October 01, 2011

Rafting on the Nahr el-Assi

Rafting Hooligans

I had promised my daughter and cousin O that we’d go rafting this Saturday. They talked about it the entire week. She even brought in a friend. And then, on Friday night at 10 PM, just as I had managed to get them in bed, the rafting guy calls. “It’s going to rain tomorrow so we’re going to cancel.”

Labweh, in the middle of the semi-arid plain, the source of the Assi River

Do you have kids? Then you can imagine the scenario that was going to play in my house. There is no way on Earth we’re going to cancel this event, I told the man. I don’t care if we have to raft in a storm; wet we’re going to get anyway.

Another party of rafters passing by

Okay, he said. And so we went to the Orontes River, (Nahr el-Assi in Arabic, and I don’t know anyone who ever used the English name), way up North in a very far corner of the Bekaa Valley, some 10 minutes from the Syrian border (for a change). The Nahr el–Assi is the only river in Lebanon – I know from my son’s Arabic history lesson – that runs in northern direction. Hence the name, ‘Assi’ (rebel). It goes all the way through Syria and ends somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea in Turkey.


There’s quite a number of rafting companies on the river, because it’s the only one that has some rapids, and flows all year long. It’s not Grand Canyon stuff, but still fun.

The river is not known for its great beauty, unless you like desert landscapes. The entire upper part of the Bekaa Valley is basically desert-like, with little agriculture going on that part of the plain. People live off a small trout industry, but there’s a lot of poverty. The river runs through a very an arrow valley, and beyond that valley it is just rocky and dry. The river is apparently also seen as the main method of getting your garbage out of your house; it’s quite littered with all kinds of junk.


The one and only challenging waterfall. I guess it’s about 6 meters high.

The Assi starts in Labweh, some 60 kilometers north of Baalbeck, and the water comes flowing straight from under the sedimentary rock. It gets its water from the rain that falls in the Northern Bekaa Valley and the western slopes of Mount Lebanon. It’s funny how all this water runs underground, right through the dry landscape, and at one point just comes pumping out of the ground. There’s evidence of Neolithic settlements at the source, and I can see why they settled her, because the source looks a little bit like an oasis to me.

Some pictures were like this . . .
..... but most were like this. One drop of water on the lens and they're perpetually out of focus


The climate is totally different here from Beirut and the coastal climate. Beirut has a sea climate; here it is a continental climate with much less rain, hotter summers and colder winters. This part of the Bekaa Valley is impressive because it is vast, empty and barren. There are no trees, very few houses or villages, the Assi that snakes through in a narrow valley, and an occasional archeological object.

The building is made of local sandstone, built upon a base of basalt, so this region has known volcanic activity as well. The building dates from 200 BC, the graffiti from 2,000 AC


There’s an odd looking monument – a sandstone block with a pyramid on top - not far from the river; it is called the Pyramid of El  and its origins are not quite clear. It was built by a people who did not use writing, some 200 years BC, but the exact purpose is not known. Visitors have made a concerted effort to bring the monument into the 21st century by spraying it profusely with graffiti.

Chilling on the Assi River

Another old construction that ran parallel to the main road for a while is the (I found this out when I got home though, so I didn’t’ know what I was looking at at the time, otherwise I would have made pictures) is the Canalization of Queen Zenobia. Zenobia was queen of Palmyra, and had a canal built in 200 BC, to get water from the Assi to her oasis in the Syrian desert some 180 kilometers away in a straight line. I do not know whether the water ever made it to Palmyra, but after 2,200 years there’s still a lot of the construction left.


This area was – some 2,000 years ago – obviously more important that it is today. The Egyptians  fought a battle here, the Assyrians  went to war, the Arabs and the Byzantine Empire came head to head  and of course the Crusaders hung around here as well.

At the source of the Assi River. It may be hard to see but the water comes here - literally -pushing out from under the rock on the right.

Today it is considered a bit of a backwater, and one of the most deprived regions in the country, and I wouldn’t have gone there if it weren’t for the rafting. Which is a pity, because it’s a beautiful region.

Enough Northern Bekaa promotion, I’m going to bed. This rafting is exhausting.

Don't you wish you could squeeze your way through a fence like this again, instead of walking around it?

9 comments:

Gray Fox said...

What kind of camera do you use? The detail and sharpness of your photographs are incredible!!

Sietske said...

Hi Gray,
no, I borrowed my son's cameras on this trip, a cheap little Sony Cyber-Shot (DSC-W90), because that's the only one we have with a waterproof housing.
But the 'sharpen' tool of Picasa does wonders :) I'm glas you enjoy them!

Sietske said...

glad, I meant. Not glas.:)

Mich said...

What a fun day of discovering -- and rafting! I love joining here your adventures. Maybe I can come with you on one of my Beirut trips. Great post :-)

joseph said...

You do more to promote Lebanon and Lebanese tourism than most Lebanese (including the various ministries). Well done.

Anonymous said...

Lovely pix

A Voice from NY said...

You have an incredible ability for finding hidden gems so it surprises me that there's no mention of the Mar Maroun Monastry.

(http://www.ikamalebanon.com/national_heritage/beqaa_nh/bq_cities_nh/deirmarmaroun.htm)

If you ever find yourself in the area again (especially with the kids) I suggest stopping by.

xlpharmacy reviews said...

That was a really nice trip, i wish could do that with my daughter more frequently but my job is always in the middle, I'm planning to quit and spend time and saving in a long trip to europe and do everything with my daughter, thanks for share.

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