Monday, September 26, 2011

My Nirvana Day in Tyre

A visit to the ancient Phoenician city of Tyre
The plan was for a Saturday lunch in Tyre, South Lebanon. But once in the ancient Phoenician city, I couldn’t resist exploring the ruins after a visit to the Orange House Project (see Turtles tutorial at Orange House).

Some 88 kilometers (55 miles) from the capital Beirut, Tyre -- or Soor as it is known in Arabic -- is Lebanon’s fourth largest city. It was an island in ancient times and excavations there have uncovered ruins of Crusader, Arab, Byzantine and Greco-Roman cities.

Banana groves and the Mediterranean all along the journey
The weekend highway drive from Beirut to South Lebanon is smooth until you hit Tyre, where the roads inland are in great disrepair. 
I should have done more research before making the trip. My cousin Lillian and our friend Dunia Kabbani were excellent guides on the day. But I later discovered a wealth of brass tacks about the seaport city that has been battered so many times over the years. My findings came as I prepared to write this post and the captions for the photos of our day in Tyre.

Fish cafes line Tyre's free beach along the Corniche
You cannot but feel humbled and irrelevant when standing by colonnades, arches, lodgings, baths, sarcophagus and mosaics that have survived millenniums. Walking around structures that have been standing for thousands of years, and will still be here long after we are gone, have a profound effect on the meaning and value of life or the lack of it. Are our iPads, Smartphones or skyscrapers likely to be around in 5,000 years? I wonder.

A national unity string of beads and...
...benches donated by Turkey on the Corniche
But still… Leaving Orange House and driving towards Tyre, this time along the Mediterranean seaside road, we decided to visit one of the three archaeological sites before lunch. 

There are three main areas of ruins in Tyre. The ruins of a Crusader church dominate the first site, but I didn’t venture there on this trip.

The second is located on what was the ancient walled island city. Colonnades, mosaic streets, Roman baths, and a rectangular arena occupy this site that overlooks the shimmering light blue Mediterranean. And this is where we walked around first.

The sculpted tip of one of the colonnades
The sheer size of the colonnades is overwhelming, let alone the intricate sculpture at their tips. I strolled on awe-inspiring ground mosaics that continue to encapsulate the grandeur of the era in which they were created.

Tyre port
We left this site and drove towards Tyre’s port. The original island city had two harbors -- one on its southern side and the other on its northern front. That helped Tyre gain the maritime prominence it did. Although the southern harbor has silted over, the northern one is still in use.

The narrow alleyways leading to the port
We got there through narrow alleyways with old homes, some preserved and others not. We didn’t find a table in one of the portside restaurants. It was too hot to have some of South Lebanon’s delightful fish in one of the many cafés lining the free beach along the Corniche, so we headed to Tyre's Rest House.

The view from the Rest House restaurant
Delicious South Lebanon fish
We enjoyed a few glasses of Arak, fish, kebabs and a delicious hot potato salad before being served bitter Arabic coffee and watermelon.

Heading to the 2nd century Roman-Byzantine El Bass necropolis
Satiated, we made our way to the third site and most extensive area of ruins on the mainland. It includes the 2nd century Roman-Byzantine El Bass necropolis on either side of a wide monumental way dominated by a triumphal arch and the largest Roman hippodrome ever found. It was uniquely built of stone, not brick. In its heydays, it could seat some 20,000 spectators eager to watch the chariot races.

The Colombarium
The Triumphal Arch... a massive blow to any ego
Here again, standing under the Triumphal Arch that leads to the Hippodrome, is a massive blow to any ego.

The Roman Hippodrome was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in 1979. Tyre is also marked as protected cultural property according to the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict. Tyre itself was inscribed as an UNESCO World Heritage Site during the 8th session of the World Heritage Committee in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in November 1984.

Tyre was known as “queen of the seas,” an island city of unprecedented splendor that Herodotus of Halicarnassus, "Father of History," visited during the 5th century BC and described the famous Temple of Melkart (Heracles). The priests of the city-god told him the temple was built 2300 years previously when Tyre was founded -- that is 2750 BC.

