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Visit to Lebanon
Having read of the Roman Empire in Byzantium and the history of Byzantine Era, I always wished to make a visit to the Bosporus city of Constantinople now known as Istanbul. I could not make it so far; nevertheless I grabbed an alternate opportunity to visit Lebanon, a republic sharing the eastern cost of the Mediterranean Sea once ruled along with Constantinople as a single unit.
Location of Lebanon
Syria occupies northern and eastern borders of Lebanon and Israel (now the port city of Haifa of Palestine) to the southern border. Mount Lebanon separating the country from Syria at the east runs parallel to the Mediterranean Sea on to the west and Bekaa valley the agricultural land of Lebanon lies in the middle section of the country.
History of Lebanon
Conquest of Constantinople in AD 1453 by Ottoman Empire of Sufi Muslims resulted in to total collapse of one thousand year old Byzantine Era of Orthodox Christianity in the Near East. Constantinople, Syria and Lebanon together as one large single unit became under the rule of Ottoman Empire in Turkey. Expansion continued, Ottoman Empire spanned three continents controlling Southern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa as one of the largest and mightiest Empires in the world. After the First World War controlling of land has become a different story. France took over a large area of the region under their control through League of Nation's mandate and they separated Syria and Lebanon in to two different countries in 1920. Syria became a Muslim state with a faction of Orthodox and few other Christian minorities living in the region and Lebanon a Maronite Christian dominant state with Sunni, Shia and Druze Muslims in the minority. (To know about Byzantine Era, Ottoman Empire and Constantinople watch the video given as reference materials at the end of this blog, It is interesting but time consuming, so see only after reading the blog)
Tourism in Lebanon
I remember Beirut used to be referred as Paris of the middle east until civil war broke out there in 1975, the year I reached Bahrain to work for the newly emerged airline Gulf Air. Israeli bombings during civil war caused extensive damages to Rafic Hariri International airport in Beirut and to their flag carrier airliner MEA. Such frightful condition eventually resulted in breaking down the country's tourism industry. Many years after now when I made the visit to the region I felt phoenix bird in Lebanon woke up from the ashes more beautiful and colorful; who does not want get lost in to the exotic locations on the Mediterranean bay of Jounieh?
Bay of Jounieh
Engulfed by blue waters of Mediterranean Sea on one side and the shouldering mountain of Harissa covered with pine and cedar trees on the opposite side, that is bay of Jounieh located 16 km away from the international airport of Beirut. This luxurious Mediterranean spot is inhabited by rich Maronite Christians with their patriarchate located on the hill top here.
As I was given to understanding what ever you fancy Jounieh can satisfy your palette and sense of adventure; fabulous Lebanese cuisine with Arabic singers and belly dancers on the floor or with fine French fair and European shows. "Casino Du Liban" once on the itinerary of the international jet set during 60s and 70s has undergone a multi million face lift and reopened now. Jounieh is residential cum commercial during the day and crowded with fun seekers every night from all over the world and packed on the week ends.
Harissa is small mountain village at a height of 2000 ft on the mount Harissa. Main attraction at the place is a huge statue of Mary, mother of Jesus Christ placed above a conical shaped chapel. The 20 ton white washed bronze statue of our lady of Harissa over looking the bay of Jounieh with her arms spread out is the towering land mark of Lebanon. It was built in France and brought over to here by sea. A winding path going around the chapel takes you to a panoramic view point at the foot step of the statue. The misty view you get from here of the entire bay of Jounieh and the byzantine model St Paul's Cathedral is simply breath taking.
A beautiful modern Basilica of Maronite Christians stands beside the shrine of our lady of Harissa (Video shows the statue over looking the bay of Jounieh and the Maronite Basilica beside) Shrine, property of the Basilica remains open 24 hours and people comes here to pray in peace and solitude. Harissa can be reached from Jounieh by a newly built steeping road by car or easily by the cable cart known as Teleferique.
Teleferique of Mount Harissa
Teleferique is a 1965 German built cable cart system and it offers 9 minutes adventurous ride in a four seater gondola (cabin) above the green mountain of Harissa at a height of 2000 ft with an amazing view of Mediterranean Sea. Steep climb of last 80 meter stretch is breath taking; you will be shifted from the gondola to a small rail wagon and pulled straight up to the door step of the statue of our Lady. If I am not wrong we paid US$ 6 per person to and fro for the entire ride. If height is not a fear, you will certainly enjoy the Teleferique experience.
