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Monday, June 09, 2008

Byblos - They gave us the alphabet

Today, I did a day trip to Byblos and Dog River. Woke up early ¨C the whole city is dead because it was Sunday. Unlike the rest of the Middle East which has its rest day on Friday, Lebanon, as it is nominally a ¡°Christian country¡± (even though Christians probably do not account for more than 35% of the population ¨C no one really knows as no population census has been held since 1932), has Sunday as rest day, like the rest of the world.
I had some difficulty finding the Charles Helou bus station as it was well hidden under the flyover near my hotel. Anyway, a Syrian roadcleaner helped me to get onto a bus to Byblos (LL 1500). It took less than an hour to get to Byblos, 42km north of Beirut. The coastline, alternating between huge rocks and fine sandy beaches, was like the most beautiful of the Amazon warriors, the legendary women warriors of Colchis, armed with the quality of ruggedness as well as gorgeousness, which made them attractive as well as deadly. Behind all were the soaring heights of Mt Lebanon, green and inviting, so unlike the normally bleak, often dramatic and tortured rockface of mountains found across this part of the world. The moving clouds, pushed along gently by the cool breeze from the Mediterranean this time of the year, constantly painted and repainted the changing shades of green that characterized these mountains. It was no wonder that, for years, I have met Arabs, especially the Gulf Arabs, who told me that the most beautiful country in the Middle East was Lebanon.
The Lebanese, well known to be entrepreneurial as they once hailed from the Phoenicians, the world¡¯s first maritime traders, have crowded much of the coastline between Beirut and Byblos with beach resorts, clubs and entertainment complexes of any description. Many of them, at least when viewed from a distance, looked quite posh. And they were all full as well on this sunny Sunday morning. Sahar, the Lebanese girl I met on the flight, had said that the moment the recent fighting ended, the Gulf Arabs and Lebanese Diaspora, were all rushing to Lebanon for summer vacations. Interestingly, the place looked more like a posh Mediterranean beach resort than a tacky Middle Eastern one. Despite all the political instability, it is remarkable that money still flows into the country, building all that infrastructure despite the edgy possibility that civil war could return any time.
Lebanon is a country with not much arable land and most of the coastline is full of skyscrapers ¨C whether commercial or residential ¨C squeezed in that narrow flat land between the sea and the mountains, and many buildings are built on terraces on rising slope.
Byblos itself is but a part of the almost continuous line of skyscrapers and resorts stretching north from Beirut. I alighted on the highway and walked to the old town. Lebanon seemed to be a nation of late riser. Most shops were still closed when I got there at 9:20am. I had breakfast at a caf¨¦. Nice pancake of some kind with ham and cheese. Huge and not cheap at about LL 9000 including coffee. The owner told me a group of SG peacekeepers used to go there monthly for lunch.
I visited the archaeological site which included a museum in the Crusader Castle. Interesting but nothing that I did not already know. The site itself is just lots of stones, a few columns and lots of holes probably dug by archaeologists. One has to use a lot of imagination to figure out what used to be there. Whatever it is, one must not overlook the historical importance of Byblos.
Byblos was an ancient city state, first inhabited 7000 years ago and many believed that this was the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. This was also where the Phoenicians invented the alphabet which was then adopted by the Greeks and the Romans, and then to most languages worldwide. The city supplied ancient Israel and Egypt with cedar wood, which were used to built the Temple of Jerusalem and many of the Pharaoh¡¯s temples and palaces. Ancient Byblos also supplied Egypt with papyrus, which was then sold to the Greeks. The first bibles were written by the Greeks on papyrus from Byblos, hence the corruption of Byblos into ¡°bible¡±.
Today, Byblos is a small prosperous Christian town thriving on tourism ¨C not just the archaeological site but also as well as the fabulous beaches nearby. Here I found the greatest concentration of souvenir shops I have seen so far in Lebanon, some of them selling what they claimed as thousands of fish fossils supposedly chipped from quarry at a nearby mountain. I expressed surprise that so many fossils, rare in other parts of the world, are found here in a mountain. The shop owner, however, could not provide me with a satisfactory reply.
Another interesting observation is the Persian fortress at Byblos, built by the Persians who ruled Byblos as a vessel state during 538-332 B.C. According to the plaque at the site, this made Byblos an important part of the Persian defence system. In a perverse sense, this remains the case today, as Iranian supported Hezbollah has in recent years emerged as the most powerful militia in Lebanon, and constantly attacks Israel from Lebanon. Critics say such battles are mere proxy war fought by the Iranians against pro-US Israel. I even read a report that describes the Hezbollah as Iran¡¯s aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. If US deploys many warships and aircraft carriers to the Gulf region, why can¡¯t Iran do the same in Lebanon?

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