Historical sites in Lebanon

The Phoenician civilisation originated in Lebanon, but the country has been successively conquered by the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman empires. There was a short period of occupation by the Crusaders, then rule by and independence from France in the 20th century. No wonder Lebanon bears the traces of over 5,000 years of recorded history in its architecture, much of it astonishingly well preserved.

Many of Lebanon’s most renowned archaeological sites have gradually been uncovered to reveal civilisation built upon civilisation, a fascinating journey back in time. The Roman temples here rank among the finest and largest in the world. Sidon, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, is mentioned multiple times in the Bible, and Jesus is said to have visited the region. The Crusaders left their mark in castles and fortresses built as a show of military strength and to defend their gains, and they have stood the test of time. And though fading in places, and scarred by war, Beirut’s mix of Ottoman and French colonial architecture is still humblingly beautiful.

Baalbek

The complex of temples in this Phoenician city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Békaa Valley, was built over centuries for the worship of three deities: Jupiter, Venus and Mercury. Centre of attention are the huge temples of Bacchus and Jupiter with their 20m-high columns. The reason for Baalbek’s prestige is down to its location in the fertile Békaa Valley, which supplied the grain for the Roman Empire’s Levant provinces.

Byblos

Just north of Beirut, Byblos has been inhabited since around 8,000BC, and is the birthplace of the oldest-known alphabet. It was once an important port, shipping papyrus from Egypt to Greece for use as paper and books – indeed it’s thought this is how the Bible came to be so named. The archaeological sites in and around Byblos include the remnants of a Roman theatre, the medieval city wall, and a huge Crusader castle with two defence towers. Today Byblos is becoming an upscale resort but the still sleepy harbour with its bobbing yachts is charmingly picturesque.

Kadisha Valley

Christian monastic communities have taken shelter in ‘the holy valley’ for centuries, and the landscape is peppered with fragments of ancient monasteries, burial caves and hermitages, some cut into the rock. The still inhabited Monastery of Qozhaya housed, in the 16th century, the first printing press in the Middle East. A popular trekking destination close to Tripoli, the Kadisha Valley is also close to the Forest of the Cedars of the Gods, where some of the trees are thought to be thousands of years old.

Tripoli

The capital of northern Lebanon is perhaps the best place in the country to roam ancient souks, where you can still see tailors, tanners, perfumers, jewellers and soap makers plying their trade. Tripoli’s historic landmarks include several impressive mosques, hammams and madrassas, the most notable being the ornate Madrasat al-Quartawiyat. The clock tower, and the Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Giles, a huge Crusader fortress rebuilt in the Ottoman days, are similarly worth a visit. Offshore, the Island of Palm Trees is a popular day-trip between October and June, a reserve for sea turtles with a few Roman ruins.

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Sidon and Tyre

On the Mediterranean coast equidistant between Beirut and Tyre, Sidon is a truly ancient city, perhaps the earliest of Phoenician civilisation, and like other Lebanese cities it has been conquered repeatedly through the ages. The Crusader sea fortress is the most impressive site here, but also look out the Sidon synagogue, where Jesus is said to have preached, and the nearby Temple of Eshmun that has divulged many archaeological treasures.

Further south, there are numerous Roman ruins in Tyre, which was once the heart of a celebrated industry in textiles, which were dyed purple with shellfish. The huge hippodrome, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, would have been used for horse and chariot racing.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Rain Rannu] [Intro: Kevin Chidiac] [Baalbek: Pjposullivan1] [Kadisha Valley: Arian Zwegers] [Sidon and Tyre: Heinz Hövel]
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