Living Large on Lebanon’s Ski Slopes

It’s been a while since I last posted. But ski season is finally at its end in Lebanon, so I finally have a little more free time on the weekends…

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As you might imagine, this snow has been pretty irresistible.

When I say “ski”, “Middle East” may not be what pops to mind for you. Yet Lebanon’s ski season started mid-December this winter, and lasted a full three months. Smaller than the state of Connecticut, the country has five ski stations, one of which still had a couple of lifts open last week. Not bad.

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At the Mzaar ski station near the village of Faraya, it’s a scene like no other. Snow bunnies forgo gloves or goggles in order to show off their fake nails and lashes. The “après-ski” scene starts warming up at noon. Crowds mob the baby slopes while there’s no line at all for any other lift.

I know, it’s not sounding very much like a serious ski scene. There is, however, a small group of elite skiers, and Lebanon has sent skiers to the Olympics since 1948.

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According to the Lebanese Ski Federation, the first skier in the country was a man named Ramez Ghazzaoui. After studying in Switzerland, Ghazzaoui returned to Lebanon in 1913, determined to recreate his Alpine skiing experience on Lebanon’s snowy slopes. It didn’t much catch on. When the French arrived a decade later under the post WWI “mandate”, they brought their love of skiing. The country’s first ski school was established in the Cedars region of northern Lebanon in the 1930s.

Skiing in central Lebanon, where the Mzaar station is located, took a while longer. An hour from Beirut, the village of Faraya sits on the flanks of the Mount Lebanon range, and the peaks of what is now the Mzaar ski station are an additional twenty-minute drive up a narrow road of hairpin turns. Drawn to the beauty of the peaks and undeterred by the challenges of summiting, European visitors in the 1950s hired locals from Faraya to lug their skis to the top of the slopes.

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These holiday decorations remained in place for the entire ski season.

Mahmoud Khalil of Faraya was one of those locals. Paid to do the work without the chance to share in the thrills, Mahmoud decided that he wanted in on the fun. Chopping down a tree in his front yard, Mahmoud hewed his own pair of skis.

Mahmoud passed his passion for skiing on to his three sons: Nabil went on to represent Lebanon in the Olympics, while Tony and Louis became ski instructors. While Tony and Louis share their father’s story on their website Lebanon Slopes, the best way to get the inside scoop is by booking one of them as an instructor. I know, because that’s what I did.

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Tony Khalil, ski instructor at Mzaar

Despite growing up in Seattle, an hour from the snowy slopes of the Cascade mountain range, I had never skied before arriving to Lebanon. After years living far from any ski resorts, my husband Luca was thrilled to end his 20-year skiing hiatus. Our first winter in Lebanon, Luca organized a fortieth birthday bash for me in the mountains: a family weekend where the kids and I learned how to ski and Luca got to rekindle his old love of skiing.

After the first weekend, the kids rarely took an instructor, but as might be expected of a not-especially-athletic-40-year-old, it took me a little longer. Now finishing my fifth winter in Lebanon, I still hire an instructor occasionally (I’ll make it to the advanced slopes one day!). Tony is by far the best instructor I’ve hired. First and foremost for his skiing and teaching skills, but it’s a nice bonus that he has good stories to share during those long lift rides up the slopes.

The first lift was installed at Mzaar in 1959 or 1960 (depending on who you talk to), and Tony says that he and his brothers were “born with skis on our feet.” They learned to ski the way most of us learn to walk—as a basic expectation for getting through life. His brother Nabil went on to become a national champion, and represented Lebanon in the Olympic Games in Sarajevo in 1984.

Nabil’s accomplishment is all the more noteworthy given that it occurred while Lebanon was in the midst of Civil War, which stretched from 1975 to 1990. The airport runway was shelled as the plane carrying Nabil and other Olympians was departing. (Read this incredible article from 1984 for more details.) One of the hotels at the base of the slope was occupied by a militia.

“You see that stretch right there?” Tony said, pointing to a slope nearby as we rode the ski lift. “For the most part we could ski without problems, but in that part right there, we were visible to snipers from the other side. So we just went as fast as we could and hoped for the best.”

Unlike Beirut, where the destruction of war is still visible in buildings punctured by bullet holes, there are few vestiges of the war in Faraya and Mzaar. One exception is at the top of the eponymous Mzaar peak, at 8,087 feet (2,465m), the highest point of the ski resort. On clear days you can see the sea from the summit.

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My husband at the summit of Mzaar with the sea in the background.

Mzaar means ‘shrine’ in English, and the peak was named for a Roman temple that once sat atop the mountain. The temple had been converted into a chapel, but the structure was destroyed during the civil war. All that remains is a bell that skiers love to ring when they reach the summit.

