During my adolescent years in the 1980s, Lebanon was synonymous with suicide bombings, audacious political assassinations, and civil war.
The place had actually infiltrated our vernacular. A city so war torn and chaotic that it served as an extreme for comparison to any unpleasant thing. “Well, it can’t be as bad as Beirut,” we would say.
Although the city itself has largely evolved beyond the history of its past forty years, some scars still remain. Bullet holes in plaster walls. Abandoned hotels littered with rubble from airstrikes. A quiet, almost conversational, laying of blame at the feet of this group or that one.
And then, while we were on the tour bus, winding through the mountain passes from Beirut to the eastern regions of Lebanon, it hit me.
Simmering, smoldering, and often open conflict were part and parcel with this land. We were traveling to see the ancient remains of those dynasties who had come before the modern world. Phoenicians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Druze, Crusaders, and Ottomans had all sparred over this dusty, crucial corner of the world.
And, somehow, that made it understandable, if not quite bearable.
The tour guide prepped us for each of our stops, and for the refugee camps we would see along the way. Newly-come Syrians, still living in tents and plastic lean-tos. Long-displaced Druze who had found solace in religious and cultural isolation, even if it meant lasting poverty. And Palestinians, so accustomed to refugee life that their camps had grown into permanent settlements, complete with solid construction and schools.
“In Anjar,” she began, “You will see the remains of the Umayyad Empire. While in Baalbek, the ruins are Roman.”
From my research before we had arrived in Lebanon, this wasn’t news to me. But what she said next was a bit of a revelation, yet it made perfect sense. As it turns out, Anjar wasn’t just an Umayyad site. Nor was Baalbek purely Roman. They were simply what the archaeologists had agreed were the best civilizations to reveal at those locations.
“All of these places have been occupied for thousands of years,” she said. “One civilization builds on the destruction of what came before. It is simply a matter of deciding how deep to dig.”
And what that meant was this. That the artifacts of those younger civilizations on the surface would effectively be erased to reveal the older civilizations lying beneath them. And that the foundations of earlier civilizations would never be uncovered, remaining buried beneath what modernity had chosen to display.
To conquer and rule. To fall and fade. And then to have all evidence erased. Or to remain hidden forever beneath an usurper’s glory. An existential crisis on an historic scale. Like Ozymandias, beautiful in its poetic agony.
Anjar was the first stop. A high plain ringed by distant mountains and the seat of power for the Umayyad Caliph Al-Walid ibn Abdel Malek, the site had been home to rulers throughout history with periods of long abandonment in between.
The delicate arches of ruined palaces and mosque remnants line once-bustling market streets and frame the snow-capped Anti-Lebanon Mountains in the background, just across the border in Syria. Anjar is unique among ancient sites in Lebanon, being the sole example of the powerful Arab dynasty’s civilization in the country.
Traveling north from Anjar to Baalbek is like traveling back in time at two different speeds.
Representatives of recent wars can be found lining the roads at intervals. Armenian towns that swell in population every year with people returning to honor the Armenian diaspora that took place here, interspersed with Syrian and Palestinian refugee communities, longing for home and scratching out an existence in the scrub.
Then there is the movement of centuries. The turning of the clock back to when Roman legionaries found themselves on this dusty frontier. Because they were perhaps the heartiest of the Roman military might. Or, perhaps because they had fallen out of favor and had been banished to this parched extremity.
The ruins themselves are colossal. A vast complex of temples, colonnades, and market forums whose style and elegance invoke the splendor of Rome, but on a scale more reminiscent of Luxor, Egypt. The sheer size of the place is dizzying. As if the builders were not only competing with their counterparts in Italy, but with the very gods who had been worshiped here since the Stone Age.
With massive, well-preserved temples erected to Jupiter, Venus, and Bacchus and a storied past that saw Trajan and Saladin touring its streets, Baalbek could arguably stand as the greatest example of Roman architecture in the world.
Angela and I walked apart from the tour group, reading the historical litany on our phones while we crouched in the shade and watched Lebanese teenagers on a school field trip posing for Instagram and cautiously flirting with one another atop an archaic altar.
Oh, to be young again, and know what I know now.
The afternoon sun sliding behind a crumbling pediment appropriately depicting the sun god on his journey across the sky. And all around us the ancient rocks and fallen stones echoing with the battles of four thousand years.