When my plane landed at the Rafik Hariri International Airport, I was thinking of the song by Fairouz, “Le Beirut.” At one point in that song, the lyrics are, “Oh Beirut, anyone that abandons you is crazy!”
But this city, so loved and sung about by Lebanese artist Fairouz and so many others, was shrouded in darkness when my plane landed and thus, much of its beauty was hidden. Still, the joy of being able to enter another country without a visa was thrilling! My excitement was tempered by images of the violence that has plagued Lebanon for years. The freshest images were from 2006 and the bombing that lasted for over a month. I wondered what has changed since then.
Hundreds of buildings that still sit empty but carry the scars of bullet holes in their cement stand almost as reminders of the cold face of war in Beirut. You can see police and soldiers everywhere in Beirut. At the same time, the city is full of life and reminiscent of European cities. Beirut seems neither Eastern nor Western. Geographically, it is firmly in the East, but from the perspective of consumption habits, Beirut is no different from many Western countries. There are the same coffee chains you see everywhere in the West, the luxurious cars, the stores and restaurants, all of which begs the question, where are the Lebanese getting all of this money?
Lebanon gets almost no revenue from natural gas or petrol. Outside of a few factories, there are almost no industrial facilities. The greatest sources of revenue for Lebanon come from the banking sector and tourism. Arabs place their money in Lebanese banks and view the country as a dependable port. While 60 percent of the Lebanese population is Muslim, the remaining population is Christian, with the exception of a small Druze contingency. The official language is Arabic, but both French and English are widely spoken. There are areas of Beirut that are like huge construction sites, with new buildings and shopping centers sprouting up. Many of the construction sites, including the effort to build a marina along the shoreline, are being overseen by Turkish companies.
Historical and natural beauty together
The spring and summer months are the ideal time to visit Lebanon. A great way to see Beirut is to rent a taxi for a day with some friends. But don’t forget to negotiate a good price before getting into the taxi. Lebanon is a bit more expensive than other countries in the region. To get a better deal, try using the Turkish firm Pronto Tur. Don’t forget that Lebanon was part of, at different points throughout its history, the Roman, Byzantine, Mamluk and Ottoman empires. The cultural wealth is apparent as soon as you set foot in Beirut. Here, mosques and churches stand side by side.
One of the historic mosques worth visiting is the Muhammad Al-Amin Mosque. It was commissioned by former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who lost his life in a car bombing incident in 2005. There is a memorial built for Hariri at his gravesite next to the modern mosque. A recording of the Quran is played 24 hours a day at the gravesite. Beirut’s Rue Minet al Hosn is also marked by Hariri’s presence. This boulevard is the final place where the former prime minister set foot.
A bit further up the boulevard, there is a historic building built by Sultan Abdülhamit II that is now used for the prime minister’s offices. Nearby are 2,000-year-old Roman baths, but not much remains due to traffickers looking for valuable historical items.
One spot worth seeing is the famous Jeita Grotto, about half an hour outside the city. One reaches the cave by the Dog Valley, with the final stretch of the journey via a short cableway ride. Jeita Grotto was first discovered in 1958 and is 2,200 meters long. It is impossible not to be affected when you tour its interior, which is filled with stalactites and stalagmites. Some of these stalactites and stalagmites have intertwined over time creating columns, the likes of which you will never see anywhere else.
The port city of Byblos connects back to the Phoenician civilization and is like an open-air museum showing off a 7,000-year history. It was here that the world’s first-known alphabet was used! Heading back to Beirut after seeing all this, you can take a long cable-car ride up to the top of Harissa. There is a cathedral and a special statue of the Virgin Mary here.
Small Armenia in middle of Beirut
I was quite worried as I headed for the Armenian section of Beirut, Burj Hammud; I had heard this was a dangerous place for Turks. But the moment I set foot in the area, I realized that these rumors were untrue. In fact, most of the older men I saw sitting and enjoying the sunshine on small stools set up outside their shops were, based on their clothing and the old Turkish they were speaking, were very similar to us Turks. Just talking to them for a short while is enough to allow you to guess from which area of Turkey they migrated. Andranik Cokakliyan, who sells clothing, said he learned his old-style Turkish from his grandfathers.
After the events of 1915 in Turkey, thousands of Armenians migrated to Beirut. Many began working in the construction sector as stone-layers. Those from Kayseri began making and selling their own pastırma (pastrami). It didn’t take long for the goldsmiths and silversmiths to become known for their handiwork and beautiful products. Some Armenians even opened up restaurants here, serving up different dishes from eastern and southeastern Anatolia to great success.
When two Armenian merchants squabble, representatives from the Dashnak Party help to resolve it. The Armenians in Lebanon have many schools and churches that serve their community. There are also three daily newspapers published in Armenian, as well as radio stations broadcasting in the language. The most popular newspaper in Burj Hammud is Aztag, with 30,000 or so sold per day. The Aztag’s foreign news editor is Vahram Emiyan, who said his grandfather came from Gaziantep to Lebanon as an orphan. Like many other young people here, Emiyan does not know Turkish, though he does know both French and English. He said he is involved in politics because of his job, but he does not like talking about it. This is actually typical of the younger members of society living in Burj Hammud. Most try to avoid discussions of politics. The same is not the case for the older members of society, who not only like to discuss politics but often turn the topic to relations between Armenia and Turkey.
The Armenians here often name their neighborhoods after spots in Turkey, like Adana, Maraş and Malatya. Zakar Çiftçiyan, who is 78, says that members of the Armenian community get together on holidays, holding barbeques and making food such as çiğ köfte together. Waving his hands, Çiftçiyan pointed one way, saying, “This is Maraş, and that over there is Malatya!”
If for no other reason, head to Lebanon for the food!
Lebanese cuisine is known for, if nothing else, its hot and cold meze dishes. There is, of course, hummus, which is not only delicious but a great appetizer. And then, of course, there is the famous tabouli salad, made with fine-grained bulgur wheat and lots of parsley. There is lemon thyme salad with its sour pomegranate sauce or grilled eggplant salad served up with Antep-style içli köfte. Or how about the semsek börek, made with labneh cheese and served as a meze? Follow up your selection of cold and hot mezes with any of the main dishes like falafel, chicken and pilaf, or a bean paste called maluf. Try also the range of kebabs that so many Lebanese restaurants boast. And don’t forget to try Lebanese-style künefe if you are looking for the perfect sweet taste to put a final note on your meal.