Lebanon’s southernmost city of Tyre once drew crowds of tourists to visit its magnificent marble Roman remains. Today, sitting on the grandstand steps of its colossal World Heritage status hippodrome, there is only the Shi’a call to prayer for company.
Wars and inter-communal battles between Muslims, Christians and Jews over the border in Israel meant it was for decades a no-go area, off-limits even for most Lebanese. The Foreign Office coloured it “red” on their Travel Advice website. But now it has turned green.
The fame of the ancient port, birthplace of Queen Dido, was built on colour – a royal dye, known as Tyrian purple, made from local murex shells. Its native Phoenicians, astute navigators and merchants, set sail in their celebrated cedar wood boats in search of fortune, founding new colonies like Carthage and Cadiz on the Mediterranean and Atlantic shores, just as today’s Lebanese have left in droves to seek more stable commercial opportunities abroad, often in America.
There are four times as many Lebanese outside the country as there are inside. Most have retained strong ties through frequent visits and remittances. The offices of money transfer companies like Western Union and OMT are everywhere.
Now the new Lebanese government wants to lure them, their brains and their investment back. Adverts have been running on US TV aimed at top Lebanese businessmen, telling them: “Lebanon is calling, I’m back on my feet again. Home is waiting.” Some are answering the call, and in Tyre a handful of boutique hotels have opened, anticipating new arrivals.
So what has changed in Lebanon’s mood music, and why? The answer is simple – the various communities have tired of war and decided to focus instead on rebuilding their economy together.
Tyre, known in Arabic as Sour, feels calm these days. A tangible cooperation has grown up between its Christian and Muslim residents. Last year a dazzling white statue of the Virgin Mary was erected in the picturesque harbour. She rises above the wooden boats and nets, arms outstretched as if to bless the city’s predominantly Muslim fishermen.
Christmas is celebrated for 40 days, so a huge Christmas tree still stands on the corniche. and festive red poinsettias hang from porches.
Alcohol is freely available in restaurants and grocery stores; scarlet underwear hugs lurid female mannequins in shop windows, alongside fashion outlets selling full-length loose black Islamic gowns and headscarves.
The Christian Evangelical School includes Muslim staff and pupils, while across the street a Shi’a mosque is under construction. Muslim charity boxes on the main street invite donations for orphans, the poor and disabled. The enthusiastic congregation at the cathedral of the Maronite Archbishopric sings melodically in Syriac, ending each prayer with “Aameen”. The pews are strewn with colourful cards marking a week of prayer for church unity, saying in Arabic “Our Beloved Messiah urges us towards reconciliation.”
Heaven knows Lebanon desperately needs reconciliation. In its complex 15-year civil war nearly every faction allied with and subsequently betrayed every other faction at least once. There are 18 officially recognised sects, five of them Muslim, 13 of them Christian, making Lebanon the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East.
But after a dangerous political vacuum of nearly three years, Lebanon has now formed a national unity government, where all the communities are represented – and the former warlords, too. An anti-corruption minister has been appointed. The top priority is to decide a budget, the first since 2005. All parties have realised that to prosper, they need each other.
And anyway genetic studies have shown that the populations of Syria and Lebanon – Muslim and Christian alike – mostly share the same Phoenician DNA.
A short drive into the hills above Tyre the village of Qana – 83% Shi’ite – is claimed as the site of Christ’s first miracle, the Marriage at Cana, where the water was turned into wine. It has a pristine pilgrimage grotto complete with souvenir shop and vast car park, opened jointly by the Christian President and the Shi’ite leader.
But there is also a reminder of recent conflict. Nearby, a well-tended Shi’a cemetery marks the spot where 28 people, many of them children, were killed in an Israeli airstrike in July 2006. The photos of the dead are still displayed.
Since then, 15,000 UN troops from 40 countries have helped keep the peace.
In some future miracle, maybe it could be Syria’s turn to change from “red” to “green”. All parties would surely say a heartfelt “Amen” – or “Aameen” – to that.
[All photos copyright Diana Darke 2017]
This article was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent on 16 February 2017:
(starts at 11.40 minutes in)