My visit to Beirut was remarkable. It was 36 years ago that I lived there, my father a visiting professor in sociology at the American University of Beirut. My experience living in Beirut and becoming familiar with the Middle East was a pivotal time in my learning. It seems that I found my interests in traditions and ancient life ways while traveling around the region. I gained rudimentary Arabic, enough to shop and bargain. I learned to drive a stick shift not in the city but crossing the Syrian desert form Palmyra to Abu Kamal on the border with Iraq. We visited Babylon, a stark desert of stone and sun-baked brick. Where were the hanging gardens?
This short visit was designed to connect with the people we had known when living there as a family. And I succeeded remarkably. Before our trip I had connected with my father’s colleague, Samir Khalaf, who is still teaching at AUB. With the help of my own colleague, Julia Costello, a historical archaeologist in California who has connections in Beirut, I arranged with Leila Badre, director of the wonderful University Archaeological Museum, to give a lecture about the Maya. I also contacted the school I attended, Ahalia, and was able to arrange to visit and talk with the high school students there.
It all worked out into a dense, four-day stay in Ras Beirut. The first day, Tuesday, we went to the National Museum of Beirut and met with Badre at her museum for lunch. We walked around the university and the Hamra area where I had lived, and we visited the University Archaeological Museum with one of Badre’s able assistants. In the evening we joined Khalaf and his wife, Rosanne, for a sumptuous Lebanese dinner, along with Nadim Cortas and his wife, Asterik.
All day Wednesday, Badre, who had led the excavations of downtown Beirut after the end of the civil war, took us to see the results of her work in the city center. The story is phenomenal. She had seen that archaeology had been left out of the master development plans of Solidere and she knew the heart of the city was in the foundations of the old city that was the target of reconstruction. She determined to make a difference for her city, bringing in a lecturer about cultural heritage and making sure there was good publicity for this presentation. While it was no easy feat, she was able to get major attention for downtown Beirut archaeology and she revealed the 8,000-year story of Beirut, highlighted by the Phoenician walled trading city.
A magnificent accomplishment was furthered when she was invited to collaborate with the St. George’s Greek-Orthodox Cathedral with excavation and creation of the Archaeological Crypt Museum. This museum is a witness to the centuries of remodeling and rebuilding of the cathedral since Byzantine times. A tour de force, this museum is a walk through time, a testament of the possibilities arising from the ashes of the civil traumas that have ravaged Lebanon in the past. Here you see the hopes and potentials for Beirut and for Lebanon, and you can appreciate how we can build peace through archaeology.
That evening I gave my lecture on the Maya. It was well attended with Badre’s Friends of the Archaeology Museum. I was able to meet AUB President Peter Dorman, Mexican Ambassador Jorge Álvarez Fuentes, as well as prominent members of the local community. It was a lovely event with many questions and lively discussions afterward. Claude Issa hosted a luxurious dinner at her home in the heights of Achrafieh of Beirut. We met her husband, Pierre, who has become involved in a unique nonprofit, Arcenciel, which has small holder farming enterprises in the Bekka Valley, and we arranged to meet him after we visited Baalbek the next day.
Between my commitments we were able to travel to Anjar and Baalbek in the Bekka Valley, visit Pierre Issa’s nonprofit Arcenciel in Tanail, and take in the remarkable scenery of snow-capped mountains of the Lebanon and Antelebanon ranges. The valley roads were in some areas only a little more than three miles from the Syrian border when we were on the Damascus Road. Migrant farm workers from Syria were in rustic tent camps adjacent to fields now in fallow for the winter. They were unwilling to leave at this time.
Thursday evening I met with Zahra Bissat and her family. We had spent many an occasion with the Bissats at their orange orchards in Sidon, where they welcomed drop-in guests on Sundays and dinners in Beirut. Bissat was one person I had not found but as it turns out, Beirut is a small town and she is a patron of the Archaeology Museum and attended my talk the day before. She wanted to see me and I was able to walk down to her apartment, at the end of Bliss just beyond AUB, and visit with her, her sister and her son, Mustafa, and daughter-in-law Leila.