One of many sculpted sarcophagus
The Greeks believed various aspects of their civilization had their origin in Tyre. Introduction of the alphabet into Greece was attributed to Cadmus of Tyre, and it was Europa, his sister, who gave her name to the continent.

Elissa, princess and daughter of king Mattan, extended Tyre's empire through the Mediterranean and founded Carthage in 814 BC. Early in the 6th century BC, Babylon king Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to the city for 13 years.

The origins of the famous purple dye in Tyre date back to a Phoenician legend involving Phoenician deities King Melqart and Queen Astarte. They were walking with their dog on the beach when the pet picked up something in its mouth that stained it crimson. Astarte thought it was beautiful and told Melqart that if he could make her a dress in that color, she would love him forever. So Melqart built the dye works.

Tyre is mentioned in the New Testament as one of the cities visited by Jesus Christ. Built by the Phoenicians, it was strong and an object of envies for many conquerors, particularly Alexander the Great.

Other parts of the necropolis
The island city of Tyre was heavily fortified. It had a defensive wall about 46 m (150 ft) high surrounding it. Tyre was originally two distinct urban centers: Tyre itself, on an island just offshore, and the associated settlement of Ushu on the adjacent mainland. Alexander connected the island to the mainland by building a causeway during his siege of the city, demolishing the old part to reuse its cut stones and conquer Tyre in 332 BC.

The most famous city of Phoenicia was captured in 1124 during the First Crusade and became one of the most important cities of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. In 1291, the Mameluks retook Tyre. It then passed to Ottoman rule until it became part of the modern state of Lebanon after World War I.

The Old Testament makes several references to Tyre. It is prominently featured in Shakespeare’s play Pericles, Prince of Tyre. Oscar Wilde referred to the city and its purple dye in his poetry " Tyrian galley waits for thee, come down the purple sail is spread..." And the third verse of Bob Dylan’s 1966 Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands begins: "The kings of Tyrus with their convict list / Are waiting in line for their geranium kiss.”

Unrest in South Lebanon, the illegal trade in antiquities and urban development continually threaten Tyre’s cultural heritage. Site degradation is also due to lack of maintenance and decay of porous and soft stones.

Archive photo of Tyre's First International Festival in 1972
In modern times, few people, if any, have done more than Mrs. Maha el-Khalil Chalabi, daughter of Lebanon's late political figure Kazem el-Kalil, to promote Tyre and protect its ruins and cultural heritage. She initially jolted Tyre out of its centuries of sleep by organizing the city's First International Festival back in July 1972.

Siniora and...
Arabic sweets at Kanaan
When it was time to head back to Beirut, we knew we first had to stop at Kanaan to stock on Siniora, the traditional South Lebanon sweet, and scoops of Arabic ice-cream – the best I’ve ever had. Because I couldn’t decide on the flavors, I just piled them all up. The best was a knafeh flavor that tasted exactly like the Arabic sweet itself.

You have to stop at Abu Arab for...

... freshly-baked ka'ak
Another stopover was at Abu Arab to collect some freshly-baked ka’ak, the Lebanese street bread covered in sesame seeds and traditionally eaten with Picon processed cheese sprinkled with zaatar (thyme) and sumac. At less than $1 apiece, they are one of the most luscious, filling and budget foods. It was fun to watch how the shop assistant brought them straight from the wood oven and toss them into readied bags as you can see in the pictures.

There is so much more to write, but I’ll let you enjoy the parts left out in pictures.

Related posts:
Turtles tutorial at Orange House – September 16, 2011
Breakfast in Sidon – November 30, 2010

Friday, September 16, 2011

Turtles tutorial at Orange House

A visit to the Orange House Project in South Lebanon
On the spur of the moment, as it is so easy to do in Lebanon, my cousin Lillian and I decided to go to Tyre for Saturday lunch (September 4). We were joined by our friend Dunia Kabbani. On the road down South, we thought we would check on the Orange House Project.

That’s not recommended, but I had heard so much about this magical House and the turtle conservation plan it runs I thought it was worth a try. We were lucky to catch owner Mona Khalil at home and welcoming.

