Lebanon is a country often too small to be denoted on a map–it’s only 10,452 square kilometers! However, in our five days there, we weren’t even able to see all of the ~main tourist attractions~. Taylor, Caroline, and I stayed with Rashed at his apartment in Beirut, and he drove us all around the northern part of Lebanon for the week, explaining to us various attractions and cities and such. It was an exceptional experience to be shown around by a friend, and I really think we got a different experience than other visitors to Lebanon.
It’s embarrassing to admit now, but I was nervous to go. Before I left for this trip, people cautioned me against traveling to Lebanon, citing terrorism. The United States’ Travel Advisories lists Lebanon as a “Level 3: Reconsider Travel” due to “crime, terrorism, kidnapping, and armed conflict“. What??? I got an email from the US Embassy four days before leaving for Lebanon about “heightened risk”. I had no idea what to expect.
This goes for the entirety of my trip so far: I never felt unsafe. I think a lot of the “West” is afraid of travel outside of the well-beaten path, but that just perpetuates horribly negative stereotypes. There are reasons to be afraid in every country: there are areas of my city I would not walk alone at night. The sexual assault rate in the United States is awful, and we have one of the worst medical systems in the “developed” world. I get nervous at border checks when they ask to see proof of accommodation–I can’t even imagine the awful experiences people have at the borders of the United States. The hypocrisy is stark, and I encourage everyone to go to the “scary” places to see for themselves what is true and what isn’t.
Lebanon has a lot of religious landmarks, and it’s a popular destination for religious pilgrimages. It has a rich history of Christians and Muslims. Beirut, the capitol, is a city of paradoxes. Porsches and Mercedes Benzes are parked at every street corner, while ancient ruins and old souks stand just across the street. Many of the buildings predate the United States as a country, while designer stores inhabit the lower levels. It’s a bit of historical whiplash, but it shows how much history this country has experienced.
Beirut is also known to have the best nightlife of the Middle East. We did a bit of bar hopping downtown–nothing too crazy though, because there’s so much to see!
We started off the week beaching on the shore of the Mediterranean. This was such a cool experience; we’ve all learned about the significance of the Mediterranean for trade and its historical purposes, so it was pretty neat to swim in its (FREEZING) waters.
After sunbathing for a couple hours, we drove to Byblos, a city that’s said to be the oldest on earth. It was first inhabited around 8000 BCE–10,000 years ago. Y’all, walking around a city that is ten THOUSAND years old was so cool. There are some Roman ruins along the coast that cost less than $2 to get in, so we walked around the ancient city for a while.
We stopped at Rashed’s mother’s family’s sweets store, Rafaat Hallab & Sons, which has a few locations across the country. Rashed just built a few plates for us, knowing we’d have no idea what to try. The desserts were beautifully crispy, with several kinds of nuts, simple syrups, and thin, breakable layers of deliciousness. We actually went twice over the week–y’all know I’m always a sweet > savory gal!
We drove back towards Beirut then, stopping at a statue called Our Lady of Lebanon. The statue of the Virgin Mary is a pilgrimage site for Christians and Muslims alike. The view from the statue was breathtaking. From below, it doesn’t seem that the statue is truly that high up, but it really is. The city below seemed ant-like, and the Mediterranean just faded into the sky, so you couldn’t see where the sea ended and the sky began.
The next morning, we drove to Jeita Grotto. We took a two-minute tram ride over to the entrance, floating over the incredibly lush greenery. This no-cameras-allowed attraction was a finalist for the Seven Wonders of the World. The Grotto is a ginormous, mystically-lit series of caves–it seems as though you’re walking through another planet while wandering through. The stalagmites and stalactites have spent thousands of years forming, and it was pretty cool to be in a space that has existed for generations.
After walking through the upper grotto, you can walk to the lower one, where you climb into a boat and float through water lit from below, looking up into the cavernous spaces above you. I left a little like Ariel, singing about how much she wanted to be a part of the outside world. After leaving the grotto, I sympathized with her a little: it would be a lonely life living in there all alone!
The grotto is situated on Mount Lebanon, a winding drive up through the green mountains. It felt like Colorado, and as my ears popped on the way up, I envisioned the grey of the Rocky Mountains in stark contrast to the green of the Lebanese hills. The drive up was breathtakingly gorgeous, the villages scattered across the stepped slopes.
We wound our way up to a giant statue of St. Charbel, a saint who hermited for most of his life. He also performed miraculous healings of the sick. It seemed significant that he would be looking down over Lebanon, up there in the mountains.
We drove over then to where St. Charbel hermited, a small mount in the middle of the hills, not near much else. His brick home still stands, and the rooms where he slept, prayed, and performed healings are consecrated there. Believers circumambulated the structure, taking in the incredible views from his home. Just down the road stands a massive church dedicated to him, and a crypt below where his body is held, along with some artifacts from his life.
The next morning, we walked around the American University of Beirut, the school Rashed attends. The campus, situated on the coast between the Mediterranean and downtown Beirut, is lined with palm trees. It’s a stunning campus. There’s an archaeological museum on campus, which has a lot of rich, historical artifacts that we wandered through.
After touring through the university campus, we walked around the city. We entered a Maronite church, situated on the same plot of land as an incredibly ornate mosque. The religious juxtaposition did not escape me. The church stands above another archaeological museum, where we gladly paid the entry fee to escape the blistering heat. We then entered the mosque, where we sat and took in the incredible building for a while.
The following day, we drove north to Tripoli, where Rashed’s family has a home. Tripoli is common for day trips from Beirut, and it’s only about an hour and a half’s drive. It’s much more conservative here, and most things were closed for Ramadan. We walked through a market that was setting up for Ramadan celebrations post-sunset, and while it was a ghost town when we wandered through, I could imagine the festivities that would take place that evening.
There are lots of old concrete structures just outside the city, one with incredible acoustics that was ethereal to sing in. We climbed rusted structures to get good views of the city, stopping to admire the palm trees and high rise apartments.
We then walked through the souks, where we saw a demonstration of how handmade soap is formed. The souks, less bustling than I would’ve thought, are hidden down little alleyways amongst the busy city of Tripoli. Jewelry stores, clothing shops, and souvenir shops lined the walls, and we walked around for a while in the city before heading back to Beirut as the sun set over the Mediterranean.
I think one of the biggest things I gleamed was something I already knew: every place we go in this world is home to someone. I think of my hometown, for example. I have a million memories of places that seem meaningless to any passerby: parking ramps where we drank and watched the sun set over the skyline, the place we took homecoming photos, the Caribou we’d stop at to get Campfire Mochas before school.
I think of the city I live in now, Minneapolis: the Mall of America is where I purchased my senior prom dress, and we took the prom photos underneath the Stone Arch Bridge. I watched the US Bank Stadium be built over several years and change the skyline, but to most tourists, it’s just the place last year’s Superbowl took place. Minnehaha Falls is one of the only public parks open 24/7, so I’ve spent my fair share of time there with friends after going out in Uptown. There are countless places in the city where I’ve cried, I’ve kissed, I’ve laughed.
Minneapolis isn’t a destination for me, it’s home.
To the people who live there, the land and its “attractions” have so much more meaning than photos for Instagram.
Every place you visit, someone has memories there akin to your own. What’s just a tourist attraction to you has an entirely different meaning to them, whether they’ve simply driven past it a thousand times or it holds significant cultural or religious meaning. And of course, I knew that on the surface, but I think it becomes more real as you hear stories from someone else.
It’s such a privilege to be able to travel and see others’ meaningful places, and it’s integral we remember that significance. I know I will return to Lebanon, and I’m so thankful for the week we had there.
until next time, xoxo