In the month of May,1999, I traveled to Lebanon and Jordan to attend the annual Esri Middle East and North Africa Users Conference being hosted in Beirut by our Lebanese office. In addition, I was scheduled to conduct software training classes in Beirut, as well as Amman, Jordan.
As I checked in for the Delta and Austrian Airlines flights at Ontario airport, I was upgraded to business class all the way to Beirut – a welcome perk for being a Delta Airlines “Million Miler” and Platinum Medallion member! On the flight to Atlanta, I watched the Robin Williams film “Patch Adams”, a very emotional and inspiring story that touched many hearts on the plane. I had very little time to make the connection for the Delta flight to Vienna, but once on board I found the seats in the new Business Elite cabin to be very comfortable, with electronically controlled movement five ways – and with the very generous space and almost lie flat recline, I was assured of a very relaxing flight. Soon after takeoff, we were served cocktails and delicious hors-d-oeuvres of crab cakes and goat cheese on toasted crostini. Then came the main dish of spicy vegetarian pasta, topped with grilled chicken in an incredible sauce of four cheeses and diced potatoes. I finished dinner with a selection of French cheeses and dried fruits, along with a glass of Austrian Ice Wine – a memorable dinner in the sky! When I landed in Vienna the next morning, the weather was miserable and cold, but I was just there to transfer to the Austrian Airlines flight to Beirut. After spending an hour in the Business Class lounge, I headed to the gate, only to find the departure delayed by a “labor slowdown” of airport staff. Then, once on board the aircraft, there was another delay when two Swedish passengers failed to show up, so their luggage had to be located and removed! However, once we finally departed Vienna, the 3 ½ hour flight was very nice, especially with a delicious lunch featuring pan-seared Arctic Char. Upon arriving in Beirut, a driver from the local office met me and took me to the lovely, historic old Summerland Hotel. The resort was built on a steep slope rising above the Mediterranean Sea. My room on the “ground Floor” was actually five floors below the lobby, but it had a spectacular view of the Sea from the patio! Virtually all the rooms in the hotel had magnificent views.
Access to my room was rather strange, being down five levels from the lobby and via a narrow corridor through the bar! Later, I discovered a shortcut through the Terrace Garden, across a pathway of large cement steps, molded in the shape of a giant’s foot, and past a large aviary of beautiful tropical birds.
The next day, my training class at the Electricity Company of Lebanon was delayed as a result of having to “re-install” ALL the software. But the journey to the training site followed the coast, known as the “Corniche”, and it was beautiful, despite many old buildings that had been damaged in the Civil War. There was evidence of numerous bomb craters and countless bullet holes, yet there were signs of renovation and reconstruction everywhere!
And all along the route, Syrian Army troops patrolled the area and many large, faded photos of Syrian President Hafez Assad were posted. After class, I joined my colleague Jerry in the hotel bar for a couple of local “Almaza” beers, and then dinner outside on the terrace. We enjoyed several small plates of traditional Middle Eastern “mezzes”, followed by a large order of fresh local seafood, including tiny finger-sized fish deep fried and eaten whole, tasting almost like French fries. (they were 3 inch-long Red Mullet) The next morning, we began the training class at the headquarters of the Electricity Company, with a cup of strong Turkish coffee, dispensed from an automated machine. Nearby the company was the American University of Beirut, located on a hill overlooking the sea. The classic old yellow sandstone buildings, built in the late 1800’s, were gorgeous, especially as they were surrounded by tall, deep green Lebanese Cedars. As I walked around the campus during a break in the class, I came upon the haunting sounds of a concert of classical Czech music coming from the 100 year-old chapel. Among other recollections of my time in Beirut was the “First Call to Prayer” every morning at 4:30 am, “blasting” from a loudspeaker at the Mosque next door! (Jerry said he never heard it!) One day in the hotel, I had some serious problems connecting my laptop modem to the hotel phone system in order to download my email. (there was no internet at this time) The hotel switchboard operator claimed I could only make a “collect” call from Lebanon, which was insane since there was no way a computer modem could call “collect”! Finally, I was able to reach an AT&T support person who told me how to connect using my AT&T calling card. Though I was successful in making the email server connection, it was very expensive at $5.00 per minute! (in today’s money that would be almost $8.00) As I traveled back and forth each day to the training site, I saw a lot of reconstruction taking place, incorporating some exquisite architectural designs, combining traditional Arabic geometric patterns with sleek, elegant modern styles, all using the gorgeous local yellow sandstone and brilliant white marble.
