Beirut’s synagogue

I found this photoblog about Beirut’s synagogue and the remains of the Jewish quarter (link here) really interesting. It’s quite a pretty building and a nice locale, although much of the area was destroyed during the civil war. It’s not far from my office and I often walk past the synagogue remains on the way to the dentist. It looks a bit different now though, as the building is finally being rehabilitated.

Two more castles. Last ones I swear

To fully round out the crusader castle festival that is the Syrian mountain range, and having already explored the other end of the chain in Lebanon (eg Tripoli citadel and Beaufort castle), I headed back home via the coast road to take in Qal’at Salah ad-Din and Qal’at Marqab.

Qal’at Salah ad-Din, or Saladdin’s castle, is perhaps the second most impressive fortification in Syria after Krak des Chevaliers. It isn’t nearly as well preserved, with much of the interior in ruins and overgrown with vegetation. But the outer walls are quite impressive, and it had the most striking access route. As you can see in the following photos, the only access to the castle in medieval times was across a drawbridge which spanned a plunging gap in the mountains. What’s even more amazing is that the gap is man-made. The castle’s builders carved that slash out of the basalt rock. And yet despite this, the castle was captured by Saladdin in 1188 (hence the name).

As I explored Qal’at Salah ad-Din I couldn’t help but think how it would be the perfect place to take Mitchell in 5-6 years time. It’s full of mysterious tunnels, hidden stairwells leading to isolated turrets and evil looking arrow slits, where you could run around pretending to defend the castle from dragons and marauding hordes of orcs. Mind you it’s also full of precipitous drops and without any safety rails…

Heading on, my final stop was Qal’at Marqab, which is perched on a hilltop overlooking the coastal city of Baniyas. Marqab is in worse condition than Salah ad-Din, and unfortunately the exhaust belching out of the large power-station below the hill was drifting right across the castle. So rather than venturing in I just snapped these pics on my way past.

But it makes me wonder – what is it with castles and cactus in this part of the world?

Aleppo and the Dead City of Serjilla

And onwards to Aleppo. But since it’s a fair drive from Krak des Chevaliers, why not a quick stop enroute at the dead city of Serjilla?

What are the “dead cities”? Well, as wikipedia will tell you, the dead cities are a collection of settlements south of Aleppo dating back to ancient times and completely abandoned for the past 1500 years. Unlike most ancient ruins, which tend to be filled with grand and impressive temples, ampitheatres, columns and statues, the dead cities look more like recent ghost towns. The buildings are pretty similar to our own – there’s lots of two storey terraces with A-frame roofs for example.


Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria, is most famous for two things: its market (the souq), and the ancient citadel that towers over the whole city. It has been occupied continuously since about 5000BC, making it one of the oldest cities in the world.

At the heart of the city is the citadel. The castle crowns an extraordinary hill jutting out of the ground, almost as dramatically as Uluru. Although there’s been fortifications of some form here since the 9th century BC, the current citadel was constructed in the 12th century.

While the exterior walls are well preserved, the same can’t be said for the interior. Much of the top of the citadel is rubble or poorly executed renovations, including an ill-advised concrete faux-ampitheatre.

Looking beyond the citadel, Aleppo’s Omayad mosque is only 15 years younger than its cousin in Damascus, dating originally to 715AD. Yet while the minaret is original, much of the rest has been rebuilt. Still, it’s a beautiful spot.

Krak des Chevaliers

With a few weeks of bachelorhood up my sleeve, I decided to head north across the border into Syria. My ultimate destination was the northern town of Aleppo to explore the souks and its famous Citadel. But first stop was the incomparable Krak des Chevaliers.

Krak des Chevaliers (Qal’at al-Hisn in Arabic) is just over the northern border between Lebanon and Syria. It was originally a smaller Kurdish castle, but was captured by the Crusaders in 1099, then again in 1110. It was strategically significant during the crusades, as it overlooks the only real mountain pass along the coastline from Turkey to Israel. The crusaders considerably expanded the site, so that it eventually became the largest castle in the Middle East and the headquarters for the Knights Hospitaler, housing a 2,000-strong garrison.

For a castle-nerd like me, Krak des Chevaliers is just extraordinary. It is almost completely intact, and was described by Lawrence of Arabia as “perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world”. It’s importance as one of the most complete medieval castles led to it being listed as a UNESCO world heritage site.

Exploring the castle, you quickly see how it dominates its surroundings. The complex is huge in size and it looks completely insurmountable. In fact, given how well-designed and formidable the castle is, it’s hard to believe that it was successfully captured by the Mamluks in 1271 – although this was only possible when the castle was hugely undermanned (only 200 knights).

Traipsing through Tripoli

Nanna’s here again, and since there was a recent change to the travel advice taking Tripoli off the highest risk category, we decided to head up there yesterday to have a bit of an explore.

Tripoli is Lebanon’s second largest city, located on the coast near the northern border. Much of its history is from the crusader and Mamluk eras. It’s got an awesome citadel (the Castle of St Gilles), lots of mosques, an old bazaar (including a fascinating soap market, the “good smell of Lebanon”) and traditional middle eastern chaos. There is much more of an Arab vibe in Tripoli than Beirut – it feels more like Damascus or Amman (except it’s by the sea).

The visit this time was reasonably brief. First stop was the citadel. When we told Mitchell that we were going to a castle, he replied: “With a princess?”. How cute is that?

We enjoyed exploring the various nooks and crannies, although unfortunately it wasn’t very accessible so we could only get Sheridan’s chair a short way in.

Afterwards we grabbed some lunch, then spent some time negotiating through the hussle and bussle of the old city. When the call to prayer came it was a deafening crescendo of competing mosques. We finished off with a quick stop at the Hallab sweets shop for some excellent baklava.

