think that this is a coastal city in Lebanon- perhaps Nice in France. The pristine Tyre beaches that we drove past before making the turn into the UNESCO archaeological site along with the lingering tension makes a good juxtaposition of the situation that the country is facing.

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Our first stop is Al-Bass site known for the monumental arches and a large hippodrome (2th century to 6th century AD) and the necropolis (graveyard). Walking past the graveyard was interesting since the tombs followed a certain style. The lack of information made the stroll even more mysterious. The arch then the colonnaded streets, columns and the huge hippodrome made this brief stop worth it. I can’t say that it is well preserved but knowing that wars (although it did damage parts of these cultural heritage sites) did not entirely wipe these sites from the face of this world, it’s good enough not to mention how cheap entrance tickets were and how empty it was. The second site which offered not only a perfect view of the Sea but also rows of columns, reminded us the Roman influences that fell upon Tyre centuries ago. The broken mosaic floors, the stones that once marked the public baths and the few dilapilated structures was a different feel to the earlier Tyre site.

DSC09974We had lunch at a local restaurant, opened by a cheerful middle-aged man who has lived in Tyre for his entire lifetime. The fresh meat received at his shop every morning hungs to his left while he works his magic to ensure that we have the best local snack ever. There is nothing more wonderful than to eat like a local and don’t even get me started on how cheap and delicious the kebab was.

Next door Sidon is another site filled with ancient ruins and history. Third largest city in the country and smack between Tyre and Beirut, Sidon is renowned for the castle by the sea and the maze-like alleyways and winding streets that now forms the central souq. 100 years ago, Sidon is a sleepy fishing town of 10,000 people. Now there are around 265,000 people. During the 13th century, the Crusaders built Sidon Sea Castle. It would not feel right if there isn’t that narrow roadway.

DSC00141 Clean and opposite of the main road (not to mention its proximity to the port), it is great to see clear waters below and groups of fish swimming around. And fish means- food….mwahaha …which we had in the afternoon.

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During various wars, Sidon Castle was destroyed then re-built and destroyed again. It was destroyed by the Mamluks who snatched the city from the Crusaders then an Emir restored it after it fell into disuse. There are two towers connected by a wall. Roman columns are used as reinforcements. There is a large room filled with cannonballs, a staircase that leads up to the roof which offers fantastic views of the city and a mosque. There is also evidence of an old city buried under the sea surrounding the castle. SMACK ME! This is just like the visit to Alexandria, Egypt!

 The day ended late and we went back to Beirut to prepare for our inevitable departure and our Jordan adventures. Looking back at the past few days and the various cities that we have visited, Lebanon is no doubt a beautiful country yet so prone to regional instability. We are not sure what will happen to the country in the future but we wish her nothing but stability and peace. The world is already filled with pointless conflicts.