May 02, 2016

Museum on a Free Day

We tried. We really tried.

 Today, SIL and I thought it a good idea to take our kids to the museum. After all, they’ve been to the beach, the mountains, they’ve hung around at home, and for the last day of their Easter break, we thought to break the routine and pack them off to a museum.

We chose the Silk Museum in Bsous. It is a museum in an old silk factory, and has actual live silk worms, which is interesting for kids, and they can see the looms in action.

But as we turned into the parking lot, which was empty, a gentleman came our way. “We’re not open yet for the season. We’ll open tomorrow”, he said apologetically.

That’s a good one; opening after the holidays.
Artist here

Fine. Okay. Well, than back to Beirut, to the Wonders of the Sea. It’s also a private museum that’s got a fantastic collection of beautiful shells, aquariums with sea anemones and clown fish and lots of other things that move. Great for kids.

As we turned into this parking lot, we noticed that, again, we were the only car there. And although the sign on the gate indicated that, logically speaking, the museum should have been open, it was in fact very much closed. We couldn’t get into the garden, and the shutters were lowered.
Very well then. There is still the Museum of Minerals. Shiny stones and rocks are on every child’s mind, and on mine as well. We’d gotten wiser though. How about we contact them first? Their Facebook page indicated that they reply to their messages within minutes. And indeed. No sorry, we’re closed today.

We finally ended up in the Sursock Museum. And although beautifully restored only last year, the collection is a bit austere.

When we got home, H. said to her father “We visited four museums today.”
He was quite impressed.
“But only one was open.”

April 23, 2016

Spring Time

It’s spring time, and all over the mountains, the place is breaking out in a myriad of vivid greens.
Go one month earlier, and you get bogged down in mud. Go one month later, and you miss the flowers in bloom.
April is the time of the year to go on long hikes, not sweat to death, and see the colors of this place. I haven’t done any long hikes lately, but I am following a few people that are currently doing the 2016 LMT Thru walk, and so I tag along in spirit. My bucket list grows and grows. The MLT is one of them.
Several researches have come out lately heralding the benefits of long distance hiking, and even short distance are good for your mental health; a 50-minute walk in nature can improve your mood, decrease your anxiety and even improve your memory.
I do my short walks, with dogs, to work, and get into nature and the mountains as often as my work permits me.

This week I was with a group of younger kids, and it dawned on me I knew none of the names of the flowers and plants. I mean, I know them, but only in my language. Plant names and the names of trees is something you will only master in your native language, but something you apparently never pick up again. A colleague laughed at my dilemma. “Who needs to know, you’ve got an app for that.”
And darn right; There is an app for that!  A bit apprehensive at first, because what can a computer really recognize as far as plant life is concerned, and it’s only geared for western Europe, but it seems Lebanese plant life is not that far off from European plant life.
And with my phone in my hand, I am like Lara Croft with a botanist specialization!
There are flower identification guides in Lebanon, but for some mind-boggling reason, they spread the inventory over 3 different books. I will hike with one flower guide in my pocket, but three books is pushing it. The logic of it all.  Why do they not turn it into an app?

And so here I hike, with my phone and app in hand and look what I identified for you on just one hike in the mountains above Beirut? Not even that high, just about 900 meters above sea level.
Some 25 year ago, phones were still stuck to the wall, and the most advanced technology was a fax machine stuck to a land line. We’ve come quite a bit since then.

A centipede (um arba arbaim)

No app for insects though, or snakes. Otherwise I could tell you what you’re seeing here. I think it is an ‘um arba arbaim’ ; a ’44-legged mama’, as they call it here.  In Dutch its name implies it has a 1000 legs (duizendpoot), in English a 100 legs (centipede), but in Arabic it’s got a mere 44. They’ve got a nasty bite, I’ve been told, a bit like a wasp sting, and they claim it is very poisonous, but then people say that about every snake in this place as well, which is not true, so I’ll take it with a grain of sand. Pretty animal though. This one’s got 37 legs though (17 segments).
And a praying mantis that looks like a flower

April 18, 2016


Another beach day. This time I ran into a crab.  Last week I mentioned that the puffer fish, showing up on the coast of Lebanon, is not a native of the Mediterranean Sea. This particular crab is originally not from around here either. The puffer fish came through the Suez Canal. This speckled swimmer crab (looks at his little hind legs, made for swimming) is not a native of the Mediterranean either. It probably arrived here in ballast tanks from ships, and has done quite well for himself. Not sure if we eat them here.

They are unlike the crabs you will find on Lebanese beaches, the ones that dig holes and run like mad sideways over the beach as you walk by. I have a dog who has a wild time trying to catch them, but they’re faster than him.

