When we learned that we would have both Thursday and Friday off work before the Eid, we decided to follow through on our earlier plan to get out of town for a day. We rebooked ourselves in a hotel in Byblos, and hopped a taxi early Thursday.
This trip did not start out well. We knew we would need to negotiate the taxi fare to Byblos. Every taxi ride you take in Lebanon requires negotiation. Our Lonely Planet Guide to Lebanon indicated we could expect to pay about 20,000 LL (Lebanese pounds). So, that is where we started the haggling. Or so we thought. The driver started at 50, and in spite of our efforts did not move below 45. Given that the taxi looked like a nice vehicle, and it had AC, we agreed to 45. During the ride we checked the guide book and realized it was a 2001 edition, and thus figured that with inflation, paying 45,000 LL wasn’t so bad after all. The hotel was right off the highway which was a nice surprise. When we handed the driver our 45,000 LL he looked at us and said,” 45 DOLLARS”. Keep in mind that 45 LL equates to $30 US. So instead of paying the equivalent of $30, we paid $45. Lesson learned. Always be sure you talk in thousands or pounds when negotiating cab fares in Lebanon. This mistake was immediately followed up with confusion over our reservation, with the hotel insisting that we had not cancelled an earlier reservation for two nights. We settled that issue with the hotel in our favor, but all in all the start to this excursion had some bumps.
Byblos, or Jbail as it is known in Lebanon, is about 36 km north of Beirut and like Beirut, sits on the coast. The Greeks were the first to call the town Byblos (it means papyrus in Greek), in recognition of the town being the commercial center for papyrus trade in the 12th century BC. This city dates back well before the Greeks and is considered one of the world’s longest continually inhabited towns. Archeological excavations have uncovered Neolithic huts, weapons and tools that go back to almost 5000 BC. We paid for a guided tour of the archeological sites, and the guide rattled off seventeen civilizations that at one time or another occupied the site. This region was the center of Phoenician culture, and we have heard more than one Lebanese refer to themselves as Phoenicians, not Arabs. The people here are very proud of their incredibly long and complex history. As well they should. Back to the tour. The site is dominated by a well preserved castle, built by the Crusaders in the 12th Century.
One of the interesting aspects of the castle guide pointed out is that the Crusaders used columns and blocks they pillaged from Roman ruins to build their stronghold. The excavated ruins of the multiple city walls, Roman era ruins, and streets and homes of early Phoenicians are all spread out below the castle walls. The partial remains of the Roman theatre is one of the better preserved ruins on the site which makes it very easy to envision the ancients enjoying performances a couple millennia ago. We also walked down a tunnel, to view a sarcophagus of a well off Phoenician who was a contemporary of Pharoah Ramses II of Egypt.
The souks in Jbail are now full of tourist items but are quite well preserved. The streets are narrow, the buildings old. We enjoyed lunch in the souk area prior to going into the archeological site.
We headed to dinner just as the sun was setting. On our way we snapped a couple of pictures of a well preserved church built by the Crusaders that sits on a hill overlooking the harbor. We strolled to the harborside restaurant while the sun was setting and wedding music was blaring from a nearby church. A moment we will remember. We enjoyed a fresh fish dinner, and a bottle of good Lebanese wine to cap a great day in this most ancient of cities.