This is an offshore natural arch formation of rocks, located on the western tip of Beirut. Vantage point for viewing the pigeon rock is from corniche but if you go down closer to the water about 100 meters the view is immaculate. Small motor boats taking you for a ride at great speed through the arches of these rocks is a thrilling experience here. Well, if you do not want all these adventures simply sitting at the corniche and watching the rocks every evening as long as you are in Beirut is a great fun.
Jeita grotto of Lebanon
Mysterious Jeita grotto (Link what you see is real not a dream) is two crystallized caves located 20 km north of Beirut in a valley on the mountain of Lebanon. The grotto is made up of two but interconnected lime stone caves, upper galleries and lower cave through which a river flows.
The cave geographically located underneath the mountain and provides an escape route for the underground water. Action of water on to the lime stone over a period of millions of years have transformed the interior of the cave in to cathedral like appearance with various sizes, shapes and colors of crystal formations.
What I read about is, a gun shot was fired in to the cave during its initial exploration and echo produced by the shot assured the cave was of significant importance so they started to dig. The explorers exposed 9 kilo meters of the grotto so far; it is the pride of Lebanon and featured as a finalist in the new 7 natural wonders competitions.
There are separate entries for upper and lower caves. Upper gallery (cave) can be toured on foot as they have made good concrete walkways inside. I recommend to wear a good pair of walking shoes for this tour since the floor remains wet and slippery through out the year. Though I did not feel any discomfort in side the cave one of our members discontinued the tour from half the way as he felt giddy, may be the mysterious look of the interior might have affected him. The tour of lower cave involves a 500 meter electric boat trip along the black lake.
Temperature inside the cave is 16 deg Celsius constant through out the year irrespective of summer or winter. Cameras and mobile phones are not permitted inside the cave. There is an absolute silence inside; modern lighting system adds dramatic mystery to the structure. As you enter the lower cave at first you are met with a sound resonance of rushing water and burst of cool air but as the boat takes you further in to the cave what you experience is nothing but a profound silence.
Gabriel Dayaro in Lebanon
Mor Gabriel Dayaro is an eight storied pioneer center belongs to Orthodox Syrian Church of Antioch with in the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon. The center contains a beautiful church, conference halls and boarding rooms for Bishops and other people visiting. The center is situated in Ajaltoun the capital of Keservan district 15 km away from coastal city of Jounieh.
I visited the Dayaro on 15 Nov 2012 along with family members in connection with the Ordination of my nephew, son of my wife's brother, now Arch Bishop Timotheos Mathews Karimpanackel. The ceremony was well attended by many Bishops and other dignitaries from different parts of the world.
Sites of Maronite Christian Saints
Maronites are the most influential Christian denomination in Lebanon and they form 25 percent of the total population of the country. It is the law of the land that the president of Lebanon has to be Maronite under all circumstances. They speak Aramaic language (language spoken by Jesus Christ) as their mother tongue and in Lebanon they live around the bay of Jounieh, one of the most luxurious spots in the world.
They are the followers of John Maron a Christian monk lived in north Syria between AD 400 and 500. Followed by persecutions from other Christian factions almost broken down Maronites moved out to Lebanon and joined in hand with Catholic Church and know they are known as Maronite Catholic Christians. They have 4 saints St Maron the founder of the Maronite order, St Charbel, St Rafka and St Hardini. These spots for the saints are popular tourist sites and attracting large number of people from all over the world.
Byblos and Bekaa Valley
There are two other important sites we missed because of lack of time, city of Byblos and Bekaa Valley. Byblos is an ancient, 8800 to 7000 BC, Mediterranean coastal city in the mount Lebanon Governorate. It is now known as a tourist place with many existing ancient monuments.
I feel sorry for missing Baalbek the ancient city in Bekaa Valley with remnants of the temple of Jupiter and Venus existed during Roman Empire. The town is located 75 km away to the north of Beirut.
As Bekaa Valley is situated far away from Beirut it will take a day to complete this tour, so my earnest advice to those who plan to visit Lebanon make your trip to the Bekaa Valley first if you have a flair for visiting historical ruins.
Bekaa Valley accommodates world's oldest and finest wineries with acres of wine gardens around. Lebanese wines dates back 5000 years and there are many wineries in Bekaa valley like Ksara and Musar. Chateau Ksara is one of the most popular wines in Lebanon. National symbol of Lebanon is Cedar tree and you will locate forest of cedar trees in Bekaa Valley.
Ref 1 "Constantine the great " Movie tells the true story how Roman Empire was divided in to east and west.