“Females choose their mate based on claw size and also quality of the waving display” (source)

I made some art (which I stole off another web site). And did nothing else.

April 10, 2016

My Kind of Town

The street  running along the old market (on the left). Sea at the end of the road.
My new favorite place, Saida. I drove there with a friend, not for any reason in particular, but because we happened to be in the neighborhood.  Saida (also known as Sidon) is the type of town that, if it were situated in say, France or Spain, would be absolutely overrun with tourists from April to end of September.
You’d have throngs of people armed with cameras lining the streets, stopping at every shop or alleyway, and pointing at the quaint features of this medieval town. As it is, this town in situated in Lebanon, and nobody but the locals hang out here. Which is nice for me, because tourists hate it when a place is populated with other tourists.
It is quite a special town. It has a small historical market, a ‘souq, which is absolutely authentic and alive.

There are narrow little streets, lined with puny little shops, with alleyways, gateways and little doors branching off in all directions. The street plan has clearly evolved over the centuries, instead of being planned in one shot. You walk under little tunnels and arches, people live above the souq in houses that can be reached by crooked and narrow stairways. This is no place for wheelchairs. It is a totally pedestrian zone; cars do not fit, and even donkey carts wouldn’t be able to make it through most of the alleys. No idea how they used to stock their stores in the old days. Some people move around on electrical scooters, so there is no traffic noise. Of course there is the everlasting generator hum, due to the government’s equally everlasting inability to provide a country with 24 hours electricity.
There are schools, mosques, churches (even a small ‘cathedral), a synagogue (abandoned), little workshops, a soap factory (restored and turned into a museum), bath houses (some still in use) and even a ‘palace (opulent house, more like it).
And so we spent some time finding our way through the old souq.
Garbage trucks do not fit, so there is a man with a broom stuck cleaning with a rolling bin
The entrance to a mosque
I read up on the town, and am quite lirious about it (as you will notice). Unlike Jbeil (Byblos), which seems to have been restored with just tourists in mind, and Sour (Tyrus), which is pretty much a dump, this market is in the process of being restored, bit by bit, in a rather unobtrusive manner. You notice that it looks good, but it does not have the Disney-like quality of the Jbeil souq, or like parts of the old market in Tripoli. Not everything is (yet) cleaned up, so you still see the really old buildings in disrepair, but it is easy to walk, there is no garbage, and if you like good deals, this is the place to go.
A bit of a stereo type, but I thought this man fit perfectly in this environment
It probably isn’t true, but I imagine that this is the way it must have looked in the Middle Ages. It would make a fantastic back drop for a movie set in medieval times. This would require the removal of an extensive network of cables, for electricity, phones and television, running along the walls.  Obviously these were not used back in 1600, and were added as an after-thought.
This particular city-centre is a mix of many time periods, but a lot of it is Ottoman (Turk), a time period which runs roughly from 1500 to 1900.

