Baalbek: once an epicenter of Roman religious life, a temple complex dating back two millennia, boasting the world’s best-preserved Roman temple.
Ksara: a 159-year-old winery and Lebanon’s largest, producing some 2 million bottles per year.
Anjar: a sprawling 8th century complex of ruins from the Umayyad caliphate, the first but most short-lived of the Arab dynasties.
Each a remarkable place to visit. None of which I had heard of before living in Lebanon. I was in Beirut two years before visiting Baalbek and Ksara. And it wasn’t until recently that I returned, and visited Anjar as well.
Baalbek/Ksara/Anjar is a standard day trip sold by travel agencies in Beirut, but the long shadow of war stretches across the Antilebanon mountain range that separates Syria from Lebanon, casting a gloom across the businesses of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, tourism most of all.
My family and I arrived to Lebanon in May 2012, and skirmishes near the border made a visit to the famed ruins of Baalbek out of the question. Although war continues to simmer in neighboring Syria, Lebanon has clung to its fragile peace, and by the spring of 2014 we felt it was safe enough to finally visit the World Heritage Site temples.
I recently returned with my parents, who just ended their second visit to Lebanon. Not much had changed since I first saw Baalbek in 2014. Arriving just after 9am, we were the first tourists in town. Someone must have alerted the ticket seller, who pulled into the parking lot just after us and sprinted ahead to open up the ticket window. In turn, he must have given a call to another local, because we’d been inside the complex only a few minutes when a guide materialized to offer his services. It was just us and our guide Khalil. Extraordinary to have these magnificent world class ruins all to ourselves.
Magnificent and heartbreaking. Our guide recounted that three to four hundred tourists used to arrive daily. These days they were averaging ten. We tried to spread our few tourist dollars around: a generous tip to our guide, a couple of souvenir guidebooks from one merchant lurking outside, a few replicas of ancient coins from another merchant. We couldn’t bring ourselves to take a ride on the camel someone had trotted out to the ruins though.
Before leaving Baalbek, I insisted that we stop by the Palmyra Hotel, intrigued by this fantastic two and a half minute video which I had recently seen.
Political leaders Charles de Gaulle and German Kaiser Wilhelm II once stayed at the Palmyra, singers Ella Fitzgerald, Fairouz and Sabah (both Lebanese legends) were guests, and the French poet and painter Jean Cocteau lived in the Palmyra for a month. In continuous business since 1874, it was if time had stopped 75 years before our visit. The bellhop (the same one who appears in the video) has been working for them more than 40 years, and proudly showed us the rooms and the spectacular view from the terrace. For another detailed article about the Palmyra, check out this one from a couple of years ago on the Beirut news site Al Akhbar.
After admiring the view, we headed on to Ksara, the first official winery to build on Lebanon’s 5,000-year old winemaking tradition. The winery was founded by Jesuit priests in 1857 (a few years before the Palmyra opened in nearby Baalbek), and sold into private hands in 1973, after the Vatican encouraged its monasteries to sell off any commercial activities. The ancient Roman tunnels under the winery’s chateau were expanded by men that lived in them during a war, explained our guide. (I wish I could remember which war! The Ksara website mentions that the winery was occupied by soldiers 1982-83, during the Lebanese Civil War, maybe it was then…) There are now just over 2.1km (1.3 mi) of tunnels, housing oak barrels of aged wine and special collection bottles. The tour ends with a generous tasting. I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of wines that I hadn’t had the chance to taste before and liked a lot – I bought a Cabernet Sauvignon to take home.
To soak up some of the wine, we made a quick stop for a man’oushe (baked dough with toppings such as cheese, ground lamb, or dried wild thyme), then drove on to Anjar, the ruins of a trading center that is estimated to have flourished roughly 700-750 A.D. It was built by the Umayyads, the second of the four major Islamic caliphates established after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Like Baalbek, it is a World Heritage Site.
Although Anjar turned out to be only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from some restaurants and wineries that we had visited in the past, it is only 10 more kilometers to the Lebanon-Syria border, and we hadn’t dared get quite that close in the past. The lack of tourists was even more acute here than Baalbek. While the ticket office was staffed by a friendly Lebanese who had returned to Anjar after years of living in Nashville, he told us that we were the first tourists to arrive to the site in a few days. Sure, the ruins of Anjar pale next to Baalbek, but frankly even the Forum of Rome isn’t as impressive as Baalbek, so that’s a hard neighbor to keep up with. There are still crumbling walls of palaces and a mosque, scraps of mosaics, elegant archways and towering columns. Anjar was a marketplace of an estimated 600 shops, and was an important stop on the Baalbek-Damascus trade route.
My parents told me that the day was a highlight of their month-long stay in Lebanon. “Top tourist circuit”? Not in numbers. But Baalbek or Anjar are extraordinary world treasures. (And Ksara was just plain fun.) This Beirut day trip is, without a doubt, a “top tourist circuit”.