January 26, 2012

Travels with Hubbie Part I

There’s this book, 'Travels with Charlie’  where the author John Steinbeck travels the back roads of America and writes about what he sees. I was inspired by that title. You see, my hubbie works some 360 days a year. But sometimes, he decides to take a break. And if you manage to direct him onto the road, you get to see stuff. Lots of stuff, because hubbie doesn’t like things half done. And so we roamed over the northern part of the Beqaa last week.

The channel of an old water mill near Hermel

And while roaming the northern part of Beqaa Valley, we stumbled upon a number of interesting things. None of my guidebooks gave an explanation, and as it was 0 degrees Celsius with a fiercely icy wind, none of the locals were out in the fields to ask for information.  But I figured it out. Long live the Internet.
Same water mill, by the side of the road

The northern part of the Beqaa Valley is probably the most deserted part of Lebanon, as well as the most desert-like. It is a dry and windy plain, where people subsist on farming, and a marginal existence it is. It is one of the poorest regions in the country. In the ‘good old days’ people were able to make a living from hashish crops, but now that we try to be part of the ‘real’ world, they can barely scrape by.

Barren en bleak, and when the mist rolls in, the picture is complete.

The place is bleak; not a very inviting place. But a long time ago, it used to provide massive amounts of wheat or the Roman Empire. For wheat, you need water, and it doesn’t rain much. There are a number of rivers though, that were used to irrigate the region, and an extensive irrigation system was built.

A recently restored water mill near el Qaa

And so in the middle of the desert there are these stretches of ancient aqueducts. Most have fallen to ruins, such as the ones on the side of the road between Baalbeck and Hermel . (‘Don’t go there’, says the Dutch embassy. ‘Do go there’, says Sietske in Beirut) , and you cannot really figure out how they must have operated once. The area around Laboué, Maashouq et Nasryieh has several Roman aqueducts and canals and for long, the organization of such traditional irrigation was based on ways and customs, which were considered as law. (This bit of information was stolen from here)

The long wall which helps bring the water from ground level all the way up

They are intricate contraptions. Apparently they did not have windmills in the old days (although there’s plenty of wind, if you ask me), but they did need mills for grinding grain. In order to do that, they’d built a water canal, and while the ground would descend, they’d keep the canal level, until the water was elevated enough above the land to make a drop strong enough to run a mill.

On top of the wall

This is about similar mills, but in Jordan and Cyprus:  (...) the vertical penstock chamber of the majority of mills ( . . ) , into which the water would flow from the water leat or channel, creating a forceful exit through the opening into the wheel chamber in front. This would create a force strong enough to turn the mill wheel, which was attached to the mill stone grinding the cereal above. (. . . ). In Jordan, many of the water mills had leats that abutted a natural upward slope from which the water would gain a greater momentum as it flowed into the penstock tower, hitting the mill wheel with a greater force. In Cyprus, many of the mills appeared to ave long water leats that did not incline with a slope,but continued on a horizontal level. (source, page 53) 

The ground was teeming with these fuzzy caterpillars, no idea what kind they are.

One of them has been recently reconstructed. But how does it work? Who originally built these water irrigation systems? And who restored the one that is on the outskirts of al Aaq? It cannot be the government, now can it? That government that is not able to provide us with round the clock electricity. The installation is not a new one, as the architecture is identical to the one that has fallen to ruins near Baalbeck. So why did they restore this one, and not the others? Is it working? And if yes, how? The wall ends near a dilapidated goat farm, although I should not say dilapidated because everything looks dilapidated in that part of the country. Except for this wonderfully restored irrigation center/mill.

The roads after Baalbeck are courtesy of the Iranian government, it says under every single road sign (in blue). Lest you forget.

There is a story that Queen Zenobia of Palmyra once ordered an aqueduct to transport water from Lebanon to her oasis in the Syrian desert, but these channels and mills  are for local use. Had this been in Rome, or Israel, for that matter, they'd have built a million-dollar visitors center around it. I couldn't even find a little wooden sign.

1 comment:

LaMix said...

Any Mediterranean country has hundreds equally preserved and interesting ruins, but no, they didn't build multi-million centres around it. Why? Because they have many, many better preserved and flashy ruins to sell to tourists. Ruins like this would get very little attention there, and I would say for a reason.