BEIRUT: The Phoenicians, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans, Arabs, Europeans and others have all, at one time, claimed ownership over Lebanon’s northern coast.
Over the centuries, from Batroun to Tripoli, an array of structures has been erected including castles, hammams, souks, churches, mosques, churches converted into mosques, and churches converted to mosques that were later converted back to churches. The intricate culture that has been woven along the pristine coastline has brought into being some superb sights.
The winding mountain roads of Rashana are lined with sculptures of limestone, steel, aluminum, wood, bronze, cement and stone and the gaps are filled with wild daffodils.
The creators of the artwork are the famous Basbous family: brothers Michel, Joseph, Alfred and Michel’s son Anashar (Rashana backward).
The road travels past a number of villas with creative gates and artwork displayed from their homes until it arrives at the open air museum. The garden boasts over 60 years of work from the Basbous family including a sculpture of Bacchus, the Greco-Roman god of wine, built in 1967; Michel’s limestone masterpiece of two lovers built in 1957;and Michel’s last sculpture built in 1981 before his death.
The magnum opus of the open-air museum, however, is a small one-story house built by Michel in 1974. The house is now inhabited by his widowed wife who greets visitors with a smile, chocolate and a glass of liqueur entitled “perfect love.”
Therese Basbous, an accomplished playwright, explains that the house was sculpted by her late husband and mixed traditional and oriental styles with new architecture. The entire house is curved and “without right angles.” Michel created the house so he could “live inside a sculpture.”
Every castle tells a story. The successive invaders built on top of each other’s remnants to leave behind castles that depict the northern coast’s remarkable history.
- The Tripoli Castle: A climb to the top of a newly erected viewing platform allows a breathtaking, panoramic view of the entire city, the sea and the snow-covered mountains.
The castle, rebuilt in the 12th century by the Crusaders after numerous destructions, is adorned with the remains of Mamluk coffins and an Ottoman cannon. The castle’s architecture tells its history, including four craters displayed in the castle’s walls: scars of the Syrian occupation from not long ago.
- The Phoenician Castle, Smar Jbeil: On the edge of a cliff overrun with multihued wildflowers and over-looking vast, emerald valleys that come apart to reveal the azure sea, sits another famous castle in the small village of Smar Jbeil.
The castle was initially built by the Phoenicians, but traded hands over the ages before settling in the possession of the Maronites during the Middle Ages.
- Mussaylha Fort: Mussaylha Fort differs from those of Tripoli and Smar Jbeil in two major ways.
The first is that Mussaylha sits in the heart of a valley, surrounded by mountains that give a visitor an aura of insignificance. The second is that the fort is no more than 400 years old, according to scholars.
A stone bridge runs over an angry brown river leading to the castle, built on a long narrow limestone rock. According to historians and eyewitnesses, Mussaylha was built by Fakhreddine II in 1624.
The old city of Batroun
The old city, filled with bike-wielding youths and the scent of fresh fish, is bedecked with shaded, cobblestone roads and charming shops built of aged stones. The souk has been modernized, with computer repair technicians settling inside its tiny dakakin (shops) but the tranquility of the coastal city has proven itself immortal. The city rests between two ports, separated by the impressive Phoenician Wall. Greeting a local will be met with a smile and a possible invitation into their home for coffee.
The Hammams of Tripoli
The hammams were not just bathhouses but social clubs, where citizens would meet, gossip, bathe and smoke nargileh. The outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War changed this though, leaving the hammams barren accept for spider webs and accumulation of dirt.
- Hammam al-Nouri: On a bustling city road in the vicinity of the Grand Mosque sits an elderly lemonade vendor with a long white beard. Behind him is an old, dusty store where other old men sit chewing seeds and sipping Turkish coffee.
In the store though, is an old wooden, unassuming door. Like a fairytale, the door reveals a dark labyrinth, lit only by sparse rays of sunlight that lead to a hammam built in 1333. Hammam al-Nouri is now abandoned, collecting cobwebs in its various bathing rooms and high domed ceilings, needing an influx of around a million dollars to renovate according to one expert on the city.
- Hammam al-Jadid: Hammam al-Jadid derives its name (New Hammam) from being built around 1740. Like Hammam al-Nouri, this hammam is abandoned, however its recent purchase by Prime Minister Najib Mikati signals a future rebirth.
The highlight of this hammam is the designs in the ceiling. By placing a mirror (or sunglasses in a tourist’s case) under the ceiling, various shapes can be seen including the star of Malta and, in one room, the outline of the key needed to access the hammam.
Sharkass Tradition Handmade Olive Oil Soap Shop
Soap-maker Mahmoud Sharkass is an institution. Despite the initial appearance of his grimy, humble shop, the walls display photographs of meetings with a number of ambassadors. Sharkass’ family has been making soap from pure olive oil since 1803 and Mahmoud still uses traditional German machinery, some as old as 150 years. Sharkass claims he is the only soap maker in the world using 100 percent olive oil. Despite neighboring shops who have decided to open competing soap businesses, Sharkass’ business seems set to last.
“Europeans and Americans love it! I don’t usually take Lebanese here though,” tour guide Ali Khawaja says as he races through the crowded, narrow walkways of Souk al-Attareen. The antique, traffic-filled souk contains stores with screaming vendors, displaying a selection of meat, fish, bread, sweets, vegetables and more. The longest of the souks in Tripoli carries with it a strong sense of culture but as Khawaja elucidated, locals often prefer a detour.