Saturday, January 15, 2011

Baalbek: Roman Ruins, Wine, and Prosciutto in Hezbollah Territory

A lot can drastically change in the world during the course of a few of weeks. When we travelled to Hezbollah dominated Baalbek from Beirut less than a month ago to see the famous Roman ruins, the political party cum militia cum social services agency was still actively represented in the Lebanese parliament, and the country enjoyed a relatively “stable” government. Today, as I write this post, the country is reeling from the aftermath of Hezbollah’s withdrawal from parliament that dissolved the government. For such a tiny country, the politics of Lebanon are bewildering, and attempting to understand the motives behind the numerous political groups and the compromises and objectives of the main coalitions is an academic undertaking in its own. I wrote the post on Baalbek slightly out of chronological order because I knew that there was a high probability towards the middle of January that a UN Investigations Tribunal would implicate Hezbollah as responsible for the assassination of late Prime Minister Hariri and that it would result in the collapse of effective government in Lebanon. I figured it would be most appropriate to discuss my time in “Hezbollah country” at a period that Hezbollah had a significant amount of exposure in the news once again.
Exploring Baalbek:

Modern Lebanon is a living contradiction. Knowing about Hezbollah’s presence and influence in this region, a visitor to the Bekaa Valley might expect an entirely different scene; one filled with armed balaclava-clad insurgents roaming the roads, yielding swords and kidnapping tourists. However, aside from the noticeably poorer, more neglected conditions of the surrounding villages in comparison to those seen in Beirut’s most posh neighborhoods, and ignoring the numerous Hezbollah banners, statues, and pictures of leader Hassan Nasrallah and the Ayatollahs of Iran, you would not really know that you were in the stronghold of what is considered by the West to be an extremist, terrorist organization.
"Sun City" -- Baalbek:
Around the Hexagonal Court and Great Court:
Romain ruins:

Our driver, Joe, of Shiite Muslim and Christian Armenian descent, in addition to revealing too much information about his personal life, also provided some insight into the area during our journey from Beirut, discussing how the surrounding farmlands were used for mass cannabis production during the civil war and how, due to neglect by the government, “certain organizations and countries” have taken an interest in investing and developing the local infrastructure and economy. It was no surprise and quite clear from the drive which organizations and countries those were. Although Hezbollah’s presence there is a reality and the organization is involved in serious and complicated geopolitical problems, it is not a distraction from the main attraction, the ancient ruins of Baalbek.

Being silly at The Six Standing Columns:

Aside from the political undertones present within the Bekaa Valley region and the jurisdiction of Baalbek specifically, the UNESCO World Heritage Roman ruins comprise an impressive site that every visitor to Beirut should spend a day visiting. Along with our very good friend Mina, we spent about three hours leisurely walking the site, absorbing the impressive array of colossal Roman temples and towering columns. As an architectural historian, Mina was able to provide some very interesting talking points about what we were looking at, another benefit to having so many academic friends traveling with us in a place full of history. Known as Heliopolis during Roman times, the structures are some of the most well preserved classical ruins in the world, surpassing even those of Rome or Greece. Although it sustained minor damage during the civil war, the main temples are in extremely good condition and almost any angle offers an opportunity for a breathtaking view. Due to the recent cold spell that had hit Lebanon about a week before we arrived there was still quite a bit of snow on the ground, making the atmosphere even more picturesque.
Temple of Bacchus:
 Against the snowy backdrop:

After taking in all the sights and satisfied with our afternoon in Baalbek we hopped in the car with Joe, making sure to avoid the peddlers pushing Hezbollah t-shirts and banners on the way out, and decided to continue our day catching up at Chateau Ksara, a nearby winery founded by the Jesuits in 1857. Impressively this winery was just one of dozens in the Bekaa region which produce and export some very fine Lebanese wine, contributing to a very successful and growing local wine industry. The caves of Ksara are well worth the ten minute stroll and have a significant history all their own, having served as bomb shelters and then safe havens for hundreds of Armenians escaping the Ottoman genocide during the First World War. And finally, as a much needed break from Lebanese fare, we enjoyed a pleasant lunch made complete by a bold full bodied cabernet sauvignon, various cheeses, assorted meats and even prosciutto. Yes, we drank wine and ate pork on a beautiful vineyard in the middle of Hezbollah territory. Only in Lebanon.

Wine & Cheese at Ksara:

A visit to Lebanon would not be complete without having spent some time in the Bekaa Valley. Along with the geopolitical perspective you will gain from observing the obvious overwhelming influences, the ancient ruins of Baalbek are among the most inspiring, lasting remains of the Roman Empire in the world, and the wines of the surrounding areas are something to be truly enjoyed. Last, but certainly not least, it would not have been the same without our very good friend Mina who, due to our geographic distance and obligations, we do not get to see very often. It was an eye-opening and pleasurable way to spend quality time with an old friend while gaining a fresh insight into another chapter of history which still possesses an uncanny relevance today.

Next: Petra