 The Orange House is about 20 minutes south of Tyre
The Orange House is a Bed and Breakfast, some 20 minutes south of Tyre, promoting an eco-tourism lodge and a turtle conservation effort. I had heard so much about it from friends who stay there often to get away from the city and help in the care of the turtles. It is also a wow on Facebook, where videos are often posted on hatchlings and their return to the sea.

Walking through the banana groves to get to the beach
The guesthouse itself is Mona’s family beachfront farm stretching from the main road, just before Kolaila and Mansouri, right down to the yet unspoiled beaches of the South. The five-minute walk to the waterfront is through the famous South Lebanon banana groves dotted with palm trees -- all heavily in fruit at this time of year.

From talking to Mona, checking out the project’s website and other research, it seems sea turtles swim to lay their eggs on beaches and it is by chance that she saw one swimming ashore in 1999. This led to a labor of love in trying to conserve those that come ashore in front of the house and to get the shores of South Lebanon internationally branded turtle conservation areas.
The “labor” part of the “love” involves keeping the beach clean and daily surveying to gather data during the nesting season from May to September. It also requires relocating nests threatened by agriculture runoff or sea flooding and installing metal grids to protect them from predators.

Guests have the privilege of helping Mona and her team, But be warned, the turtles swim ashore during the night but also go back to sea at daybreak. This means the team has to be out by 3-or-4 a.m. until 6 a.m., when all the turtles and hatchlings have all headed back to sea.

A turtle eggshell, the size of a ping-pong ball
Scattered eggshells from the morning's hatchlings
Sea turtles take 20 to 30 years to be of age to lay eggs. Even if information about the lifespan of sea turtles is motley, it is thought that they live up to 70-80 years. Mona relates that females return to nest at the same beach where they were born. They do that up to two to four times a season every two or three years. Nests typically contain on average 100 soft-shelled eggs. Around one hatchling per 1,000 reaches adult age. The turtle can lay around 70 eggs at a time.

The B&B and eco-tourism venture is mostly to help raise funds for the project that has been adopted by countless people locally and internationally.

Flowers growing on the beach
Keeping the beach clean is vital and a daily effort, says Mona. The turtles are threatened by plastic bags, hospital waste, factory chemicals and fertilizer run-off from farms in the region. Plastic bags in the water can suffocate turtles, which mistake them for jellyfish and try to eat them. 

During the nesting season, the team tries to find the eggs, which need 45 to 65 days to hatch. The nests are protected from dogs and foxes by a metal grid. As we visited late in the morning, we couldn’t see any turtles, but Ali, a member of the team, showed me that morning’s empty nests that still had some eggshells the size of ping-pong balls.

The upstairs guest terrace
One of the Orange House guest rooms
Orange House has three double rooms for guests on the second floor of the farmhouse. For $50 per person a night, it is an excellent way to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and relax in the magical gardens and terraces of Orange House. There is a kitchen for guests to prepare meals or they can go to the many restaurants of Tyre.

Mona and her team were trained by the Mediterranean Association to Save the Sea Turtles (MEDASSET). Her aim is to persuade the Lebanese government to declare the beach at Mansouri and Kolaila a national nature reserve. The local municipalities have already recognized Mansouri and Kolaila beach.

Although we didn’t want to take up too much of Mona’s time, as she had been up since 4 a.m., she still kindly explained about the two species she comes across and regularly nest on the beaches of South Lebanon and along the Mediterranean. They are the Green Turtles (Chelonia mydas) and Loggerheads (Caretta caretta).

The Green Turtle lives for 60 to 100 years. It can grow to 1.60 meters long and one meter wide. It weighs at least 360 kg. A vegetarian, it feeds on sea grass. The Loggerhead Turtle has a larger head but its body is smaller at little more than a meter long and weighs around 160 kg. Loggerheads use their powerful beaks to break the shells of crustaceans, mollusks and urchins. They also eat fish, algae and seaweed.

Prickly pears...
... and marrows growing between the banana groves
We walked down to the beach through the banana groves and palm trees with marrows growing between. I hadn’t seen marrows in groves for a longtime and it is a great favorite of this season. The shoots, leaves and tendrils of the creeper can be eaten as greens and its flowers often mixed in salads.

