Hilariously, almost immediately we were lost.
Winding through a cluster of houses and farms on a hilltop just past the outskirts of Marjayoun, we discovered that the trail had been completely effaced and all the markers removed. As I would discover, this isn’t uncommon along the LMT. Sometimes, the trail disappears as a result of illegal construction, but because there are no reliable maps of public and private property in Lebanon - a problem shared by many of the countries formerly part of the Ottoman Empire - it sometimes unwittingly crosses private property. Landowners usually just remove markers or put up a fence without letting the Association know and so re-blazing, or even rerouting the trail, is part of the annual walkthrough’s remit.
Our head guide, Joseph, who seemed to know every square inch of the country, wasn’t fazed and so, for a kilometre or two, we improvised. We scrambled down the hill and ended up walking through a Syrian refugee camp that had not been there the year before. There are dozens of them now, dotted all over the Beka’a Valley, housing the poorest and most vulnerable of the 1 to 1.5 million refugees that have flooded into tiny, shaky and barely post-conflict Lebanon.
Middle class refugees tended not to live in the camps. They had moved into rented rooms and homes all over in the country, often filling up previously empty neighbourhoods like my own in Beirut. Because the refugees were not properly registered, it was impossible to be sure exactly how many there were but officially, they accounted for at least one in every five people. Other surveys placed them at closer to 30 or even 40% of the country. Even at the lowest estimate, Lebanon’s ratio of refugee to resident was the highest in the world.
Seeing us wind towards them, a gaggle of children came out to stare, waving warily after we smiled and waved at them. With the next marker now spotted, we emerged from the camp and briefly followed a desolate stretch of road before turning up a farming track through what would soon be fields of rippling wheat. Ahead of us, a young boy accompanied by a vigilant but well-trained dog, was herding his flock of goats towards pastureland.
For the next thirty or forty minutes, the path was fringed by low hills. It skirted a thicket of towering pine trees, above which a flock of Friesians were grazing, and then gracefully curved to the right. As we turned the corner, the hills parted like a theatre curtain, revealing a breath-taking panorama over the lush olive orchards and rich, red soiled farmlands of Wadi al-Taym, the snow-clad peaks of Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights beyond.
As the group trailed along the path on a narrow, rocky ledge above the valley floor, I stopped to tighten my boots, which had already come loose. Carpeted in thick, springy grass, the path was sprinkled with a smattering of spring flowers, not quite the profusion they would be in a week or two but temptation enough to coax a few bees out to explore. Fat on the honey they’d survived on over the winter, they floated lazily through the air, settling briefly before moving on. I sat on a nearby rock, put on a second pair of socks and then laced my boots up again. Down in the valley, the olive trees stirred gently in the breeze, their silvery leaves catching the light. The faint sound of far-off farm machinery buzzed in the background and on the distant slopes, a flock of farm animals drifted across the emerald green fields like a fleet of cottony clouds. I could have stayed there forever.
Realising I was lagging behind, I hurried on, catching up with the group just as they reached the outskirts of Ibl es-Saqi, the village we’d stayed in the night before. Though we’d barely begun, a few of the walkers took the opportunity to grab a shot of pungent espresso-like Lebanese coffee and we were sat by the side of the road, faces turned up to the sun, when a convoy of UN soldiers - possibly Italian or Spanish - rolled up in white armoured cars.
Covered in muscles and snappy in their blue felt berets, they were clad in battledress so tight that a couple of them appeared to have been poured into their clothes. As they sauntered past, sunglasses on, they looked more like naughty schoolboys bunking off to the shops, than heavily-armed UN troops on patrol.
Originally envisaged as an interim observer force to oversee Israel’s withdrawal after its first invasion of Lebanon in 1978, UNIFIL had been in southern Lebanon ever since. It was composed of battalions from all over the world, with Indonesia, India and Italy supplying the largest contingents. The civil war, Israel’s subsequent re-invasion and occupation in 1982, and the bumpy years after withdrawal had kept it in place, transforming its mission from one of observer to peacekeeper. In the 38 years since it arrived, UNIFIL had watched Israel invade Lebanon four more times.
About a kilometre past the point on the Hasbani River where an LMT side-trail headed up a side valley to the mountain village of Sheba’a, we reached the ruins of an old caravanserai.