At the conclusion of the training class, I joined a tour to the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek and Anjar in the Bekaa Valley east of Beirut. The route took us over the High Lebanon Mountains, following the main highway to Damascus. As our bus slowly climbed the steep, winding road into the mountains, there were beautiful views of the deep green forests and snow-capped peaks. Along the way, I spotted some interesting signs beside the road, including:
- “We are on sale – so prices are breaking down”
- “Foody-Goody Store”
- “We sale Kodak film”
- “One Way Shoes Store” (so do you have to turn them in and buy a new pair for the return home?)
We also passed several huge Mercedes trucks laboring up the steep slope with their loads of massive blocks of white marble, headed for Damascus. Near the top of the mountain pass, we came upon a strange structure beside the road. It was the “Monument to Peace” – a very large pillar with several full-size tanks, trucks, and artillery guns “encased” in concrete – very weird and a bit scary! On the far side of the mountains were old stone terraced fields, several centuries old, and lovely green meadows. But all over the region were lots of multi-story buildings built haphazardly among the beautiful old white stone farmhouses – probably the result of no government control during the 17 years of Civil War.
Descending the mountains, we could see the rusting remains of an old dilapidated railway line, once part of the old Palestine Railways that connected Beirut with Damascus. Several sections of the railroad were covered by long, concrete snow sheds. (the High Lebanon Mountains sometimes get almost 20 feet of snow during a winter) At one point, there was an old railway bridge that had been destroyed during the Civil War, leaving the tracks hanging in mid-air! As we entered the Bekaa Valley, we could see many Bedouin camps, tents covered with animal hides and floors lined with oriental carpets. Beyond were lovely green fields of wheat, produce, and vineyards, surrounded by steep, rocky, mountains.
And far to the south we could see the snow-covered summit of Mount Hermon rising above the Golan Heights. (it was such a peaceful scene amidst a turbulent part of the world) After traversing the heart of the valley, we finally arrived at one of the largest ancient Roman ruins in the world – Baalbek. Walking around the site, we had beautiful views of tall carved stone columns and facades, including four massive stone blocks, each weighing well over 200 tons. They formed the foundation of a massive gate – such an incredible engineering challenge to cut and move the blocks from nearby quarries. The highlight of our tour by far was the immense “Temple of Bacchus”, dedicated to the Roman God of wine. Except for the Cedar roof, which hadn’t survived the centuries, the temple was almost completely preserved.
It was a joy to walk among the ancient ruins and imagine being a Roman citizen enjoying the fruit of the vine. Our guide told us some of the history of the region, which was first settled by the Phoenicians over 4,000 years ago, and later by the Greeks who named it “Heliopolis”, following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia in 330 BC. The site was later occupied by the Byzantine Empire, which fell to the Romans around 15 BC. The Romans renamed it “Baalbek” – in both the Greek and Roman languages it meant the “City of the Sun”.
After several centuries of Roman occupation, during which most of the large temples were constructed, the site would fall to the Arabs and more recently the Ottoman Empire. So, there was layer upon layer of ancient history beneath our feet – extraordinary! The ancient site got its name from the fact that it lies in the rain shadow of the 10,000 foot high (3,000 meters) Lebanon Mountains and enjoys over 300 days of sunshine a year. Before leaving Baalbek, we were invited to a small museum/visitor center/gift shop to see displays of artifacts recovered from Archeological excavations of the site. We were welcomed by the local Hezbollah Militia. It was very interesting to see the historical artifacts, but what struck me most were the items for sale in the gift shop, all of which required purchase with only US dollars! (not even the local currency of Lebanese Pounds was accepted!) And in the absurd irony of it all, the walls of the museum/visitor center were covered with anti-American posters and “Death to America” slogans!
