In Ali's Hands, Tripoli's Heritage Shines

Saturday, December 31, 2005 | Tripoli, Lebanon

A young baker's assistant hustles his precarious load through Tripoli's narrow market streets.
The next day, Julian and Emma were both out of commission with a strong cold, but Julian told me to go ahead with our planned visit to Tripoli on my own. Having already spent a few days exploring Beirut, I obliged, and picked up a bus bound for the northern port near the Syrian border.

In Tripoli, I picked my way across the Old City, which reminded me strongly of Aleppo, its Syrian cousin a few hundred kilometers to the northeast. It was still early in the morning when I reached the Citadel of Raymond de Saint Gilles (قلعة سان جيل), a towering castle named for the leader of the First Crusade who oversaw its construction around 1100 AD. Much of the castle was largely intact, and unlike the castles in Syria, this one was well restored and the grass lawns of its inner courtyards well tended. The citadel offered a view over the Old City and the sea in one direction and a river valley in the other, with snow-topped mountains in the distance.

I next made my way to Tripoli's Great Mosque, built around the year 1300 AD. The pavers of its central courtyard had buckled in broad, wave-like ripples. At the mosque a man came and introduced himself to me. "I'm Ali Khawaja," he said, as if the name should mean something to me. Recognizing my confusion, he reached for the Lonely Planet "Syria & Lebanon" guidebook in my hand, flipped to the paragraph on Tripoli's Great Mosque—the very building in which we were standing—and read aloud, "You might be lucky to find Ali Khawaja, a very knowledgeable local guide..."

While I would normally have refused such services in favor of exploring on my own, Ali seemed extremely friendly, and won me over with a sob story about how I was the only tourist in town today (which actually looked to be true). So, I agreed to let Ali lead me through Tripoli's streets for the day. We visited the old-fashioned soap makers in the Khan as-Saboun, where I bought a few lumps of fragrant herbal soap at the Al Sharkass Soap Factory. This was just one of many khans we visited, the two-story, open-air buildings that served as part hotel, part factory, and part shop for traveling merchants in the old days, and which are still used by modern, sedentary artisans.

Ali also made it easy for me to access a number of old mosques and madrasas (religious schools) throughout the Old City, and rattled off fascinating details about their history and significance the whole time. We even stopped by the office of Tripoli's mayor—a friend of Ali's—to say hello.

By mid-afternoon, we had seen the sites I had come to see. I just wanted a little more time on my own to poke around the souqs, so I thanked Ali and asked him what I could give him. "Anything you can spare," he said, "Just put it in here." He held out an open notebook and made a show of craning his head over his shoulder and scrunching shut his eyes. I tucked some US bills into his book, which he snapped shut without looking, and we shook hands and parted ways. So that other visitors to Tripoli might find him, he also asked that I share his number: +961 (0)6 433 838. I was pleasantly surprised at how enjoyable and informative my tour was, and recommend Ali's services.

Sadly, Julian and Emma missed out on a great day exploring an incredibly vibrant and friendly city, and one full of great commercial, historical, and spiritual sites. Consider me a fan of Tripoli!

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