Bekaa Valley

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The Roman wonders at Baalbek

These six Roman columns have survived wars, earthquakes, and the elements for over 2,000 years. Photos by David Lansing.

I’m walking around the Roman ruins at Baalbek taking hundreds of photographs and yet feeling a little bit frustrated. Because I realize as I look at the images in my view finder that they don’t really convey the scale of these buildings. At one point I was standing off to the side of six granite columns—the only six still standing from what used to be 54 columns—said to be the largest in the world. Each is over 75 feet tall with a girth of over 7 feet. How they were moved and positioned so precisely remains a mystery.

But even though you have a photo to look at and I tell you they are over 75 feet tall, I don’t think you can really get how big these suckers are. And that’s what was frustrating me.

Until a young Muslim family comes along and the father decides to take a photo of his wife balancing their young son at the foot of one of the columns. That’s the photo below. With the woman, in black, not even as high as the column’s pedestal and her son looking like an insect on a massive tree limb. Perhaps that can give you a sense of just how big these columns are. And then ask yourself: How, 2000 years ago, did they get these granite columns where they are? And how did they get each part to stand atop the one below it?

Photo by David Lansing.

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A feast at Cafe Nmeir in Zahle

Cafe Nmeir in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Photos by David Lansing.

We had lunch in Zahle at one of the outdoor restaurants next to the Bardouni River called Café Nmeir. You would think that by now I would be used to the Lebanese way of eating—small plates of this and that, but lots of them—but it continues to surprise me. They bring out the saj and the hummous and the tabbouleh, which I am becoming quite addicted to, and many, many more plates—fattoush, that chunky tomato and cucumber salad with pomegranate seeds, and the olives and bowls of almonds, the yogurt cheese balls (like labneh), and chargrilled eggplant, and stuffed vine leaves, and falafel and on and on and you think, certainly that is our lunch.

But that is just the start. That is just the mezze. Then there are the lambs’ kidneys and chicken with rice, the stuffed cabbage and a couple of fish dishes. And just when you think you are about to explode, they bring out dessert—dark red strawberries, thick slices of sweet melon, date cookies and orange cake. And, of course, lots and lots of cups of Lebanese coffee.

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To the Bekaa Valley

A peasant woman making saj at a restaurant along the Bardouni River in Zahle, Lebanon. Photo by David Lansing.

Late in the morning, we hired a car to take us to Baalbeck to look at the Roman ruins. The road wound east, towards Damascus. As we passed through the little towns in the Bekaa Valley, you couldn’t help but notice the obnoxious yellow flags of Hezbollah centered by a clenched fist holding up an automatic weapon. Baalbek is the strategic headquarters of Hezbollah which may explain why, despite having perhaps the most magnificent Roman temples outside of Italy, it gets few tourists.

Before we got to Baalbeck, we stopped at Zahle, a pretty little town known for its open-air restaurants strung along a shady stretch of the Bardouni River. The eateries, known collectively as Cafes du Bardouni, are famous in Lebanon for their mezze.

We walked up a narrow path following the path of the Bardouni, which is more like a creek than a river. Waiters holding up menus in front of our faces invited us to come in and try “the best” Lebanese mezze in Zahle. At one restaurant, an old peasant woman, wearing the traditional abaya, sat near the entrance beneath the shade of a tree making marqouq, or saj, the very thin, unleavened peasant bread that is cooked on a domed griddle set over a coal or wood fire.

A handful of people, including myself, stood around watching her methodically pat out the dough, flip it expertly atop the saj griddle, and, after a minute or two, deftly fold it into quarters and put on a flat pan where a waiting waiters quickly snatched it up and took it to the tables.

The old woman seemed totally oblivious to all the restaurant activity around her; I’m quite certain that although I was standing only a few feet away from her, taking pictures of her making the bread, she did not see me. It was like she was deeply lost in her own thoughts, her own meditations. Her hands and arms knew exactly what to do to make this ancient bread leaving her mind free to go where it wanted.

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