Baalbek, Home to History and Hezbollah

Friday, December 30, 2005 | Baalbek, Lebanon

Many of the fine details in the ruins are preserved today, along with inscriptions marking eons of construction and conquest.
After Beirut, Baalbek is perhaps Lebanon's second most famous tourist destination. On the day after Christmas, Julian, Emma, and I woke early to make the trip to the Beqaa Valley (سهل البقاع) to see the ruins of Baalbek (بعلبك), a once mighty Roman metropolis and current World Heritage Site.

On a street by our hotel, we flagged down a friendly, near-toothless taxi driver named Abu Ahmed. Rather than wrangle with buses all day, we decided to pay him the US$80 he asked to chauffeur us.

The drive to Baalbek took some two hours, and first led us over the mountains which lie inland from Beirut. The range was covered in snow and buried deeply in the clouds, so the going was definitely a little hair-raising, as we had been warned. Abu Ahmed slid his way over the mountains, however, and through many army checkpoints, none of which ever asked us to stop.

Down in the valley the weather was brisk but the ground free of snow. At the gate to the ruins, we
paid the entrance fee and began exploring. The mix of Greek, Roman, and Muslim era ruins dating back several millennia were indeed impressive, especially because of their sheer scale. They were both far bigger and better preserved than either Palmyra or Apamea had been, and included temples and arcades of magnificent proportions, much of it constructed with blocks the size of pickup trucks.

After several hours of clambering through the ruins, we headed to the parking lot, where we encountered Baalbek's most famous modern day inhabitants—Hezbollah (حزب الله). Everyone's favorite militant Shi'ite party considers Baalbek its stronghold, and runs a successful gift shop in the parking lot beside the ruins. There the friendly, multilingual female shopkeeper showed us posters, key chains, candles, notebooks, lighters, wallets, prayer beads, and more—all adorned with the face of the sect's leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Upon learning that we spoke Arabic, the lady began pushing cassette tapes of the Dear Leader's teachings, but we politely declined. Instead, we each bought a few Hezbollah logo t-shirts. (Who back home wouldn't want one of these, right?) Judging by his excitement, the t-shirts might have been the highlight of Julian's whole trip to Lebanon. Back at the car, Abu Ahmed seemed to approve, too.

On the way back to Beirut we stopped in for a tour and tasting at the Ksara vineyard. Located on a hillside covered in rows of grapevines, the winery was long managed by Jesuit priests, who tended the grapes and burrowed into the hill, excavating long passageways where they stored barrels of their precious spirit.

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