Leaving Baalbek, we stopped at a new hotel in the village of Zahle for a delicious lunch of traditional Lebanese food, including Kafta (spicy meat balls). The hotel was designed and built in a traditional Arabic style, using the beautiful local white limestone and pink marble. We finished lunch by toasting with a small glass of Arak, a strong liquor that tastes very much like Greek Ouzo. After lunch there was a stop at the Kasara Winery, where the caves have been used by monks for generations to age their wine. As we toured the caves, we saw several very old bottles still in storage, covered with thick black fungus! Storage of wine in the caves date back to the early 1700’s, shortly after the vineyards were planted, and the process of wine making continues to flourish today.
As we tasted the wines, the French tourists were a bit “snobbish” about the Lebanese wines, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the wines. Our final stop, before returning to Beirut, was a tour of Anjar, another ancient Roman site near the Syrian border. It had been transformed into a fortress by the Umayyads after the first Arab invasion of the valley. The site had many beautifully restored ruins of Roman temples and palaces.
But of most interest was the ancient, yet sophisticated, Roman water and sewer system! It was very clear that the Roman engineers were incredibly talented. At one point, as I walked among the ruins, I came upon a long black line crossing the old Roman road, and the line was moving! Turned out to be thousands of harvester ants carrying tiny bundles of dry grass they had cut from the forest floor to take back to their nest. It was fascinating to watch them, totally oblivious to my presence. Meanwhile, no one else in the group even noticed them. After a wonderful trip to the Bekaa Valley, we returned to the Summerland Hotel just in time to board the bus that would take me to the conference Gala Dinner Party at an historic old palace in the small mountain village of “Beit-ed-Dine”, located on top of the mountain overlooking Beirut. It was built by the Emir Bashir II, ruler of the Mount Lebanon Emirate, between 1788 and 1818. From 1943 it became the summer residence of the Lebanese President, and part of the castle remains so today. The beautiful architecture of the castle features several arcades, fountains, elaborate facades carved from local cedar wood, intricate inlaid marble and fine mosaics, as well as unique mandaloun balconies (two arched openings in a stone wall with a colonette in the middle and a decorative motif on top). The journey up the steep, winding road was slow and not very comfortable, but we were welcomed in grand style by the local community. The evening began with a visit to the “Marie Baz Wax Museum”, a small but elegant display of some famous people.
Then we walked down the road to “Moussa’s Castle”, a beautiful limestone structure built entirely by one man, Moussa Abdel Karim Al Maamari, in the early 1960’s.
Unfortunately, the display of scenes depicting local village life were disappointing “fake” reproductions, even though they were constructed of beautiful yellow sandstone. The “scenes” were poorly represented, in addition to being very dirty and dusty. Despite having an impressive collection of very old weapons, including pistols, swords, rifles, and even an old “blunderbust”, they were all displayed in dingy, dirty glass cases. And worst of all, were the ragged, moth eaten stuffed animals in glass display cases filled with ants – disgusting to say the least! While I admired the family enterprise, the display was very poorly preserved and not cared for – so sad.
Back to the Beit-ed-Dine Palace, we all enjoyed an elaborate and scrumptious Middle Eastern buffet, accompanied by entertainment from a fantastic folklore dance company that included a display of ceremonial sword fighting. And of course, no Gala Party in the Middle East would be complete without a traditional Belly Dancer! Even though the evening was very enjoyable, it was VERY late by the time we arrived back at the hotel – well after 2 am! The next morning, I conducted a Presentation Skills Workshop for the Beirut office training staff. In the afternoon, I spent a quiet day around the hotel, catching up on my email and my travel journal, while a “bevy” of beautiful young girls in skimpy outfits paraded around the pool. For dinner that evening, I went to the hotel terrace café and enjoyed a fantastic “Escalope Viennese” (grilled chicken breast topped with spicy tomato-basil sauce and melted cheese) I ended the evening sitting on my patio with a glass of wine and listening to the soft sounds of waves crashing on the beach below. The next day, after successfully resolving a problem with my laptop (lost the driver for the mouse), it was time to head for the airport and my flight to Amman. The check-in process went very smoothly and soon I found myself relaxing in the “Cedars Lounge”, which was brand new and beautifully decorated with Persian carpets and traditional Arabic artwork. The short one-hour flight on Middle Eastern Airlines took an unusual route north to Tripoli, and then east across the Lebanon Mountains where large areas of winter snow remained on the 10,000 foot peaks. Finally, the plane turned south across western Syria and over the city of Damascus to Amman – a route designed to avoid Israeli airspace. Despite the short flight, a very tasty snack and drinks were served.
