2010
01.28

SYNOPSIS:  AN EXCURSION TO THE UNESCO SITE ANJAR – AN UMMAYAD AND AN ARMENIAN TOWN

No trash!  Something was wrong.  I had walked for 3 km into Anjar since the minibus had dropped me off at the turn from the highway.   That was the first thing I noticed:  No more trash.  The second thing I realized was the quiet.  There was a small village, but something was different.  It wasn’t crowded; houses were not crammed together but had green yards around them.   Just like in the Shia suburb of Beirut, you could tell there was money here.  Then I noticed that all the street signs were in three languages and I remembered that in the guidebook it had said that this was an Armenian town.  I had thought nothing of it since I live in the Armenian quarter in Beirut.  That was not much different from the rest of Beirut.  But I realized the difference:  Beirut was a mixed neighborhood.  There were many churches, but also a mosque.  There were many Armenians, but there were lots of “other” Christians, Muslims and foreigners as well.  I saw a few Africans the other day and an Indian couple.

But Anjar was an exclusively Armenian town.  I had to think about this phenomenon:  An immigrant minority without trash.  I had encountered that once in Karachi, Pakistan:  From the filth of the city, particularly the rather poor neighborhood we were in and from the noise of those crowded streets we had stepped through a gate into a walled compound which seemed a world apart – the Zoroastrian quarter of Karachi.  Visitors were not allowed there unless invited by a family inside.  We stood at the gate bemoaning the fact that we had come so far and could not get in, when a guy on a motorbike appeared.  He was one of the caretakers of the famous “Silent Towers” on which Zoroastrians place their dead to decompose before burial.  The towers were right next to his house.  He invited us to join his family for tea.  We could not take photographs, and we did not stay for long, but just that glimpse into life behind those walls made a deep impression on me.  Here it was again.

I had come to see the ruins of Anjar (or Aanjar) which today is known as Haouch Moussa (Farm of Moses).  They are not particularly famous and not even especially impressive.  But they are unique for the fact that the town excavated here, is not Phoenician, or Roman, or Hellenistic, or Islamic or any mix of them all, but purely Umayyad.  And they are charming for their tranquil setting and for lots of trees.  I was the only visitor for the entire two hours I was there, perhaps, even for the day.

Umayyad was the first Islamic dynasty after the four caliphs in the 8th century.  Nothing else of this dynasty remains in Lebanon as future dynasties kept building over them.  One has to look very carefully to see the differences to classical ruins and without my exceptionally knowledgeable guide (whose name I could not figure out!) I would have seen it all but understood only a fraction.  Everything looks Roman at first glance.  Two main streets crossing in the middle of town, arched colonnades, public baths, houses (or what little remains of it).  But then you realize the differences. A mosque attached to a palace.  Columns without the typical lead-plugs the Romans used, walls with a mix of stones and bricks, etc.  Capitals and building materials such as trim and quarried stones were gathered from various different sites.  Faint outlines of crosses, horses, Greek inscriptions, even a star of David indicate the various origins of the material.   I was particularly impressed by an ancient olive oil press he showed me.

The Umayyad wanted to build fast and save time.  They stole materials and hired a variety of workers each bringing in their particular training.  The end result is rather eclectic.  Much of the hodgepodge however, would have been hidden from view because of the plaster that was used to uniform the interiors.  Yellows and pinks.  Traces remain in a few areas.  The day was not as sunny and warm as yesterday, but the few clouds in the sky actually made for a picturesque backdrop. The same mountains that form the backdrop for Baalbeck are visible here, too.

I asked the guide about the relationship between this town and others.  I was surprised to hear that because of the exclusiveness of this town, it is almost like a parallel universe.  They were not part of the civil war at all.  No fighting in Anjar.  They took no sides and have never been the target.  Not of the Israelis, not of the Syrians, not of the Lebanese.  That explains a lot about their town, too.  No ruins.  No baggage.  No trauma.

I learned a lot today. And I walked a lot; over 10 km.

A good day after all!

I had woken up in the morning to no electricity, no heat, no hot water.  50 degrees inside and out – it was hard to get up and to envision a good day.  After a cold shower in 50 degrees, getting dressed takes on a new meaning.  Layer by layer you build up to that delicious moment of feeling warm again!

But there was another thing that had put doubt into my mind today: When I arrived in sleepy Anjar, I found myself in front of a closed door to the archaeological site!  Who could blame them?  There was nobody around to visit.  Why should they bother?  But I could not accept this and kept on circling the compound which was enclosed by a barbed fence.  There was a hole in the fence – yes!  What can you do?  I climbed through and now faced a city wall rampart, about four feet high.  There was a stepping stone.  I got on and jumped and if I would have had different clothes, I probably could have made it.   But I got stuck and ultimately lacked strength in my arms to pull myself up.  Down again.  Ok, what next?  I looked for ways to increase the height of the stepping stone and found a big, old rusty tin can.  I turned it around, stepped on it and it held me for exactly three seconds before it disintegrated beneath me and brought me to the ground.  Now I was on my back, in the mud!  This was not going to be a good day!

I kept circling the compound and found that there were parts of the ramparts that were much lower and would provide an easier way of entry – why had I not done that in the first place?  I could have saved myself a fall and some dirty clothes.  But just as I found the perfect illegal entry, I saw that there was another real entrance to the site and – it was open!  Alright then, all the way back to the hole and all the way around to the real entrance again.  After all, I was not here to cheat, just to get in.

And that’s it for today.

Good night.

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  1. I am so glad to read that you did not break a bone!