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After five years I finally became a good enough skier to try the Mzaar slope. Okay, truth be told, they opened a back route down from Mzaar this year that is easier than the front descent.

Indeed, the Mzaar of yesteryear would scarcely be recognizable today to Mahmoud Khalil. While there were only three lifts by the end of the civil war in 1990, there are now more than 20. The four chalets that were built in 1960 have multiplied into dozens of hotels and vacation apartments.  Mzaar hosts Red Bull challenges (jump and freeze anyone?) and lingerie fashion shows (yes, seriously) on the snow. (Lebanese Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun scandalized the nation by appearing in a 2014 pre-Sochi photo shoot at Mzaar with nothing but her skis and a pair of pink panties.)

Thousands show up every weekend to join the party. So next winter, if you’re still skiing on the bunny slopes, as cute as those bunnies might be, follow my lead and hire an instructor. You’ll get away from the beginner slope mobs, and have the chance to admire views of the Mediterranean Sea from the peak of Mzaar on a clear day. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Tony, and have the chance to hear a little more about Lebanon’s unexpected skiing history.

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Presidential Elections (no, not in the US!… here in Lebanon)

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Lebanese Flag. Image by Nicolas Raymond

Today, after two years and a half years without a head of government, Lebanon finally elected a president.

All schools and universities were closed for the day. I had a doctor’s appointment at noon – the clinic called this morning to tell me it was better I stayed home. My husband, whose office is a stone’s throw from the Lebanese Parliament building. worked from home. In Lebanon it is the parliament which elects the president. The parliament itself hasn’t seen elections since 2009. Elections were controversially postponed since June 2103, during which time parliamentarians voted to extend their own mandate until 2017.

Today was the 45th time since May 2014 (when the former president’s mandate expired), that the parliament had met to vote on a president. But it was the first time that there was any expectation of someone getting elected.

Lebanese politics are notoriously complicated. Political affiliation is tied up with religion, in a system called “confessional democracy.” Parliament seats are allocated half to Christians and half to Muslim, making the Christians somewhat overrepresented (there hasn’t been a census since 1932, but Muslims are now estimated to be about two thirds of Lebanon’s population). To divide the pie of power, the Speaker of the Parliament is Shia, the Prime Minister is Sunni, and the President is always Christian Maronite.

There are simplistic summaries of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) that incorrectly describe it as Christian versus Muslim. It was far more complex than that, a grueling and vicious war during which every party allied with and fought against every other party at some point.  If we are going to simplify, let’s say instead that the war was about power and control, with the multiple militias backed by foreign powers.

Although it took nearly twenty years, it eventually became clear that there would be no winners in Lebanon’s Civil War. (If you’ve ever wondered why Lebanon has been so diligent about not getting sucked into the war in neighboring Syria, that is one clue.) The power-sharing agreement was revisited, dialing down the powers of the president and the number of parliamentary seats allocated to Christians, and peace was agreed upon. Warlords became politicians.

The end of the war didn’t signal the end of shifting alliances. I once tried to make a chart of political parties and alliances to post on this blog, but it became such a cobwebbed mess of crossed lines that I gave up.

In recent months, previously sworn enemies (and civil war opponents) have created alliances that finally opened up a path for Michel Aoun to become president. Aoun was a general in the Lebanese Army during the Lebanese Civil war, who also had ties to other Christian militias. And was backed at a certain point by Saddam Hussein.

The parliamentarian vote was televised and we watched the first round of voting. I was surprised to see that it was a pen and paper ballot, rather than electronic. The name of each parliamentarian was called aloud, and a glass box brought in front of each parliamentarian for him (or her – but there are only 4 women of 127 parliamentarians) to drop his vote into.

Aoun needed 85 votes to win in the first round. He got 82. All but two of the other votes were blank. Voting moved to a second round, in which Aoun only needed a simple majority, or 65 votes.

It was then that mayhem ensued. Once ballots were collected and counted, it was discovered that there was one more ballot than voters. Invalid. Start over.

Round three, same thing.

The crowd got rowdy. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri quipped, “We haven’t voted in a long time. We’re learning again.”

It was decided that rather than the glass box coming being brought to each parliamentarian’s seat, he (or she) would have to get up and deposit his or her vote into the glass box now at the front of the parliament, where everyone could see.

Finally, 127 ballots for 127 voters.

I hope that next time they consider using the electronic voting system that they apparently have but chose not to use.

While there were again many blank votes (and even one for Zorba the Great), Michel Aoun soon managed to collect the requisite 65 votes.

I was relieved, because we’d been waiting for the voting to finish before going out to lunch, and it had taken over two hours instead of the originally anticipated half an hour. I was starving. But no more had the votes been counted, then a ruckus erupted.

