Thinking strategically at Beaufort Castle

There are a number of Crusader castles in Lebanon, remnants of the many battles fought between Christian and Muslim armies in the 12th and 13th centuries. One of the most interesting – though perhaps least well preserved – is Beaufort Castle.

Located 1000 metres above the Litani river and with a commanding view to the south and west, Beaufort has been the castle to possess in Lebanon. During the past 800 years it changed hands several times between the Christian and Muslim forces. Even as recently as the civil war in the 1970s and 1980s, Beaufort was initially held by the PLO and then by the Israeli Defence Force. And no wonder: looking to the south you can see into Israel and up to the disputed Golan Heights. This map shows its strategic location.

Unfortunately, through all of these battles the castle has been severely damaged. Most recently, the departing Israeli forces blew up their fortifications at the site, damaging other parts of the castle in the process.

Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating spot to visit, particularly given the Hizballah branding and propaganda that adorns it today. (By the way, the “Islamic Resistance” referred to on the poster is Hizballah.)

Daytrip to Beiteddine Palace

On Nanna’s last weekend here we enjoyed a nice drive up into the Chouf mountains (last visited in June). A particular highlight was exploring the lovely Beiteddine Palace, which as you can see here, is still officially the summer residence for the Lebanese President (though is not actually used as such). It’s a wonderful old Ottoman palace built in the early 19th century, and unlike many historical sites in Lebanon it has been carefully and tastefully maintained.

After our explorations we headed a little bit further uphill to the Mir Amin Palace Hotel, another former Ottoman palace. The hotel has a great restaurant on the courtyard, which as you can see here has a terrific view out over the valley down towards the distant Mediterranean Sea.

We ambled up without making a booking and quickly feared that we’d have no chance of getting a table. But the waiter looked at Sheridan with her sticks and decided what the hell, we could have the reserved head table looking out over the valley. So we had a delicious lunch of Lebanese mezze and nargile (Alex’s little vice), enjoying the view and the wonderful cool breeze.


[Update November 2011 – Wally, click on the following picture for a large format version]

Daytrip to Byblos

One very easy daytrip that you can take from Beirut is to the ancient city of Byblos. Located about 35km north of Beirut, Byblos is often described as the oldest continually inhabited city (although Damascus, Aleppo and some others also make the same claim – see here).

Another claim to fame is that writing was invented at Byblos and the name of the bible is attributed to Byblos.

These days, the old city of Byblos is a beautiful little village on the Mediterranean complete with a sheltered port, crusader castle and several quaint restaurants overlooking the water (including the famous – but highly overrated – Pepe’s restaurant). It’s a lovely spot to wander around and enjoy the history.

Byblos Visitors to Byblos Byblos port Byblos port

Fisherman Byblos souk Crusader castle Castle battlements

More exploration: Bcharre and Tyre

We’ve been doing lots more exploring while Nanna’s here. On Saturday we drove north up into the mountains to visit the Bcharre (pron: BESHARAY) region and to see the famous Lebanese cedars. Then on Monday we headed to the southern city of Tyre (pron: TEER).

Bcharre district

Bcharre is one of a number of towns on a ring road around the gorge-like Qadisha valley – known as the Holy Valley because of the number of monasteries, churches and hermit caves there and the Syriac translation of qadisho as “sacred”. The scenery is really dramatic, with all the townships clinging to the sides of the steep valley and the middle east’s tallest mountain, the snowcapped Cornet El-Saouda, towering overhead.

The Bcharre district is where famed artist and author Khalil Gibran (third bestselling poet after Shakespeare and Lao Tse) was born, and it was a major centre for migration to Australia (everyone there has a family member who lives in Australia).

Qadisha valley Qadisha waterfall Bcharre The Lebanon cedars The other Parramatta Road - not in New South Wales


Having done a recce to Tyre several weeks ago, we decided to take Nanna to southern Lebanon to explore the ancient Phoenecian, Greek and Roman ruins of this city which dates back to 3000 BC.

First stop was a drive past the Crusader Castle at Sidon harbour, then a detour when we spotted a toy shop selling kids bikes (Nanna wanted to buy Mitchell a bike, so that he could inflict more damage on our furniture). We then continued south to Tyre, a squeezy drive through the old city and stopped at the ruins of the old Roman port. The beautiful mosaic road runs straight into the sea, where a large section of the town’s sea wall has now vanished under the Mediterranean. You can still go snorkling among Egyptian and Roman columns on the sea bed.

We next took advantage of the beautiful Spring weather to go and sit on the beach. Sheridan did very well walking along the soft sand (with a little support from Alex and Nanna) and Mitchie had a great time digging out sandcastles and throwing spades of sand into our faces. Oh how we laughed!

As the afternoon lengthened we ventured on to a neat little ice cream cafe overlooking the sparkling sea, with the Israeli headland 20km to the south. The proprietor looked at us like we were the most boring people he’d met as we each ordered a two-scoop ice cream. The reason for this quickly became apparent, when a Lebanese couple ordered a giant plate covered with sliced fruit, about 15 different flavours of ice cream, assorted toppings and with wafers and other crap sticking out all over the place. It was completely outrageous. Still, we were fairly content with our piddly little ice creams (until the next morning, when Sheridan and Nanna copped a bit of food poisoning).

Final stop before returning to Beirut was the Al-Bass archaeological site, which contains a Roman cemetery, a triumphal arch, and the largest Roman hippodrome (think chariot racing in Spartacus) ever discovered.

Sidon’s sea castle Roman triumphal arch One of several stadia at the Tyre Hippodrome

Mosaic road Playing at the beach More playing at the beach

Beach time Ancient windows on the world

The ancient city of Tyre

In addition to Beirut, there are three other main coastal cities in Lebanon: Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre.  Each of these have a wealth of history and were previously capital cities for the Phoenecian empire, as well as major cities for the ancient Greeks, Romans and others.

Tyre is in the southern end of Lebanon and only about 20km from Israel. These days it is almost exclusively Shiite and is the main city in the UN mandated buffer zone established between Israel and Hizballah after the 2006 summer war.

Politics aside, Tyre is a rather quaint city with extraordinary history on display.  The security situation has all but killed the tourism trade, such that the only visitors to the area are international peacekeepers assigned to UNIFIL.  This is a shame as there’s plenty of Roman, Greek, Byzantine, Phoenecian and Crusader ruins worthy of exploration, and it has the cleanest beaches and water in Lebanon.

While visiting Tyre for work yesterday I had a bit of spare time, so I took the opportunity to explore some of the ruins at the ancient port.  The weather was absolutely glorious – the sun was glinting off the crystal waters of the Med and there was none of Beirut’s dirtiness in the air.   I took a work contact out for lunch and I must say that it was pretty hard sitting in an open air cafe eating decent pizza, drinking Al Mazza beer and enjoying the view over the Med…

Colonnaded road Crusader cross markings Columns and columns And more columns