To have a chance to see Bissat and rekindle our acquaintance was wonderful. I gave her one of my mother’s books and Badre read some of the entries that feature the Bissats. All remarked that her descriptions were evocative and brought the scene vividly to their minds! This was true, too, for Khalef, to whom I gave the book when we joined him for our first dinner in Beirut. I know my mother would be delighted to know we have reconnected with her friends and how her memories touched them!
Our last day was Friday, Jan. 25. The scheduled flight out of Beirut was at 3:30 a.m. the next day — an awful time but how the flight works. We packed and paid the bill and stowed the luggage, and then the walk to Ahliah School was only 15 minutes. We chose to walk, knowing that we would get there easily while a taxi would have taken more than twice the time.
Traffic in Beirut is unbelievable. Locals say the signal lights are only for decoration. Vehicles move willy-nilly across lanes to the left, stopping in the middle, crowding four to meet a single lane. The area of Ras Berut, where we were staying, was not far from the downtown and our walk brought us close to the dynamics of the city. New apartments soaring high, empty lots where venerable homes once stood but that are now only parking lots, new structures going up in all directions, old stone houses largely abandoned, stark buildings just standing with signatures of the civil war now more than 20 years ended. These features were alongside restored cathedrals, new mosques and wide boulevards. This is what we saw on our walks.
We arrived at Al Ahaliah around 8:45 a.m. and met Principal Rida Ayache for a tour of my old school. While many updates have been made and they are completely renovating and remodeling the old house that was the assembly room and offices of Wadid Cortas, my headmistress, I immediately knew the place, the rooms and the plan. We were accompanied by the head of the high school teachers, Rabih Murr. The visit around the school was truly valuable.
It was around 10 a.m., after our school tour, that I gave my presentation to the high school students. The school is now coed and the students were mixed with head scarfs, casual dress, long hair and attentive. The presentation went well and was really satisfying for me. They had perceptive questions: how did you begin your work in the forest? What is the relationship of Egypt to Maya? What are the pyramids used for? How did you find El Pilar? After the presentation, a number of students came up to talk with me. One, Ahmad Wahidi, wanted to know more of the milpa system and slash and burn. He had read some of the materials he was given in advance. The students were impressive, attentive and interested. There were perceptive questions reflecting good listeners.
Around 11 a.m., we headed out with Asterik Cortas to see the site of Byblos north of Beirut. Featuring the crusader castle there, it has an 8,000-year prehistory with the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and Persians. Following the Crusaders, there was the Byzantine, Islam and Ottoman overlay. While the castle stands much higher that at Beirut, the prehistory is much the same.
We walked around the area of the city in which I lived; all is changed but somehow familiar. On the way back to the city we stopped at the Jetta Grotto to walk in the magnificent limestone cave with enormous caverns, stalactites and stalagmites that were enormous. It was remarkable and gave us a counterpoint to the deep history of the place.
Traffic into Beirut was again a clogged mess; it is a crazy scene most times but somehow the path opens. We were dropped off at the hotel for a few hours before meeting for dinner with the Ahliah group: Rida and her husband, the Cortases, and alums Lina Share and Najwa Neaman. The wonderful Lebanese offerings were wonderful always, including the hummus and babaganosh, mallet-fried little fish, a steamed white rockfish, tabuleh and many other delights!
Dinner and conversations ranged and were exciting. Cortas gave me an endearing book of his mother’s, The World I Loved. The story was made into a play that was performed by Vanessa Redgrave. They had already read most of Margie’s Quintet volume sections on Beirut!
The Cortases’ left us to wait for our taxi back to the hostel. We had several hours, and I talked with Badre, who had intended to meet after dinner and her theater evening but we missed her. It was 1 a.m. when the taxi took us to the airport and 3:35 a.m. when we departed on our long flights via Frankfurt and San Francisco.
— Anabel Ford Ph.D. is the director of UC Santa Barbara’s MesoAmerican Research Center. Ford, UCSB’s resident expert on Maya archaeology, discovered the ancient Maya city-center El Pilar, which bridges Belize and Guatemala. By decoding the ancient landscape around El Pilar, she is creating a sustainable model in conservation and agriculture that can regenerate the threatened Maya forest. With investment and support, her model can assist environmental efforts worldwide. Click here for more information on El Pilar. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.