Mention the Middle East, and many of us would immediately think of endless desert, oil-rich kingdoms, conservative societies, and probably never-ending conflicts. As the second smallest country in this region (only Bahrain is smaller in land area), Lebanon appears to be the odd one out. As an entertainment hub of the Arab world, and home to what is often dubbed one of the most vibrant cities not only in the Middle East but also in the whole Mediterranean region, this nation doesn’t fit any stereotype about this part of the world. In addition to that, instead of dull desert, Lebanon has snow-capped mountains and lush valleys. However, the prolonged civil war that engulfed the country in the late 20th century (from 1975–1990) is unfortunately what a lot of people associate Lebanon with.
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At school, I wasn’t taught much about the war itself, but rather on how Indonesia sent peacekeeping forces to Lebanon under UN command. “Isn’t there a war?” was a common reaction among my friends when I told them that I was traveling to this country. For me, I began to develop an interest in Lebanon when the country hosted the 2000 Asian Cup – the continent’s largest soccer competition – and I responded with exactly the same question. Over the years I learned how Beirut was once called Paris of the Middle East, and more and more travel magazines featured this seemingly beguiling city with images of the French-influenced Place de l’Étoile that only made me even more curious.
However, since going to Lebanon for me is not as straightforward as, for example, visiting Jordan (where Indonesians can get a visa on arrival as opposed to the complicated requirements for obtaining a Lebanese visa), and the fact that flying to most cities in Europe from Jakarta is much cheaper than flying to Beirut, I was forced to put aside my plans of visiting Lebanon for many years. That changed in early January this year when I finally decided to book a return trip to the Lebanese capital. It was by far the most expensive flight ticket I’ve ever bought, and for the visa application process I had to go to the Lebanese embassy in Jakarta multiple times. But oh my! It turned out that these hassles were really worth the trouble for Lebanon exceeded all my expectations.
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Despite the far-from-ideal (unseasonably rainy) weather in Beirut, the Lebanese capital really was an exciting city. Its museums are world-class, the cultural scene is comparable to what major European cities have to offer, and its retail landscape is so creative it’s anything but monotonous. For sure vestiges of the civil war are still visible today, whether intentional to remind people of the country’s dark past, or for practical reasons, i.e. the high cost to tear them down. Away from the capital and up in the mountains of northern Lebanon, an area predominantly inhabited by Maronite Christians, lies the Qadisha Valley which is mind-blowingly beautiful. Up above the same valley is The Cedars, home to some of the oldest surviving Lebanese cedar trees which have been valued since antiquity (by the Ancient Egyptians, Assyrians, and other nations) and have held great significance in the Abrahamic religions.
Beyond the snowy peaks lies the Bekaa Valley, a fertile land sandwiched between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains, and where Shia Muslims make up the majority of the population. In the city of Baalbek stands what is officially recognized as the largest Roman temple ever built in the sprawling Roman Empire. From the photos I’d seen I knew this ancient monument would be huge, but walking underneath its towering columns and the highly-ornate ceilings of the no less spectacular sanctuary next door, I couldn’t help but feel insignificant. In the town of Anjar, also in the Bekaa Valley and located less than four kilometers from the Syrian border, lies another impressive set of ruins: the remnants of an Umayyad city built in the eighth century when this area was part of the second Islamic caliphate.
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In the upcoming weeks and months, I will be publishing stories from my recent trip to Lebanon which has now become one of my favorite countries. This country is far from perfect, but I found it charming at every turn despite all its problems.