November 04, 2012

The (Once Mighty) Syrian Empire

It’s very early on Sunday morning, and as I reach the top of the hill, I suddenly see what looks like some archeological remains. It looks like a wall. Not exactly the wall of China, but it reminds me of Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, zigzagging through the landscape. Lebanon is filled with archeological remains of ancient civilizations. 

“Is this Roman?” I ask.
Uh, no. These would be the remains of the Syrian Empire,” is the reply. 

Trenches and the radar station, now occupied by the Lebanese Army

And indeed. It turns out they are Syrian trenches running through the hills of Dahrel Baydar.  The Syrian Army, at one point, had a massive army base here, from which they had a perfect view on Beirut and the Beqaa Valley, and from where they controlled the main road that connected these two parts of Lebanon with several check points. Boy, did we fear those checkpoints. People 'disappeared' at those check points. Well, people disappeared pretty much everywhere. (Current campaign of an organization that is bringing attention to the 17,000 Lebanese still missing. Not all 17,000 are a courtesy of Syria, mind you)

View over the Damascus Highway into the Beqaa Valley & bunker in the front

Lebanon has long been on the crossroads of conflicts. Way back when the first guy with an overgrown ego decided to incorporate the land next door, this place has been part of other people’s empires. We’ve been part of the Egyptian Empire, the Assyrian Empire, and the Akkadian Empire. We’ve been part of Babylonia, Persia and  Macedonia, we’ve been invaded by the Sassanid, the Seljuk, Salladin (Salah ed-Din in this part of the world) and the Israelis and we’ve been incorporated into the Roman Empire, the Crusader Empire (that was a bit of a small one), the Ottoman Empire, a bit of the British empire and finally the French Empire. (A history of all these empires can be viewed here

Some sort of shell (unexploded)

And what's left after they explode

But the most recent ‘empire’ the Lebanese been able to shake off, is the Syrian Empire. The Syrians ‘moved’ in, in 1976, upon the Lebanese government’s request, although at that point in time, the government was no longer representing the majority, and when they came, they decided to stay. And to stay. And to stay. 

And stay they did, with troops ranging between the 40,000 and 20,000, depending on the situation. For almost 30 years, until they were forced out in 2005 through UN Resolution 1559. Funny how some UN resolution work really fast, and others (particularly those that involve Israel) take  f  o  r  e  v  e  r   to be implemented.

Into the dug-out (You can see how they poured the cement into the corrugated sheet metal shape)

This particular area, Dahr el Baydar en the surrounding areas, housed a whole base, complete with a radar station, barracks, deep water wells, missile batteries and tanks. And in those 30 years, they build themselves an extensive trench system, lots of dug-outs and small shelters. Nothing more permanent then that though. I remember (back in the days) that when you’d drive down into the Beqaa Valley, these Syrian soldiers were still sleeping in tents next to the side of the road.

I kind of like these dug-out stairs; very hip

And although the views are fantastic, this mountain top is not a great place to hang out. It gets mighty cold in winter, with lots of ice-cold wind running over the mountain tops, and very little shelter other than what they build, and bloody hot in summer, with no shade. The soldiers stationed here frequently got pummeled by the Israelis, and now and then by the famous General Michel Aoun, who – by some strange turn of events – has actually become an ally of these same Syrians he used to bomb.

More artifacts

Of course they did quite some ‘pummeling’ themselves. They behaved pretty much as any imperial force has done so in the past. They brought in some good things, but there was quite a lot of bad stuff going on as well. They also ‘helped’ themselves to quite a lot of things, i.e. they plundered the place pretty much.  (Here’s a funny parody on that Syrian occupation of a Syrian who seems to have served his military service of two and a half year in Lebanon.)

In 2005 they packed up and left. 
But before they left, they made sure they didn’t leave anything standing. All the dug-outs have their roofs missing; whether they were blown up or taken home (Syria is not a very rich country, and you don’t leave things of value behind if you can get them on a truck and take them) is not clear. All that’s left is some shrapnel (courtesy of the Israelis, I think), a shell here and there, and the trenches. They couldn’t take those. And after 30 years, that’s all that’s left of a once high and mighty empire.

And from this side, you got a view over Beirut. Beirut got bombed from this spot.

In retrospect, the demise of the Syrian Empire began well before March 2011, well before the Arab Spring and probably even before 2005. I guess it started when this ophthalmologist was called in from London, telling him that since his brother had died, he was to be the next man in line. 
There's an end to everything. 

A watering hole & Beqaa Valley in the background

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Pfff …… jij maakt het spannend! Dank voor dit lesje historie.
M&D Eindhoven