As we approached Amman, I could see a large cloud of yellow dust hanging over the city – the result of a huge sandstorm in Egypt. Munir, the head of the Jordanian office, was at the airport to meet me and take me into the city. Alongside the highway were countless small vendors brewing and selling thick, black Arabic coffee in traditional tall silver coffee pots – very similar to the espresso stands one finds throughout Europe. Arriving in downtown Amman, I checked in to the newly renovated SAS-Radisson Hotel, formerly the Holiday Inn. The new hotel was much more upscale and luxurious. (lots of dark tropical wood and brilliant white marble) As time for dinner rolled around, I discovered that it was “Gastronomic Week – A Taste of Belgium” in the restaurant. So, I felt compelled to order one of Belgium’s best beers, a pint of “Leffe”, brewed by monks in an old Abby since 1240! Dinner was superb, and I ended the meal with a strong cup of thick, black Arabic coffee, served “medium”, which referred to the amount of added sugar. The next morning, Munir picked me up and we drove north of Amman to the pine covered hills near the Syrian border, over looking the Jordan River Valley, nearly 4,000 feet below. On one of the highest summits was the historic Ajloun Castle – a 12th century Crusader -era fortress located on the site of an old monastery. It was renovated as a fort in 1184 by the commander of the army of Saladin (Salah-Ad-Din), first Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The castle had a commanding view in all directions, which made it a very strategic location during the Crusades.
It was later fortified by Saladin to counter further Crusader invasions. Over the following centuries, many additions and revisions were made as it changed hands between warring armies. From Ajloun Castle, we found a very nice restaurant at the base of the mountain for lunch, classic Lebanese food served by Egyptian waiters. And as always, Munir ordered enough food for a large family – such is the incredible hospitality of the Middle East! After lunch, we drove east toward Syria to visit Jerash, another very well preserved ancient Roman city. Among the ruins were several large temples dedicated to the Roman Gods Zeus, Jupiter, and Venus.
Just beyond the temples was a huge circular forum and enormous Amphitheatre that seated over 3000 spectators and still in use today for summer performances by well known artists. Strangely, in one section of the old city was even a modern Byzantine cathedral, though it was still several centuries old! But something which struck me as most amazing was the old Roman road, paved with large stone blocks that still had the “ruts” worn in them from cart wheels over many centuries. And even more incredible were the stone “manholes” of the ancient water and sewer system – still functional even today, after more than 2000 years! Among some of the other ruins still very much intact, were the “Fountain of the Nymphs”, the four massive stone gates to the city, and the beautiful “Temple of Artemis”, where a massive stone column, weighing several hundred tons, was delicately balanced on its base.