I live in Ashrafieh, the heartland of Christian Beirut, and the celebratory fireworks were deafening. In Beirut, fireworks are often accompanied by celebratory shooting. Sure, they shoot into the sky, but since what goes up must come down, setting foot outside suddenly seemed like a bad idea.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at home. Fireworks soon gave way to celebratory honking. When we ate dinner at 8 at night, we had to shut the dining room windows to cut down on the noise.

As I was writing this, I thought things had finally calmed down, but now it’s nearly midnight, and I hear a new round of fireworks going off.

 

For a visual chronology of the Lebanese Civil War, check out this site.

For a straightforward explanation of Lebanese government and politics, check out Living Lebanon (be sure to click through on the sidebar links too).

And for anyone who wants to know more, I suggest reading Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk.

Baalbek, Ksara, Anjar: Lebanon’s Top Tourist Circuit

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Baalbek: once an epicenter of Roman religious life, a temple complex dating back two millennia, boasting the world’s best-preserved Roman temple.

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Ksara: a 159-year-old winery and Lebanon’s largest, producing some 2 million bottles per year.

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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.

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the view from the rooftop terrace of the Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek

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.

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wine barrels in the tunnels of Ksara winery

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.

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the ruins of Anjar

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”.

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three happy tourists

Beirut’s Sursock Museum and the Art of Resilience

After nine long years, Beirut’s Sursock Museum reopened this weekend.

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

The museum houses modern and contemporary art in a setting as elegant as the artwork within: an Italianate villa located in a well-heeled district of Beirut.  First opened in 1961, the Sursock was long the reference point for contemporary art in Lebanon, hosting an annual salon, or exhibition of emerging artists, as well as a permanent collection of renowned painters from the region. The museum managed to stay open through most of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, but closed in 2008 to undergo seven long years of renovation.

Emblematic of the resilience of the Lebanese themselves, the museum reopened this weekend, amidst a garbage crisis, a political crisis, and a refugee crisis of historical proportions.

Fittingly, the museum’s director, Zeina Arida, has curated opening exhibitions that share a theme of identity.

In “Picturing Identity” photographs summon the past of the Lebanese people.

"Muslim Sheikh", from The Fouad Debbas Collection

“Muslim Sheikh”, from The Fouad Debbas Collection

In “Regards sur Beyrouth” paintings evoke the history of the local landscape.

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

And a multimedia exhibition entitled “The City in The City” explores modern-day Beirut. The piece that most struck me in this exhibition was a map created by Mona Fawaz and Ahmad Gharbieh pinpointing visible security deployment in Beirut in 2009: it was cluttered with symbols for checkpoints, army tanks, military vehicles, barbed wire, road spikes and more. (If you can’t make it to the museum, the map and its background essay can be accessed on the website Academia.edu, with free registration to the site.)

Head of programs, Nora Razian, has designed a robust public program of tours, talks, walks, workshops, films and family programs to accompany this last exhibition. I was lucky enough to get a spot on a night walk entitled “The Streets Beneath the Streets,” led by the writer Lina Mounzer. The stories she narrated on Friday night, as she led our group from one hidden corner of the Ashrafieh neighborhood to the next, centered on the famine the country faced during World War I, which killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 persons in Mount Lebanon alone, 500,000 in Greater Syria. According to the BBC, “As a proportion of the total population, more people died in Greater Syria than anywhere else in the world during the First World War.”

Commonly attributed to a blockade by Allied forces seeking to cut off supplies to the Ottoman empire, the reality of the famine was a far more complicated scenario, also involving environmental factors (such as a locust invasion that carpeted the countryside, some say knee-deep), wartime mismanagement and war profiteering. (This article touches on some of the heart-rending details that Lina shared with us, accompanied by equally harrowing images.)

Foreign influences, environmental degradation, profiteering….

Lebanon’s present has disturbing echoes of its past, and serves as a reminder that only by studying history can we grasp how things might change or remain the same.

All of which circles me back to the reopening of the Sursock Museum, its exhibitions and public programming. Yes, the garbage crisis remains unresolved, with hills of refuse blighting Lebanon’s landscape and clogging its riverbeds. It’s true, Lebanon’s longstanding political crisis (including a 15-month-and-counting presidential vacuum) has deepened the garbage crisis. And while the number of officially registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon has dropped in recent months, there remain more than one million, for a staggering statistic of 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Much of the system in Lebanon seems to be held together with aging Scotch tape, threatening to peel off at any moment.

Yet the Sursock Museum, Zeina Arida, Nora Razian, Lina Mounzer, and all the others involved with the Sursock’s reopening and public programs, are the embodiment of resilience. They remind us to step back to see more clearly who we are and where we came from, so that we can better see where we want to go next.

Culture is not a luxury.

