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Write: HASAN MERT KAYA Photos: AHMET BİLAL ARSLAN
Beirut is the Eastern Mediterranean’s leading city. The cities of Tripoli, Byblos, Sidon and Tyre appear to have merged into one on its shores. A major cultural capital not only of the region but of the entire Arab world, Beirut is also at the heart of Arab pop music.
Distinguished by its blue domes and Ottoman-style minarets, Al-Amin Mosque is one of Beirut’s largest. It was built by the former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.
Riches of nature from snowcapped peaks to the Mediterranean’s warm blue waters, a welter of religious faiths, socially conservative neighborhoods and the world’s most prestigious brand names. Beirut is a city of contrasts!
In its cosmopolitan aspects Beirut is like New York, London and Istanbul. Buildings reflecting the years of civil war are giving way to new, modern structures by the day.
BEIRUT’S APPEAL LIES IN ITS BEING THE PLACE WHERE DIVERSE CULTURES AND FAITHS LIVE IN CLOSER PROXIMITY THAN ANYWHERE ELSE IN THE MIDDLE EAST.
Facing the Mediterranean, Beirut rises against the backdrop of the emerald green Anti-Lebanon Mountains. Among scores of towns lining these eastern shores where the Mediterranean begins, Beirut is surely the most renowned. Beirut is a vibrant and different world where diverse religions and dozens of sects can be found in every street. This diversity is most noticeable in the city’s architecture. Strolling through Beirut, you’ll think you’re in France or Italy, or southern Spain, until the Ayyubid, Mamluk and Andalusian style mosques remind you again that this is the Middle East. The vibrancy created by diversity of dress, indeed of lifestyles, is all around you in Beirut, an Eastern Mediterranean dream town with which you could fall in love, even dream of staying for the rest of your life. Perhaps that is why Lebanon’s legendary singer Fairouz says in her song, “I greet you from my heart, oh Beirut”.
The city center is home to Beirut’s legendary luxury venues and goods. Lined with dozens of world-famous brand name shops, the main thoroughfare is intersected left and right by even more colorful streets. And then there is Solidere and the semi open-air shopping center ‘Souqs of Beirut’ with its famous watch and jewelry designers. This is Beirut in a nutshell: a Parliament building from the Ottoman period, Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian churches, mosques old and new, and European-inspired buildings all in a single picture frame.
THE PIGEON ROCKS
Beirut’s coastal strip, the Corniche is abuzz all day long with a brisk traffic of walkers and joggers on the esplanade. You can enjoy a drink or meal at the cafes and restaurants here with their inimitable Mediterranean views including the city’s iconic Pigeon Rocks.
Lebanon is also the center of Maronism, one of the main branches of Eastern Christianity. A mountain village in Jounieh outside Beirut, Harissa is special to the Maronites, who make up the country’s largest Christian community. The church and statue of the Virgin Mary at the summit are thronged with visitors daily. A cable car and a funicular operate on this mountain, which affords spectacular views of Beirut and the Mediterranean.
BYBLOS AND THE A B C’s
Half an hour from Beirut, Byblos is one of the most important Phoenician settlements in the world and the place where the foundations of the Latin alphabet were laid. The old market at the city center boasts shops selling not only local products and seafood caught near Byblos but fossils of aquatic animals as well. The charming fish restaurants on the shore are ideal for a great lunch. If you like, you can go on from here to another major coastal city, Tripoli.
Sidon is yet another ancient settlement near Beirut. Like almost every place in the area, it too has a past going back millennia. At the entrance to the city, visitors encounter the old castle rising over the sea. A warren of passageways running through the narrow streets and below the stone houses, Sidon’s old market will give you a taste of the mystical East.
A WORLD WORTH EXPLORING
Geographically speaking, Lebanon is a tiny country. But its natural and cultural richness give it a greatness that inspires awe and respect. In a single day here you can climb snowcapped emerald green mountains with rushing streams and then abandon yourself to the Mediterranean’s salty blue waters. In short, everything you are looking for - sun, sea, sand and beyond - can be found here in a magnificent cultural fabric with warm, tolerant, friendly people that make Beirut a world that absolutely must be seen and experienced. “Died and resurrected a thousand times”, in the words of Lebanese poet Nadia Tueni, this city is going to make you want to come back again and again.
Sampling the famous Lebanese mezze is a must when in Beirut. Favorites include hummus, falafel, tabouleh and fattoush.
Besides local wares, there is a world of spices to be found in the markets of Sidon.
You can savor the pleasure of the Mediterranean at the wide beaches on the coast of Sidon.
Byblos Castle near the shore harbors important vestiges of the civilizations that have left their mark on the region.
Turkish Airlines has Istanbul-Beirut-Istanbul flights every day of the week. www.turkishairlines.com
You can enjoy a stroll along the Beirut shore with its Pigeon Rocks and then take a coffee break at one of the cafes with a Mediterranean view.
The remarkable artifacts in Beirut National Museum bring the region’s past and culture right up to our day.
HELİOPOLİS A SPECTACULAR ANCIENT CITY
East of Beirut and about two hours by car, Baalbek is the location of the ancient city of Heliopolis, a major world cultural heritage. The site, aka the Baalbek Ruins, boasts an extensive ancient city with roads, altars and temples. Bearing traces of the Greek, Roman and Byzantine civilizations, Baalbek has been further enriched by the civilizations of Islam.
The Druzes make up part of Lebanon’s rich religious tapestry. Beiteddine about half an hour from Beirut is one of the leading centers of Druze culture.
Beirut clock tower is one of the city’s iconic structures. Cafes in the streets around the square where it stands are open late into the night.
Rising directly over the sea, Sidon Castle stands out immediately. A major medieval fortress, it still attracts tourists today.
The rivers arising in the Lebanese Mountains adorn Beirut and its environs with emerald green slopes and fertile valleys.
“Before the civil war, Beirut, where I spent my high school and university years, was the Middle East’s little Paris, and Lebanon as a country was a magnificent place to live with its rich ethnicity, cultural and historical texture, its sea, mountains and ski resorts and its people so much like ours; the wonderful memories remain in my mind. But Lebanon took a big blow in the civil war and recovery has not been easy. Nevertheless, thanks to the hard work and joie de vivre of its people it has begun to regain its old values and is again a candidate for the shining star of the Arab world…”