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Article and Photos: ERDAL YAZICI
Mysterious, unpredictable city
With its luxury hotels and shopping malls and its fashionable men and women, Beirut is the Middle East’s window on the west. And this enigmatic city in which Christians and Muslims live side by side harbors a huge history.
Beirut was the first major stop on our Middle East tour. The brochures we picked up while obtaining our visas at Lebanon’s charming little consulate in Istanbul immediately gave its secret away: a heartwarming, upbeat lifestyle in which people of different languages and ethnic groups all share the same land, as Lebanese and as Beiruti’s. A mosaic of Arabs, Armenians, Syrians, Druzes and Palestinian refugees make up this land, which has pressed their unique blend to its bosom. Following a 17-year civil war, Lebanon and its capital Beirut are binding up their wounds. As visitors to this enigmatic city frequently put it: “Just as Italy without Rome, France without Paris and America without New York are unthinkable, so can there be no Lebanon without Beirut. Without Beirut, Lebanon would be nothing.”
THE PARIS OF THE MIDDLE EAST
Solidere, or Down Town Square, is the heart of the city with its bars, restaurants, the Mosque of Omar and, right next door, churches, ancient ruins and the Mediterranean to the west. The words of seasoned travelers resound in our ears: “Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East”. They are right; we can vouch for it. Swanky restaurants, smart waiters and of course the chic Beiruti’s themselves. The Mosque of Omar is not far from us, and the strains of the call to prayer mingle with the peal of church bells. Mosque and church side by side, almost touching. And in the ancient ruins next to it, the columns are still standing. Luxury cars line the streets. Beirut is truly the Mideast’s ‘window on the west’, thrilling visitors with its luxury hotels and shopping malls, its entertainment centers and its snow-capped mountains in the distance.
RICHNESS OF RELIGION AND CULTURE
Beirut’s Muslim population is concentrated in the south, its Christian population in the northern part of the city. Or so it appears despite there being no sharp dividing line. The Jewish community meanwhile lives in the district of Abou Jemil. Most of the Muslims are Sunni, the rest Shiites who have migrated here since 1960. Among the Christians, Armenians make up the majority. The Druze community are scattered in various parts of the city. Nestled in the foothills of the mountains are the giant Monument to the Virgin Mary, mosques large and small, and more luxury hotels and villas. Raouche in the southern sector is not to be missed, while Jounieh and Kaslik in the northern sector astonish visitors with their stylish boutiques, cafes, places of entertainment and beaches and their fashionably dressed residents prompting visitors to wonder where they are.
THE JEITA CAVES
The bird’s-eye view from the telefrique from Jounieh to Harissa Hill is a special treat. Meanwhile the Jeita Caves, some 6,200 meters long at 300 meters above sea level, head the list of must-see places. Twenty kilometers from Beirut, Jeita is actually two caves, a lower cave you can tour by boat and an upper cave consisting of karstic limestone formations and the world’s largest stalactite.
So what does one eat and drink in the Middle East’s most enigmatic city? Gourmets divide Lebanese cuisine into three: mountain-valley cuisine, coastal cuisine and Beirut cuisine. The use of yoghurt and olive oil dominates all three. Used liberally in salads and other dishes, it comes as no surprise that olive oil is available on the table three meals a day. Beirut cuisine is famous for its wide variety of ‘meze’ or starters. Sultan Ibrahim, Mhanna, Burj Al Hammam, Al Mijana and Abdel Wahab are just a few places where you can treat your palate to these myriad tastes.
With a population of close to one and a half million, Beirut is not a difficult city to get around in. The state and municipal public transport systems are one solution. Another is the privately operated commercial cabs, which are quicker but a little more expensive.
TRACES OF OTTOMAN AND FRENCH INFLUENCE
If we take a brief look at the history of Beirut, we find the city’s name mentioned in Egyptian sources in the 3rd millennium B.C. Conquered by the Romans in 64 B.C., the city was renamed Colonia Julia Augusts Felix Berytus in honor of the emperor’s daughter and grew in importance. Leveled in a series of earthquakes and a tsunami in 551 A.D., it was captured by the Muslims in 635. Coming under the rule of the Fatimids of Egypt in 977, Beirut was occupied in 1110 by the Crusaders, who in turn were thrown out by the Mamluks in 1291. In 1516 it was attached as a ‘sancak’ to the Ottoman province of Syria. Coming under French rule in 1918, it became the capital when Lebanon declared its independence in 1943. A vital center of trade and social life between 1950 and 1970, its attraction was enhanced by the presence of several prominent universities, a free market economy and exchange rate system, bank interest rates and laws ensuring the confidentiality of bank accounts. But internal unrest starting in the 1970’s and the 1975-1991 civil war brought pain and destruction to the Beirut’s history, evidence of which was not difficult to find in our discovery tours around the city. Signs of Ottoman and French culture in particular are ubiquitous. Images of destruction are juxtaposed with those of recovery as hope springs eternal for the reconstruction of the city and its extensive restoration efforts. The currently prevailing peace is revitalizing social and economic life in the city as Beirut rises from its own ashes and heads again for days of glory.
BYBLOS AND TRIPOLI
De rigueur for those whose days in Beirut are limited is a tour to the nearby sites, like a rich dessert following a good meal. Branching out along the coast to north or south, you can venture either to Sayda (Sidon) and Sur (Tyre) in the south, or to Byblos and Tripoli in the north. The ancient ruins at Baalbek meanwhile require a jaunt inland through the Bekaa Valley. The choice is yours.
Our first stop is Byblos on the Mediterranean coast, which gave its name to the Bible. Lying right on the shore, the ancient settlement here exhibits traces of many civilizations from the Assyrian to the Ottoman. Those who take a boat tour from the small nearby port can see amateur fishermen seeking their fortune in the Mediterranean’s crystal clear waters at all times of day. And when you weary, the cafes and authentic market selling souvenirs and gifts will afford you rest.
After Byblos comes the city of Tripoli with its majority Muslim population and close to 160 mosques, madrasas, mesjids and caravanserais. The clock tower on the city square dates back to the Ottoman period. Heading inland from the coast you can plunge now into the Bekaa Valley where Baalbek (ancient Heliopolis) awaits you. The temple inside the ancient city is a magnificent structure and one of the best preserved after those at Rome. You will want to lose yourself here among the remnants of a civilization thousands of years old.
When your time in Beirut is over you will leave longing to return. The people who live in this geography with their divergent beliefs and ethnic identities are an inseparable part of Lebanon and its capital. As travelers leave with a light heart, peace is being forged again in this tragic city. Hope of peace springs eternal, and hearts are warmed with the desire to live together in love. It’s sunset again in Beirut, and lovers stroll arm in arm along the Mediterranean shore. Every new day is pregnant with fresh hope, hope of peace fostered by the love of the departing traveler. Every seed of hope planted here in this mysterious city will one day become a sapling that will grow into a tree bearing fruit to nurture peace.