Here are some photos that I took in Tripoli last year.

Abbreviated travels to the deep south

Alright, so this post is a little bit tricky. Officially I never travelled to the West Bank, as it’s an issue of some sensitivity for the Lebanese. And the issue of Jewish settlers and Palestinian entitlements in the West Bank is always contentious and there’s always a risk that someone could get to this page from Google and take offence at a perceived imbalance (I think what I’ve written here is pretty neutral and based on briefings by TIPH, but you never know).

Hence I’ve password protected access to this post, just in case.

So… A few days back I got to have a short visit (shorter than originally planned) to the West Bank. Unfortunately I missed much of the planned visit so didn’t get to see Bethlehem, Ramallah or the Dome of the Rock in east Jerusalem (also known as Al Quds to the Palestinians).

But I did at least get to have a tour of Hebron with some observers from the Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH). That in itself was an eye-opener. Although I’d often heard about Hebron in the news, I’d never really paid much attention to what was going on there. Turns out I’d missed one of the key issues plaguing attempts to return the West Bank to Palestinian rule.

Hebron is arguably the second most significant religious city in Israel/Palestine, after the Temple Mount. Abraham is said to have lived in Hebron 1800 years ago, and his grave and that of his wife Sarah are believed to be located under the Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of Machpela. This site is highly significant for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike.

Anyway, without delving too much into the complicated and controversial history of the place, Jews and Muslims had co-existed quite happily there for 500 years. But in 1929 Arab rioters protesting the influx of zionist settlers from Europe killed 67 Jews in the Hebron massacre.  It’s worth noting here that over 400 other Jews were saved by their Arab neighbours, at some risk to the Arabs involved, as a demonstration of the previous religious harmony that existed. Following this incident, the Jewish families in Hebron were relocated to Jerusalem.

After the West Bank was occupied by Israeli forces in the 1967 six-day war, Jewish settlers flooded into Hebron, often illegally. Many of these settlers have turned out to be extremely fanatical, often attacking not only the Arabs in Hebron but also the Israeli military (usually in retalliation for the forced closure of a settlement) and neutral international observers. In 1994 a Jewish settler killed 29 Muslims praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque. In 1997, in response to growing tensions, the city was divided into a Palestinian sector and a Jewish sector.

As a result of this history, tension levels remain high between Palestinians and Jewish settlers in Hebron. For example, and as you’ll see in the photos, there’s a few spots where the market alleyways pass underneath one of the main Jewish settlements. In these spots they’ve had to erect wire security fences to protect the people passing beneath from bricks, bottles filled with urine and other objects that get thrown down at them from the settlement. (An Australian colleague of mine was recounting how he previously had a bucket of water thrown over him in this street.  It was summer, so he didn’t mind. He then overheard an Arab shopkeeper saying “Ahh, he is lucky. It was clean water” (ie not urine). )

The wonders of Baalbek and Aanjar

As you may have already deduced from earlier posts, Lebanon is full of old stuff.  Much of it is poorly preserved or else some new horrible concrete monstrosity has been built over the top of it.

But just occasionally, the odd historical gem has been left in good condition.  Two such examples are Baalbek and Aanjar, both of which are in the Bekaa valley.


Aanjar is often cited as the only real remaining Umayyad site in Lebanon – a remnant of the 7th and 8th century Muslim caliphate. The area was only rediscovered in 1939 after several thousand Armenian refugees settled there, with excavations commencing ten years later.

Walking along the main street of this walled town you get a real feel for what life might have been like back then. Hundreds of shops are clearly visible, as are the bathhouses, mosques and two palaces. It’s history that you can reach out and touch. And as is so typical of historical sites in Lebanon, on any given day you’ll have the place all to yourself. Certainly Christopher and I did, on a glorious autumnal day.


Baalbek is widely considered as a Roman ruin, but the Romans merely expanded and improved upon a much older site focused on hedonism and the worship of the Sun God. Baalbek is the home of the original Bacchanalian feast, with ritualised prostitution and other pleasures of the flesh and soul. Oh, and the odd bit of human sacrifice too.

Upon first arriving in the town of Baalbek you have to fight your way through a horde of annoyingly persistent street hawkers trying to flog off Hizballah t-shirts and crappy postcards, as well as a bunch of ratty kids offering to watch over your parked car (as if anyone’s going to break into your car in the middle of Hizballah territory – you could leave the keys in the ignition and no one would flog your ride).

Then eventually you get into the site, and WHAM, you’re confronted by the sheer scale of this place. There are a bunch of different parts to the complex but the most impressive are the six remaining columns from the old Temple of Jupiter, and the almost complete Temple of Bacchus. The columns of both tower above you and it really is quite amazing to stand at the base of these monsters and look up at the capitals 40-50 metres above you.

Needless to say, the photos below just don’t convey how big these temples are.

Exploring the old city of Damascus

With Christopher in town for a few days, he and I decided to have a boys weekend away. Sadly, the girly bars and super nightclubs of Beirut were off-limits, so instead we opted for the historical choice and drove over to Damascus.

Supposedly the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (Byblos, Aleppo and several other cities also make this claim), Damascus has a fantastic old city complete with winding narrow alleys, beautifully preserved mosques, traditional cafes and tastefully renovated Damascene palaces.

We opted to stay in the Beit Joury hotel, a 300 year old palace which had only been converted into a boutique hotel last year. The hotel was in the centre of the Christian quarter and an easy walk to all the main historical sights. From there we wandered leisurely, munching on a falafel roll (very tasty, but not quite as good as my favourite, Sahyoun, on the old Green line), scoffing down a monstrous cone of vanilla icecream covered in pistachio nuts from Bakdash, then later on sitting and whiling away an hour over some sweet black tea and a nargileh pipe.