My two days’ trip to Anjar and Baalbeck archaeological sites (both UNESCO World Heritage) was again one of the highlights of my visit to Lebanon this summer.
Accompanied by my daughter, my brother and his family we first drove to Anjar, a site that is often overlooked on visits to the fertile Bekaa Valley. Unlike other sites in Lebanon, where layers of different civilizations lie on top of each other, Anjar only witnessed the 8th century historical period of the first Arab dynasty, the Umayyad Caliphate. Strategically located at the intersection of important trade routes between Syria and Lebanon, the city of Anjar was built around 715AD and prospered for around half a century. We spent two pleasant hours walking around the site admiring its delicate architectural structures, and enjoying the serenity and stillness of the place.
Back to the 21st Century in less than 15 minutes, we found ourselves, as usual, in a traditional Lebanese restaurant that serves an excellent Mezze and delicious grilled meat. I guarantee you one thing; the chances of starving, not knowing what to eat if you were a first time tourist, are practically zero!
Our next destination after an opulent meal at the famous shams restaurant was the City of Baalbek where we had planned to stay overnight in Palmyra Hotel. Built in 1874 by a Greek entrepreneur in order to accommodate the growing number of European archaeologists and tourists exploring the region at that time, this hotel is considered one of the oldest hotels in the Middle East. The turbulent local, regional and global events have affected Palmyra’s history in many ways over 145 years, but they couldn’t close its doors for one single day! For history lovers like myself, seeking European past in the region, and interested in Lebanon’s rich history in the late 19th Century under the Ottomans, and early 20th Century under French Colonial rule, this hotel is certainly a fascinating place. The last German Kaiser Wilhelm II stayed at Palmyra in 1898, paving the way for the large excavation of Baalbek ruins. Writing this now reminds me of a Lebanon tour I organized in 1998 for a group of Germans, long before social media, and exactly one hundred years later! Eight years after the end of the Lebanese Civil War, the hotel was kind of recovering from that period. We were pleasantly surprised by the hotel’s well-preserved antique furniture, and didn’t mind water not running properly, or the lack of air conditioning. We enjoyed the atmosphere and the authenticity of the place. We enjoyed the few people working there, and the friendly old man, Abu Ali, serving us a decent Lebanese breakfast. I got so emotional as I remembered him from my last stay at Palmyra in the early 80s during the Lebanese Civil War while on a 5 days’ field trip with the School of Architecture. Yes, I studied architecture, but that’s a long story now!
Luckily for me, the hotel owners, Mr and Mrs Ali Husseini, have firmly preserved the genuineness of the original building over the years, and in 2019, when entering the hall again, one still feels as if stepping into a different era. Also, our rooms overlooking the lit Baalbek temple complex at night added more magic to this unique experience. Our stroll in the city before retiring in our beautifully designed rooms was the extra bonus on this memorable short trip.
The temple complex, which we visited the next day, is one of the most well preserved complexes in the region, and includes two of the largest and greatest Roman temples ever built outside from Rome, Jupiter and Bacchus temples. I have visited them many times in my life at different seasons. Whether in the heat of the summer or in late winter and early spring when the nearby mountains are still covered with snow, the colossal structures of Baalbek stand in the midst of breath taking landscape defying time and history.