Amazingly, the huge column “swayed” ever so slightly in the wind! And everywhere among the ancient stones were large black centipedes, going about their daily business. On our return journey to Amman, we passed a most unusual sight – a taxi packed with passengers, one of whom was riding in the trunk of the old car! Back in the hotel, I joined Munir in the lobby bar for a local “Philadelphia” beer. He told me that modern day Amman was built upon an ancient Roman city called Philadelphia, hence the name of the brewery today. Meanwhile, a large wedding party was celebrating in the lobby. The music and dancing were fascinating, especially the “shrill” vocals of the ladies, which is so typical throughout the Middle East. [On a sad note: In November of 2005, a terrorist suicide bomber exploded a device in the hotel ballroom where hundreds of guests were attending a wedding, killing 60 people.] Later in the evening, we were joined by our colleagues Mazen and Maroun for a spectacular Arabic dinner at a beautiful old restaurant by the name of “Fahr-Ak-Din”, located in the former residence of the Spanish ambassador. During dinner, we dined on lots of traditional Arabic mezzes, along with a delicious mixed grill of lamb, chicken, and Kafta, a spicy mixture of ground beef and lamb. The evening was wonderful, but another very late night, since dinner didn’t begin until after 10 pm! Early the following morning, Mazen picked me up at the hotel for a trip to the ancient archeological site of Petra, about 3 hours south of Amman through the southern desert of Jordan. Access to the ancient site was by way of a narrow gorge through the mountains of Jabal Al-Madbah that form the eastern slope of the Arabah Valley which runs from the Dead Sea to the Gulf of Aqaba. Petra was first settled as early as 9,000 BC and established as the capital city of the Nabataean Kingdom in the 4th century BC. Over the millennia, Petra’s importance as a trade route declined, and after more than 300 earthquakes that destroyed many structures, it lay abandoned for several centuries, occupied by only a handful of nomads. It remained unknown to the rest of the world until 1812 when it was rediscovered by a passing Swiss traveler. In 1917, it became the site of battle against the Ottoman Empire, led by T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). In 1985 it was designated a United Nations World Heritage Site and gained popularity as a major tourist destination, which continues today. There were many huge temples and tombs carved from the stunning red sandstone, the largest and most impressive being the “Treasury”. Mazen insisted that we enter the site in the traditional manner, on horseback, through the narrow gorge. And as we emerged from the passageway, we had a spectacular view of the Treasury.
We spent the better part of the day roaming around the ruins and learning of the long history of the place. Despite having seen pictures of Petra, they did not prepare me for the experience of seeing it in person – it had a magical, mystical feeling about it that was hard to describe. At one point, we climbed a narrow staircase of 900 steps carved out of a narrow canyon to see the “Monastery”, another impressive building carved into the rock wall.
From there we hiked a short distance to the highest point where we had a stunning view overlooking the Jordan Valley and the southern shore of the Dead Sea. Then, in the late afternoon, we stopped for a bite to eat at the “Al Khalil Tea House”, located inside an old Nabataean tomb!
As we enjoyed our cup of hot tea, gazing upon the beauty of the site, we agreed that it had been a wonderful day in one of the most incredible places on earth! The next morning, I joined Maroun for breakfast in the hotel, after checking my email once more and packing my bags. Then I enjoyed coffee around the pool, wrote some post cards, and caught up on my travel journal – very pleasant and relaxing. Munir picked me up around noon and we paid a visit to the Royal Jordanian Geographic Centre to discuss a potential GIS project. Then it was time to head to the airport for my flight to Vienna. It was a quick check-in process and only a short delay at Immigration. As I waited in the queue, I noticed a Saudi family where the wife was completely covered from head to toe in a black robe, even including black gloves! It begged the question; how does the Immigration officer verify her identity? As it turns out, her husband must vouch for her identity. After clearing Immigration, I spent some time relaxing in the Royal Jordanian Airlines “Jerash” First Class Lounge. Later, before going to the departure gate, I went looking for postage stamps, but both Post Offices were either closed or apparently open but not staffed. Either way, I was unable to buy any stamps or post my cards. So, I decided to buy some Arak liquor in a lovely crystal bottle instead. When I got to the gate, I was surprised to find that everyone was body searched, despite having walked through metal detectors! But once on board, the flight was excellent, especially the lunch of chicken Provençale and smoked trout, accompanied by a delicious wedge of Danish Bleu cheese and a glass of crisp Austrian white wine. After lunch, we were served chocolate eclairs, Arabic coffee, and a glass of Drambuie, to finish a fantastic meal. Meanwhile, there were great views of the Bosphorus Strait, the city of Istanbul, the Black Sea coast, and the mountains of Bulgaria. As we approached Vienna, we had a gorgeous view of Budapest, straddling both sides of the Danube River. Upon arrival in Vienna, I checked in to the Sofitel Airport Hotel and had a very classic Wiener Schnitzel in “Café Wien”. (the only place in the world to get a true Wiener Schnitzel is either Austria or Germany!) Later, in the hotel bar, the service was very slow, so I ended up drawing a second glass of beer on my own from behind the bar. When the bartender returned, we both had a good laugh! The following morning, I boarded the Delta Airlines flight to Atlanta and on to Los Angeles, and it was another great flight in Business Elite Class. I returned home with copious travel notes, lots of photos, and wonderful memories of a fascinating part of the world!