I couldn't stop picking and eating jujube
The garden is full of citrus fruit
The resident Orange House goats
After admiring the coast and the startling blue Mediterranean, we walked back to the house, passing the goats and admiring the garden full of citrus fruit and even a Flame Tree. I couldn’t believe it when I spotted jujube trees. I hadn’t had any jujube for at least 25 years and couldn’t stop picking and eating some direct from the branches.

Lillian, Dunia and Mona
Although guests were arriving to spend the day at the Orange House beach, Mona still found time to offer us coffee and sit with us. She showed us photos and hatchlings that didn’t make it and are preserved in jars.

We then got a tour of the second floor houseguest area before thanking her profusely for taking the time to show us around. Pictures captured on my camera can take you on a “virtual tour” of Orange House.

After taking leave we headed back to Tyre for lunch and a visit to the old city’s ruins. But that’s for the next post.

A weekend at Orange House is something I hope to do on one of my next trips to Lebanon.
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Monday, September 12, 2011

Hamra medley dazzles

I missed the first one, and was not about to miss it again! I was glad to be in Beirut just in time for this year’s Maraya 2011 Hamra Streets Festival. It started with preparations Tuesday, August 30, and went on for two days on Wednesday and Thursday coinciding with the Eid al-Fitr break celebrating the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan.

As I wrote many times before, Hamra is home. It is one of the main streets in Beirut and much the heart of the city. It’s where I have always lived when in Lebanon.

Hamra Street is about one-kilometer long. It runs, in one-way traffic, from the Banque Du Liban (or Central Bank) all the way down to Sadat Street. It is home to many private banks, major newspapers and ministries, cafés, restaurants, churches, mosques and street sellers. They all contribute to the dynamism of the area. Two of Lebanon’s major universities are to the left and right of Hamra Street – the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lebanese American University (LAU).

Hamra is closed to traffic during the festival
The bustling street is closed to traffic for three days during the festival when stalls are set up in the middle-of-the-road. Shops, cafés and restaurants bring their wares out on the pavements. Tables and chairs are laid out in the middle.

I couldn’t wait for the festival to start. It was held this summer under the theme of apples. I went out to witness what was happening from the first day. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air with eager sellers already in place and others waiting for the sheltered stalls to be built. There were apples all over and at most stands, to encourage and blend local agriculture with the other trades on display.

Setting up on August 30
The only hitch glitch came Tuesday night. While organizers were still getting everything ready, a sudden half-an-hour downpour sent them scurrying for cover. We thought that it would delay the preparations, but at 10 a.m. on Wednesday (August 31) the festival opened to clear, blue skies.

The Hamra Streets Festival celebrates Lebanese talent whether in handicrafts, farming, gardening, cooking, music, painting... The Maraya 2011 organizers wanted to mix urban and rural talent and they sure did. I was pleased to reconnect at the festival with most of the Souk el Tayeb farmers I wrote about last November. I also got to know many new and talented people. 

"Wled el Balad" relaxing at Cafe Younes before their performance
Congregating towards the stage
This year, there was only one stage for the live performances at the beginning of Hamra Street. That’s where everyone eventually congregated to hear their favorite acts and to discover new ones. Standouts included, among others:

-        The Red Herrings, a young five-member jazz band out of Kent in the UK
-        Wled el Balad, who I met earlier that morning at my favorite Café Younes
-        Hip-hop rapper twins Ashekman, who also had a stand selling T-shirts and their CD
-        Banana Cognac who play funk and blues, and
-        Epic, who I heard on the last night (September 1).

Last year’s Hamra Street Festival pulled some 200,000 people. I am sure the figure was exceeded this summer. For three days, street activities and stalls were open to the public from 10 a.m. to midnight.

Maraya 2011 organizers were Najwa Baroody, Fadi Ghazzaoui, Serge Mushati, Marilene Makhloof, Assil Ayache (music production), Zico (technical), Dina Habbal, Randa Chelala and Zeinab Chahine. They tried this year to focus on green areas and a green theme, winning over such sponsors as Beirut Municipality and AUB.