Culture is part of us. It’s what constitutes a person, it links generations and gives meaning to history. Knowing one’s culture is knowing one’s self. Identifying and preserving one’s heritage allows reaching out to the others.

-Zeina Arida, to the Prince Claus Fund

For details about the Sursock Museum and upcoming events, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SursockMuseum

Lebanon, the Safe Haven – for Armenians too

This month marks 100 years since the Ottoman Empire initiated systematic massacres of the Armenians in its midst.

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Armenian civilians, escorted by armed Ottoman soldiers, are marched through Harput (Kharpert), to a prison in the nearby Mezireh (present-day Elâzığ), April 1915. Source: Wikipedia

I don’t remember ever hearing of the Armenian Genocide before moving to Lebanon. It was all over the news, however, when I was in Italy last week. Pope Francis referred to the tragedy as a genocide during a special mass of remembrance. His pronouncement was all the news could talk about for the remainder of the afternoon, bringing the history of the Armenians back to my attention.

My lack of knowledge about the genocide prior to living in Lebanon turns out to have been no accident. The massacres are now widely recognized internationally – and even by some within Turkey (the former Ottoman Empire) – as a genocide by historians and scholars. But Turkey has always denied that the targeting and killings were systematic, and take umbrage at the term genocide. The Turkish government has run an effective and proactive campaign to keep it from being officially recognized by the US national government (despite its recognition by 43 of our 50 states), discussed at the UN, taught in Canadian schools or acknowledged in London museums (see this piece from the Los Angeles Times for a more detailed discussion).

For a quick history lesson (in case you, like me, missed it): the traditional Armenian homeland was once split between Eastern and Western Armenia – the former conquered by Russia, the latter under Ottoman rule. Armenians were also concentrated in Cilicia, an Armenian Kingdom in the Middle Ages, and a region of modern-day Turkey which borders the Mediterranean Sea.

Between 1915 and 1922, an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the Ottoman Empire.

According to Wikipedia, “The genocide was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre.”

Survivors fled. The Armenian diaspora is now estimated at 8 to 10 million people (triple that of modern-day Armenia’s population). Many of the diaspora are direct descendants of genocide victims.

And the reason I started hearing about the genocide after arriving to Lebanon? As it has done for Syrians over the past few years, Lebanon opened its borders and provided refuge to countless Armenians. There are an estimated 230,000 Armenians in Lebanon today. Uniquely, they were granted Lebanese nationality in 1924 by the French mandate, and became a vibrant part of the fabric of Lebanese society. They are renowned in particular for their craftsmanship. Lebanon today is home to the only Armenian university outside of Armenia, and to the Catholicosate (Holy See) of Cilicia. The Catholicos (head of church) fled Cilicia in 1921.

When my parents visited me in 2013, we took headed just north of Beirut to Antelias, to visit the Catholicosate, which we knew had a museum.

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The main church (right) is surprisingly small. (c) Amy E. Robertson

A young woman in her twenties greeted us, told us the museum was free of charge, and accompanied us to unlock the rooms housing the Armenian treasures. The three of us were the only visitors that morning. We asked a couple of questions as we entered, and she offered a guided tour. We jumped at the opportunity.

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the Cilicia Museum (c) Amy E. Robertson

Room after room housed beautifully displayed artifacts from Cilicia, primarily relics and religious art of its churches. Richly woven tapestries, liturgical garments threaded with gold, delicately illustrated Bibles, silver wrought into chalices and crosses, and more. Some had been smuggled out as refugees fled the genocide; more has been recovered by devout Armenians who travel to Turkey to track down their historical treasures from antiquarians and collectors. The third floor of the museum houses its painting and sculpture collection, described on the museum website as follows: “Primarily as a post-Genocide phenomenon, the collection stands as a witness to the special circumstances and experiences of Armenians in exile.”

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the seminary (c) Amy E. Robertson 

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priests (c) Amy E. Robertson

Pictures were not allowed inside of the museum, so I cannot share with you the treasures. I can only urge you, if ever in Beirut, to find a few hours to visit the museum.

And you may be well-versed in Armenian history, but if, like me, you are not – I would also like to urge you, whether you are in Beirut or anywhere else around the globe, to find a few minutes this week, as we mark the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, to learn more about the history of the Armenians.

Official Observation of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2015.

Museum Information  and official website of the Cilicia Museum

For a taste of Armenia when in Beirut, here are my favorites:

Mayrig – Traditional Armenian cooking. Cozy restaurant with stone walls, stained glass lamps and impeccable service. Now with a branch also in Dubai,

Batchig – Mayrig’s more stylish younger sister, with twists on tradition and a more casual atmosphere. Located in the Beirut suburb of Dbayeh.

Badguer – homey restaurant and cultural center with homestyle cooking, located in the Armenian quarter of Beirut, Bourj Hammoud.