Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Beirut”

Echoes of Syria in Sidon’s Eshmoun Temple?

English: Base of a column from a temple dedica...

English: Base of a column from a temple dedicated to Hadad at the Eshmun temple in Bustan esh Sheikh, near Sidon, Lebanon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sea castle in Sidon, Lebanon

Sea castle in Sidon, Lebanon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Astarte's throne at the Eshmun temple.

English: Astarte’s throne at the Eshmun temple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Half-buried in undergrowth beside  Lebanon’s Awali River lies the world’s best preserved Phoenician site, the Temple of Eshmoun. The guardian sits proudly in his hut, expecting anything but visitors – the FCO Travel Advice website has ringed Sidon in potentially dodgy ‘orange’ in recent months. Erratically signposted and hard to find,  the site sits on the northern outskirts of Sidon,  and a visit involves crossing the city’s first checkpoint. But everyone seemed friendly enough despite their guns, when I passed through a couple of weeks ago.

Known locally as Bustan Al-Shaikh, the Orchard of the Shaikh, the state of this 7th century BC site, surrounded by citrus groves, is shockingly neglected. A visit to the semi-swampy areas of the temple, with its ritual basins, bulls-head shrines and sacred pools, is like hacking your way through the Amazonian jungle. Your reward is to sit on the gigantic Throne of Astarte, Phoenician goddess of fertility,carved from one monumental piece of granite, flanked by sphinxes and hunting reliefs. Her consort, Eshmoun, was a Beirut hunter whom she transformed into a reborn healing god, later identified by the Greeks with Asklepios, god of Medicine. A gold plaque found here carried the snake coiled round a staff motif that still serves today as the symbol of the medical profession.

Even more shocking is the evidence of looting that clearly took place during the 15-years of the Lebanese Civil War. Whole sections of later Roman mosaic floors, including the beautiful Four Seasons mosaic, have been stolen, the missing sections now replaced with a plaster mix. After hostilities ended, and Israel retreated from southern Lebanon, UNESCO in 1996 inscribed it on the World Heritage ‘Tentative’ list, a bit late, as everything small worth lifting has gone. Thankfully the Throne of Astarte is protected by its sheer size, as it would require a crane to lift it.

Echoes of Syria again? Its remarkable Phoenician site of Amrit south of Tartous has a similar sanctuary with  sacred pool and central altar. Beside it is a large rock-carved stadium, site of the world’s first competitive sports games, predating the Olympics by several centuries. What will Amrit look like by the time Syria’s civil war has ended?

Phoenician Temple of Melqhart, Amrit, Syria

Phoenician Temple of Melqhart, Amrit, Syria (2010, Diana Darke)

Phoenician rock-cut stadium, Amrit, Syria

Phoenician rock-cut stadium, Amrit, Syria (2010, Diana Darke)

Echoes of Syria in Lebanon’s Beiteddine Palace

Mir Amin Palace Hotel, in Lebanon's Chouf Mountains

Mir Amin Palace Hotel, in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains

Swimming pool terrace of the Mir Amin Palace Hotel, Beiteddine, Lebanon

Swimming pool terrace of the Mir Amin Palace Hotel, Beiteddine, Lebanon

High in the Druze mountains of the Lebanese Chouf sits the magnificent palace of Beiteddine, where the Beiteddine Festival 2013 is currently in full swing. It is just a 40 minute drive south from Beirut, and people will be flocking out to see the Chinese National Acrobatic Circus performing over the next few days. Later fixtures include ‘Echoes from Syria’ with clarinette virtuoso.

Echoes from Syria resonate here in more ways than one. For a start the palace itself is like Damascus’s superb Azem Palace, dating from the same period, and composed likewise of its three courtyards – the largest public one for receiving guests, the inner private one for the women, always the most lavishly decorated, and the smaller servants courtyard. Today they are both museums open to the public, and in their heydays they were both residences for the ruler.

Built between 1788 and 1818 with the help of Damascus craftsmen, the Emir Bashir ‘the Great’, lived here till his death in 1840. Born a Sunni Muslim, he later converted to Maronite Christianity, and his palace boasts both a mosque and a chapel.

Beiteddine is a peaceful spot with beautiful, immaculately kept gardens and distant views of the sea, a spot that encourages lingering. When I was here the other week in a quiet patch before the Festival, we were almost the only guests in the Mir Amin Palace, a mini-version of Beiteddine built by Emir Bashir for one of his sons.

Admiring the quality of the restoration work, a subject dear to my heart after my experiences with my own Damascus ‘mini-palace’, my eye was caught by a series of plaques on the wall. The first announced that the President of the Republic Charles Helou undertook the restoration in 1969, and the second that the hotel was opened 21 July 1974 by Suleyman Franjieh – just months before the start of Lebanon’s civil war. What terrible timing.

The last plaque announced the re-restoration and re-opening of the palace in July 1987 under the auspices of the Minister of Tourism, one Walid Junblat. Bad timing again, as the war did not end till 1990.

When I asked the hotel manager if he was worried war might come once more to Lebanon, he laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “If it does, we have space for more plaques on the wall!”

The Lebanese are nothing if not resilient – more echoes of Syria, I hope.

English: Courtyward at the Beiteddine Palace i...

English: Courtyward at the Beiteddine Palace in Lebanon. Français : Une cour intérieure dans le Palais de Beiteddine au Liban. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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