Dried ginger on the left, cinnamon bark, and larger cinnamon pieces on the right. Okra hanging over the box in the middle
Old kinds of dried beans, herbs and spices. In the back is something that looks like mummified oranges which I think it is.
Mloukhiyeh (which seems to be called Jew's Mallow in English.), a popular dish here.
And then there is the butcher. This is either sheep or goat, can't tell the difference.
The town is known for a number of small industries, such as glass blowing, soap making and carpentry, and these have largely been maintained, although glass blowing is no longer present in the souq. Otherwise, the market is divided up in section, a natural process, where shops sell similar wares. There is a shoe market, complete with shoe makers, a jeweler’s alley, an underwear and bra section (an extensive one), a vegetable and meat section (rather small), and some parts only sell dried goods. One alley way only sells upholstery and curtain materials. For your basic needs, you’d never have to leave the souqs.
The shoe market. Converse for $12.
And the shoemaker is right next door.
I thought shoe makers use glue, but apparently they use nails
The old market is lined with slightly more modern stores, but still very old-fashioned in their set-up and decor, and they sell absolutely everything. From tea cups to brooms, to herbs, dish washing detergent, hair dye and children’s toys.  (for Dutch readers; a bit of a Winkel van Sinkel idea.  Some of the items they sell would be deemed very exotic in Dutch eyes. Hand-made wicker baskets, feather dusters made from ostrich feathers, wooden bird cages, many-colored water pipe hoses, prayer beads and carpets, and metal devices used to heat up char coal for the barbeque (or the argileh). I wonder how these guys do their inventory (if they even make one).
The ostrich feathers on the right, argileh hoses hanging
Sponges (from the skeleton of some type of cucumbers),  wicker baskets, herbs, canary cages, charcoal heaters etc. A bit of everything
In the old days these items would have been carried in from far away places, in caravans over trade routes (I am getting carried away here). There are a number of old khans’, where these traders from around the region would come in, sleep, and trade their wares. Most of them are in disrepair, the only one (the largest) that is restored is the Khan el-Franji (The French market).
And of course, there are the inhabitants, which are (I assume) the families of the store keepers, and so you see women with their shopping bags, little children running around, and men on their way to wherever. There are also your usual ambulant sellers, who move their ware, usually seasonal fruit, on carts. This month strawberries seem to be in season, as well as fresh almonds (never seen them in Holland, you eat them whole here, skins and all) and akidinia (loquat, or eskadenia, in English). The town is alive.
These sell their wares from mobile carts
This man sells 'foul', broad beans, which you eat with lemon and kamouneh (cumin powder)
Now if you were to shoot here a medieval movie, all you’d have to do is remove the cables, provide the inhabitants with medieval clothing, and tell just to continue their lives, and pretend the cameras were not there. You might want to ask if they could hide the mobile phones as well. Other than that, the place is authentic. No set builder could recreate it as well as here.
The old town, of which about the market is a quarter, is a jumble of buildings from different time periods with different purposes (shops, religious places, houses, palaces). Some of them are in good state, and many of the buildings that were restored have been done so with funds from either private organizations (Haririr, Zeidan and Audi are big sponsors), the Word Bank, the Islamic Wafc or foreign governments. Very few restorations are paid for by the government.  
These ladies sells their goods right on the street.
There are listed monuments that remain unrestored and in dire need of immediate intervention. (…) The owners who inherited the building are multiple and not in agreement on how to proceed or who should invest or live in it. They do not have the means to restore or upgrade the building. The government does not offer financial support in the form of micro loans or subsidy programs. ‘
‘There are historic monuments that remain in private ownership but rented out. Those who use the monuments pay old and low rent and do not have the means for proper upkeep and restoration.’ (source)
I really liked the way they displayed these shirts. They do put a lot of care in display, and what they have, is on display.
An old khan that has not been restored
But since the restoration is not a joint and gigantic operation affair, but everyone does its share, the place retains its ‘real feel’-  as far as I am concerned.  Not all restorations are done the same, at the same time and to the same extend. For a study on the old town, go here.
There is obviously more to Saida, as this only shows you the old market, which consist of only a quarter of the old town, but for the moment, this is my kind of town.
The fountain on Sidon's main roundabout. I like how this app (Snapseed) can make pictures look like postcards from the 60's.
And a last one, the canary, which hangs in every single shop.

April 03, 2016

Treasures on the Beach

Empty beaches

 First beach days are always special. It makes me feel like I am on a holiday, especially after a cold, windy and rainy stay in Holland this week. What a luxury to be able to get in a car, drive some 20 minutes down south (if you’re lucky with the traffic), and stop by one of the many beach clubs (none of whom, by the way, have officially opened their doors) and sit in the sun and warm sand. Just like on holidays.
It’s probably because Lebanese are so used to having this at their front door, that they do not go to the beach this early, but had this been Holland, all 17 million Dutchies would have been on the beach this weekend. Traffic jams miles and miles long. But it is not. And as such, we were practically the only ones at the beach. Two other families also came out to enjoy the sun and the sea. What joy.
And so I lay and watched the Mediterranean Sea. Quite a special sea, this ‘middle’ sea. Some 2.5 million square kilometers of water, stuck between 3 continents and bordered by some 20 countries (a bit more than that), quite a few who experience (Syria, Israel), or have recently experienced serious upheaval or even war (Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Tunis, Bosnia, Croatia). For a while this sea became landlocked, and then evaporated, leaving huge salt deposits behind (we’re talking 6 million years ago). And then some 5 million years ago, it suddenly filled again in a matter of two years, when the water came pouring in through a breach what is now the Strait of Gibraltar. I think I should donate the requested $2 donation to Wikipedia; what would I do without it?
Puffer fish
You find lots of treasures on the beach. Such as a (very dead) puffer fish. They’re poisonous to eat, and are not indigenous to the Mediterranean. The Suez Canal opened in 1869 a passage to the Red Sea through which not only ships sail, but also fish swim. Apparently some 900 alien marine species have been spotted in the past decades, according to this article. The puffer fish contains a neurotoxin called Tetrodotoxin which can be deadly. The Japanese think the fish is a delicacy, but it does require careful preparation.  It has killed some 7 Lebanese, according to the Daily Star. I find news items like this always quite ironic. You survive 15 years of civil war, Israeli bombings and car bombs, only to die eating a poisonous fish.
Beach Glass