There wasn’t a great deal left, mostly a row of tall arcades that would once have housed merchants and their animals, but as we explored the sagging vaults and courtyard it was just about possible to imagine it in its heyday, when it would have been filled with camel trains bringing merchants from Damascus to the Lebanese coast and from Aleppo to the markets of Haifa and Jerusalem.
Located on the banks of the Hasbani River at a strategic regional crossroads that controlled the routes south, north and across the mountains to the east, the Souk was the location of a famous weekly market, held there for centuries and was in use up until the end of French Mandate era, when it served briefly as a WWII military base.
Abandoned shortly afterwards, it began steadily to collapse. Parts of the walls had recently been shored up with concrete to prevent further collapse. The intention had been to clad the new foundations in sandstone, but work hadn’t been finished and the juxtaposition was jarring.
Known as the Souk al-Khan, the caravanserai dated back to at least 1350. It had been built by Emir Shehab, head of the princely Lebanese family that once administered a swathe of territory extending from the mid-Beka’a down to Safed, near Lake Galilee.
One of the walkers, Alia, an archaeologist who planned to accompany us along the first half of the trail explained that the site was probably much older, and there was evidence it had been in use since Roman times.
In the early 17th Century, Ali Beg, the eldest son of Lebanon’s national hero, Emir Fakhereddine al-Ma’an, had been killed here. The head of a powerful Druze clan based in the Shouf Mountains just south of Beirut, Fakhereddine was a classic Mount Lebanon man, happy to play any side of the game that was to his advantage. He had been able to win partial independence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul, then rulers of the region, when his forces defeated the Sultan’s in combat and after pledging his loyalty in exchange for a series of political concessions, the Emir embarked on a project of nation-building. At its height, his principality extended across a broad swathe of the Levant, from Palmyra in modern-day Syria, to Tripoli in the north and Acre in the south. The greatest of the Ma’anid princes, Fakhereddine was credited with introducing the political, cultural and technological modernisations that centuries later paved the way for the creation of the modern Lebanese state.
Eventually, Sultan Murad IV grew tired of the prince’s provocations and revoked his concessions. Fakhreddine was forced to flee and after a couple of years on the lam, during which he is rumoured to hidden in caves the length and breadth of the country, rather like a Levantine Robert the Bruce, he was captured and dragged off to Istanbul, where he was executed. In the end, only two of his five sons escaped death at the hands of the Turks and his much-reduced principality ultimately passed by way of marriage into the hands of the Shehabs.
The story was a perfect example of the kind of historic irony in which Lebanon specialises, for Ali Beg was executed beside a khan built by a 14th Century ancestor of the man who would later take over his family’s principality.
The crumbling khan’s fortunes might be history, but its market wasn’t. Every Tuesday, the surrounding area still filled with traders from all over southern Lebanon, and outdoor cafés sprang up along the river serving homemade treats and gossip. The souks of Sidon, Byblos, Beirut and Tyre were far older, but as they hadn’t always been held in the same spot, the khan held the distinction of being the oldest continually functioning market in the country.
Though still a lively mix of animal trading, farmer’s market, fabric souk and bric-a-brac, it was a shadow of what it once had been. On a major crossroad between Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, the market’s star waned in 1948 when travel to and from Palestine stopped and again in 1967 when Israel annexed the Golan Heights and made it impossible for Syrian traders to cross into Lebanon along this ancient trade route.
Still, tradition is difficult to kill. When the souk lost its international dimension and licit cross-border trade became impossible, contraband trade took its place. Even at the height of the Israeli occupation, arms and drugs - mostly hashish and cocaine, the latter grown in the Beka’a, the former shipped in from Lebanese connections in Colombia and processed there - were spirited across the borders to Syria and Israel.
It was a risky game, so smugglers often strapped their parcels onto a donkey and set it on its way unaccompanied, with a slap to the rear. Incredibly, the gambit generally worked well. The donkey might take its time to reach its destination, but in the end, it got there, unless it was intercepted along the way, for until the occupation ended, you’d read about some poor donkey being shot by Israeli soldiers as a security threat, from time to time.
We crossed the river to break for lunch. The old wooden bridge had been swept away by winter storms a few years earlier, so we removed our shoes and waded through the water across a slippery concrete berm that had been laid in its place, just above a small waterfall. After our first morning of walking, the water was cold and refreshing and following a lunch of leftover manoushe, juicy cucumbers and tomatoes, which we left to chill for a while in the river, the sound of the water and the gentle buzz of insects lulled me into a short, but deeply contented asleep.