The Malak al Taouk bus
Friends of Maraya 2011 include AUB’s School of Agricultural and Food Sciences & Center for Civic Engagement & Community Service; Sabah Ramadan; Karim Bekdache; Harley-Davidson Owners (HOG) and the ISF Horses.

The Harley-Davidson Owners prepare for the parade
I've never seen so many Harleys in one place!
HOG opened the festival Tuesday afternoon in tandem with the Police Horses. I missed the parade because it was supposed to kick off at 5 p.m. But by 6 p.m. the Harleys were still taking their positions -- so I walked away thinking the opening was postponed. But I never saw so many Harley-Davidsons in one place and their vroom-vroom had the whole street gasping in expectation. Everyone wanted to watch men and women bikers, park their awesome machines side-by-side. There must have been well over 100.

The number of creators of crafts, ceramics, jewelry, handbags, hats, paintings, etc, all with a Lebanese twist was admirable. Everyone was in good spirits, hospitable, generous and eager to enjoy the festivities.

Wherever I stopped, stall owners were eager to share information about their creations and offer a little token. Considering the huge number of people strolling around the street, I was struck by everyone’s composure. There were several stands offering spirits, but no one was visibly “high” or upsetting the fun.

Bags by Dima Rachid
“Concepts by Dima,” the custom handbag outfit by 22-year-old Dima Rachid, is one example of local creativity. Dima was welcoming at her stand, explaining that she helps clients create their own collages for their handbags that can be dry-cleaned. 

I loved the Zinab Chahine stall for original accessories -- especially her brooches made of bottle caps with pictures of Umm Kulthoum and Arabic words and expressions.

There were Fitflop sandals that give you a workout while walking and the two women at the stand were pleasant and helpful. Unfortunately, the guy staffing the stall of Havaianas, the only thing I wanted to buy, must have been tired when I passed by and not cordial – so he lost my custom.

Karen Mahseredjian's original designs
One of my favorite stands was Designs by Kay selling colorful and original handbags by Karen Mahseredjian. The laptop bag with a car license plate was a hot seller. So were the phosphorescent pinks and yellows, also with license plates or stamped envelopes. Karen does key holders, handbag holders and other odds and ends. Her creations can be found at Cream in Saifi, The Union in Gemmayzeh and Raspberry Diva in Jounieh.

Creations by ASPF's Bamboo Project
I was impressed by the Association de Secours aux Prisonniers et leurs Familles (ASPF), an organization that aids prisoners and their families. The association helps defend prisoners who have been unjustly condemned; gives legal, financial, medical and food support to those in need. They also lend a hand with the rehabilitation of prisoners into society on their release. ASPF sponsors the Bamboo Project -- creations of hats and bags in raffia and straw by the Baabda Prison for Women. All proceeds from sales go to the inmates.

Maytham Kassir at the Shabab Assafir booth
The night before the festival opening I was invited by Maytham Kassir on Twitter to pass by the Shabab Assafir booth. He and his journalist colleagues were giving out and promoting the junior weekly tabloid of the Beirut newspaper.

Abu Brahim in traditional attire
Georgina does delicious falafel
I recognized Abu Brahim, in his Druze traditional attire, from my post about Souk el Tayeb, Beirut’s farmers market. Georgina was there too and offered me a freshly made falafel.

I got apples at Irshad, who protect the environment by working with farmers across Lebanon to produce Lebanese fruits by means of the best internationally used practices through Integrated Crop Management (ICM).

Kenza's different seating area
Kenza had seating with cushions on mats with burning incense to enjoy their natural diet cakes and breads. Their products are suitable for diabetes, pregnancy and healthy dieting as well as for children aged one year and above.

Dr. Jamil Kassem manning his book stall
Celebrating the festival well into the night
It is unfair not to mention every single stall, artisan, farmer, cook, painter, musician and the hundreds of people who displayed and helped organize the Hamra Streets Festival. I would have loved to give credit to each one for their creativity and courage to launch into these ventures.

Maybe these pictures will give you an idea of what a great show Hamra put on. I love Hamra!

Related posts:   Beirut’s Souk el Tayeb, 16 November 2010

                        Walking in Hamra, 12 November 2010

                        Back on the streets of Beirut, 24 June 2011