Beach glass, or sea glass, is another treasure. I had been collecting this stuff for years, until my house needed serious de-cluttering.  I still pick it up, but have enough self-discipline these days to leave it behind at the end of the day. Blue is my favorite color, a color that is not common. Green and brown are common colors here in Lebanon. There is a whole science behind beach glass, and there is even a museum with a massive beach glass collection. It is so popular that they make it artificially in the States and sell it. Did you know there is a North American Sea Glass Association? Imagine. But that just proves it; is a treasure.
Red pebbles

Round and colored pebbles are also interesting to gather. There’s nothing odd about it, it’s a universal thing, collecting these things on the beach. My favorite ones are the red colors, or bright white, indicating different minerals, and the banded (striped) rocks. Pebbles with striped markings still get dragged home. The white lines are veins of quartz. Some people make art with them. Stones with holes are also a collector’s item. Not sure how those holes get there. Some say they’re ancient wormholes, that dug through the sand, and have since eroded. Some say they’re made by piddocks. Whatever it is, those go home as well.
Banded pebbles
I fear the day I ever have to move house. I am afraid I wouldn’t be able to handle it. The amount of colored beach glass, nicely shaped wooden stick, pine cones, unusual pebbles, odd stones, beautiful shells, fossils and blue shards would need a container in itself.
Here's one family member who takes after her mom; gathering junk and taking pictures (or making them, in my case)
There are more treasures on the beach. But enough for today.

March 29, 2016

Last one on Baalbeck

This is not the largest block; the larger one lies behind it, one layer deeper. Khaula's shrine and the Temple of Jupiter can been seen in the background
Still in the Beqaa Valley, and focusing on something that is actually quite amazing and puzzling. If you live in Lebanon, the magnitude of problems surrounding you on a daily basis, from basic stuff such as water, electricity, paying your child's exorbitant school fees on time, to more trivial stuff such as Internet access, or finding a plumber who actually knows what he he is doing, probably prohibits you from looking much further into the country, but from the outside, this country has some pretty extraordinary things.

Here I am in Baalbeck, and looking at the biggest stone building block in the world. Imagine that; the biggest stone block in the world! Obviously, at one point in time, inhabitants of this region were able to perform highly advanced tasks.
This particular block was only recently discovered 2014, and never used, for reasons that we do not know (yet). It weighs about 1,650 tons, is some 20 m long, 6 m wide and 5.5 m high.

The large blocks with the Lewis holes in the back. On the foreground a pillar foundation stone
However, less than a kilometer away, a number of smaller blocks, each weighing 800 tons, were used in the platform of the temple of Jupiter.
There is some disagreement as to who placed those blocks there; whether it were the Romans, who were capable of doing this, or an earlier civilization. However, they are there, three of them, plus about another 24 blocks 300 tons each. 
They are some of the largest building blocks ever used in a building, and it was built right here in the Beqaa Valley. There are a lot of questions surrounding these particular blocks, which are full of so called 'Lewis' holes; little holes that were used during the lifting and transportation of large stones. 

But why have stones this big if you can use smaller ones that are easier to transport and to lift, and that perform the same task (foundation of a massive temple)? And why so big a temple when this particular place, although undoubtfully important to certain religions, was never a metropolis? Who did it serve, since there were not enough people to sustain a temple like that?

Cross-section of one of the pink pillars. The three holes fit exactly over three little bumps in the next pillar.

Think of the pink granite columns, surrounding the temple (6 are still standing). They came from Aswan. All 104 of them! Pretty impressive, considering that getting them to Lebanon by boat is already an astounding feat, but how do you get them into the Beqaa Valley? The valley is separated from the coast by a mountain ridge, or you have to bring it in from the south, but that is also quite a feat. Many of them have since been recycled in other building projects, most notably the Haga Sofia in Constantinople.

But the point is, those foundational stones were hewn, transported and lifted into place, in an era when there was no electricity, and no steam engines. There were no computers to calculate the precision with which these blocks seem to be joined. 

The large blocks in place

And yet, here they are, in Baalbeck, a place where these days not much is happening. A backwater, at most. Baalbeck, formerly known as Heliopolis, conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, and annexed by Pompei in 34 BC, doesn't amount to much. Chronic water problems, high poverty level, heck even the Baalbeck Music Festival has moved to another place because of security concerns.

And all this, right in our own back yard. A stark reminder; long ago we were able to cut, transport and position stone blocks weighing over 800 tons with intricate precision. These days I cannot get a decent plumber. Civilizations go through cyclical motions. I think we are somewhere at the bottom of the circle. Positive thought? We can only go up from here. Hopefully.

Biggest building block in town is also the biggest one in the world