The South of the Lebanon is less traveled by tourists. Nevertheless, it features – among others – two historical sites worthwhile a visit: Tyre and Sidon (Saida). Again, I left early in the morning from Beirut, taking a minibus to the city of Tyre. The trip was about 80km long with a change of bus at Sidon. On the second bus, I met Jalil – a Lebanese who was eager to tell me everything about his hometown, Tyre (or: “Sour” in Arabic). He told me the story about the separation of the old town which has a Christian (Haret el Masihiyeh) and a Muslim (Haret el Jalaji’) area. These areas are separated and the people tend not to mix. The Muslim area is the busier of the two, but it also is considered to be the “area of the common man”, while the Christian area has the better infrastructure, such as schools and medical centers. Looking for some ancient Roman history in Tyre, Jalil made me aware that this town has an ongoing history. Being located near the Israeli – Lebanese border certainly does not help. The last Israeli attack was only a couple of years back (2006) and there are tons of unexploded cluster bombs and mines that blow up from time to time.
Upon arrival, Jalil offered me to visit his home and have tea. However, I heard enough information to know that I potentially would end up in a discussion making a false statement, potentially ending up in a political debate. Which is none of my business being a tourist in this country. My avoidance of having to deal with the current political situation might be seen as opportunistic from an outsider who probably considers this as hiding behind a “tourist-mask”. But honestly: Who am I to form an opinion of who is right and who is wrong in the Middle East? Therefore, I took Jalil’s invitation as exactly what it was, the typical Lebanese gesture of hospitality. Being on a day trip, planning to visit two cities, meant that I was on a tight schedule. This gave me the perfect excuse and I moved on to the Al-Bass archaeological site. As if the current affairs would not want to let go, I was walking along a road through a Palestinian refugee camp to reach the site.
Once in the area of Al-Bass, I was surprised of its dimensions. Like in Baalbek, this site features Greek, Byzantine and Roman ruins – all in one place. Disneyland for me! There is a funerary area, containing sarcophagi. An old aqueduct, archway and hippodrome did draw my attention. I was the only tourist among these ruins where some locals relaxed and children played. And the covered area underneath the hippodrome stairs seemed to be the local romantic hideaway for young couples. With an “oops” and a smile on my lips I backed out of this covered area.
Next, I went to visit the Al-Mina archaeological site. Smaller than Al-Bass, but nevertheless well preserved and interesting, I enjoyed the stroll among the ruins at the seaside. If you’re an archaeologist and your family is looking for a beach holiday – this is the site to be. Of particular interest to me was the mosaic street and the colonnaded road. The guardian house was a perfect, shady place to have a sandwich for lunch and relax a bit before heading back North by minibus.
About 40km later, I arrived smack down the center of Sidon. Having seen so many old cities in the Lebanon, I should have been saturated by now. But no. This city is – according to some – almost 9000 years old! Next to the old town is located the Sea Castle, which gives Sidon a particular charm – especially at sunset. The small roads and souq are vibrant of noise and good smells from the food stalls. Therefore, I decided to have dinner here (instead of Beirut), after the visit of the Sea Castle, which was built by the Crusaders in the 13th century.
Late at night, after arriving back in the hotel in Beirut, I still was thinking about the discussion with Jalil. Bad conscience hit me. Visiting old ruins was my way to avoid having to deal (and to reason) with the recent Lebanese history. This time, the ignorant part was on my side. Leaving Lebanon next day, heading for Hama (Syria), I therefore knew, that I had experienced only a fraction of what lies in the country of the cedar tree. To be revisited…