Sun, wine and love in Baalbeck

Baalbek is where one of the greatest Roman ruins in the world, Heliopolis, is located. Baalbek is in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, near the Syrian border on the main road from Beirut to Damascus. Much of the Bekaa is now a Hezbollah stronghold, particularly Baalbek which is where Hezbollah was first trained by Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Baalbek has long been one of the great tourist destinations of the world. The first hotel ever built in the Middle East, the Palmyra, was built in this town about two hours drive from downtown Beirut. It’s now an aging relic with dusty velvet furniture and faded, patched plaster walls. When we visit, we are shown the room, #32, where Charles de Gaulle once stayed. I’m most fascinated by the Jean Cocteau prints on the wall. Cocteau was a frequent visitor and his whimsical drawings are framed, hanging by a nail in the lobby. I guess they don’t have to worry about art theft in Baalbek. At the top of the hotel, you can look over the ancient ruins with the largest remaining Roman columns in the world and see mountains on both sides of the valley: over one set is the Mediterranean and over the other, Syria. Hikmet, my husband’s Bekaa Valley buddy, suggests we look towards the hills in the opposite direction. “This was a training camp for Hezbollah and many others: IRA, PLO, Japanese Red Army, Baader-Meinhhof.  All of them! Sometimes all these men are staying together in the hotel and they all get along!” The Palmyra once saw the likes of Nina Simone and Kaiser Wilhelm and now it’s a hostel of sorts for students and the odd fighter who comes for training in the hills. We secure a guide at the entrance to Baalbek named Khaled (I’ve changed his name for reasons you’ll see below). He speaks highly accented English and looks like something straight out of an Inspector Clouseau movie. I can’t understand a thing he says, even though he emphasizes every point with the tap of his white cane and a laminated copy of what Baalbek looked like back in the day. I do gather that Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, was built to worship three Gods, sun, wine and love, and decide that’s all I need to know and wander off to take photos and enjoy the scenery. It’s a shame that the word awesome is overused because this place is fucking awesome. Baalback is the most gigantic complex of Roman temples ever built. Six columns from the Temple of Jupiter still remain and these are immensely tall, reaching toward the sky and all six topped with an intricate carved headdress of marble or some stone that they brought by boat from Egypt. Hollyhocks and euphoria grow wild out of the ruins and I snap as many pictures of these wayward plants as I do the grand structures. My daughter, Thea, and a handsome American student who is attending AUB (American University of Beirut), bound to the top of one ruin and raise their arms and shout. We all snap photo after photo. There are very few tourists here today, just the odd small group clutching guidebooks and speaking French. I wander off to the main Temple of Jupiter, which seems nearly empty until I spot a woman in full black hijab and dress, making a circular tour, chanting in prayer with a black vinyl purse slung over her shoulder. She appears to walk a certain number of steps, stop and then take it up again. I follow behind her for a while, taking in the sickly sweet smell of her perfume. Perhaps it’s a particularly pungent scent sold in the local Hezbollah souvenir shops called “Perfume of the Martyrs,” martyrs meaning Hezbollah fighters who died fighting against Israel. I know the aroma because my husband, thinking it was part of his journalistic reporting duties, once brought back a vial and his office stank of it until I finally made him throw it out. Khaled and the group catch up with me and our guide is on a bit of a rampage with his white cane and historical tidbits. He alternately barks, “Look up! Pleeze! Come see this!” followed by long strung-on sentences filled with historical information and facts such as, “You see now, Lion! Why you ask?” Later, David’s friend, Hikmet, apologizes, “I really did not want you to have this guide. You know. He has a problem with heroin. He lived in France for a long time and then he came back here because of this problem, but you know he is very smart, very smart about history.” This may explain Khaled’s banging with his cane and weaving up the stairs at the entrance to the Bacchus temple. We come to the end of our tour where a huge stage is being set up. Baalbek has a long history of great performances from Ella Fitzgerald to Sting. I meet a few students carrying props who, in French explain, they are setting up for a “spectacle.” There is something about the way the French say “spec-tack-lah” that makes it so inviting and I momentarily wish I could stay in Baalbek until Saturday to see what these indy looking college students have planned. Khaled barks, “Come! See! How beautiful there! Look Cleopatra! Hurry now!” and I rejoin the group to finish our tour. We have a full day yet in front of us, with lunch at Hikmet’s and a cocktail party on the roof in Beirut at a boite called Coop d’Etat with David’s friend Nick. Sun, wine and love indeed.

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