I’m still debating whether I’d exhibit the kind of composure in the face of death that would allow me to calmly play my oud as the ship I was on sank, when we arrive at another reminder of mortality. Cut into the side of a small valley a kilometre or so beyond Kfar Mishki, is a tomb.
Robin and I slither in. There’s not much left, a handful of shelf tombs cut into the walls and a couple of larger, bed-style tombs carved out of the bedrock, and there’s no visible ornamentation, not even traces of paint but I notice with a start that there are bones scattered across the floor. At first, I think they are human remains but most of them are too small and strangely shaped, so unless they belonged to a deformed child, they’re probably animal remains.
Robin explains that according to local legend, the tomb is one of seven cut into the hill and although only two have been opened up, we do walk over the sealed entrance of another a bit further along the slope. Seven tombs for seven brothers, I think to myself jokingly. I ask him how old they are and he says that judging by the style, they’re Graeco-Phoenician.
This means that they’re about 2300 years old and while it’s true that they are unremarkable, nothing like as impressive as the incredible painted tombs unearthed in the necropili of Sidon and Tyre, the fact that they just lie here, open, for anyone to poke about in, is mind-boggling.
In England, somewhere like this would be a tourist site, roped off and signposted, complete with toilets, café and a small visitor’s centre. You’d probably be able to buy a t-shirt, or at least a postcard. Here, they’re just holes in the ground. There isn't even a plaque to tell you what you’re walking around. On the one hand, it’s testimony to the governmental neglect Lebanon’s ancient heritage suffers but on the other, to the country’s incredible cultural wealth.
Properly taken care of, historical remains like these would not only be a source of national pride, they’d be a source of tourist revenue and would go a long way towards changing the unfortunate reputation with which the country has been saddled, but when the government isn’t even capable of basics, like keeping the lights on and most ministers aren’t interested in history unless it lines their pockets, archaeology isn’t a top priority.
But then it isn’t for my fellow hikers either, most of whom are already on the other side of valley by the time we clamber out, brushing centuries off our clothes. I ask him why the tombs are here in this rural hillside. The valley is about as rural as it gets, and even 3,000 years ago, cutting tombs into rock was time-consuming and costly. Was this some kind of sacred site, then? He explains that the southern Beka’a was more developed in the past, and there were a number of large villages and several important temples nearby, none of which have survived into todat.
“It’s possible this valley had some special meaning, we don’t really know, but we haven’t discovered any temples or shrines here, which you’d expect if it was significant. It’s more likely this spot was equally close to all the villages and temples and that’s why it was chosen.”
I grew up watching Indiana Jones films, so naturally my next question is whether anyone has ever found any treasure. Robin laughs.
“That’s what the villagers around here say, there are all kinds of rumours but everyone thinks there’s gold in old places and if anyone really believed there was any here, they’d have dug up the hillside years ago. I doubt it. It’s more likely the tombs were robbed immediately by the workmen who sealed them - that used to happen all the time back then.”
Not just back then, either. It happened all the time in Lebanon during the war, too. Militias and occupying armies looted dozens of historic sites to fill their coffers and their fill museums. I remember being shown video footage of Israeli helicopters flying massive stone sarcophagi across the border during the Occupation, a few years after I arrived. There’s a distant boom. Probably dynamiting in an illegal quarry somewhere nearby but it reminds me that there’s a war going on not far away. Over the border, the tradition of plundering tombs, and for that matter, old temples, ancient cities and modern museums, is very much alive in Syria and Iraq, and artefacts from both countries regularly turn up in Lebanon, which is a regional nexus for the stolen archaeological treasure.
As the French say, ‘the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing’.
Following a sheep track up a rocky hillside, we enter Majdel Balhiss, another hilltop redoubt, which has a prominent mosque with a minaret that soars above its surroundings, like the mast of a ship afloat on waves of earth. Little calligraphy signs emblazoned with religious motifs decorate the walls and the injunction 'izkar Allah' or ‘remember God’ hangs on an archway nearby.
We’re deep in shepherding territory. On the way up, we came across one, a striking middle-aged man, tanned and thickly moustachioed, with deep, piercing eyes, leaning on his crook and watching over his flock as they grazed on the outskirts of the village. Clad in a thick brown jacket and a red keffiyah, he was a figure straight out of the past and awkwardly, I’d asked him if he minded me taking a photo. Without missing a beat, he told me that I was welcome and turned to face the camera. The snowy peaks of Jabal al-Sheikh loomed in the background and his guard dog and the goats watched from the hill behind me.
As I took the shot, we chatted. He asked me my name and where I was from. I told him I was English, which seemed to confuse him a little, probably because I’d said ‘Inglizi’, a word sometimes used as a catch-all for anyone foreign, especially by the older generation. So I added that I was British, from London. Whether that made any more sense, I don’t know but at least he’d heard of both. In turn, he told me his name was Mohammad al-Jawz and that he was a Bedouin.
He’d grown up between Lebanon and Syria and he’d been to Jordan once, many years earlier. His family moved with the seasons in search of farm work, though since the war in Syria, they’d mostly stayed in Lebanon. He didn’t use many words but once he started, he was unstoppable. He seemed quite happy to pose, so as I took a second shot, he explained that his family had been coming to Majdel Balhiss in early April every year since his great-great grandfather’s time and that they always work for the same family.
I found it a bit difficult to understand Mohammad. His accent was unfamiliar and he tended to swallow his words, but seeing him pose for me, one of the other hikers came over and began chatting, allowing me to listen and occasionally ask for translation. And so I learned that Mohammad liked being with the animals more than working in the orchards, which he left to his sisters unless there was really no other choice. He sometimes worked in the fields, too, though he was happier herding the animals because it allowed him to wander. But as long as he was outdoors, he was happy, especially after a long winter in the tent.
Meanwhile, a couple of other walkers had stopped and some were also taking photos. If Mohammad minded, he didn’t say anything and continued to talk with the first walker. Spring was his favourite time of year, he said, because there was nothing more satisfying than watching the world slowly come back to life. Clearly, we were in the presence of a romantic.
Emboldened, I asked him how old he was. He said that he wasn’t sure but that he thought he was about thirty-seven. Despite his sparkling eyes and glowing complexion, he looked older to me, but I kept that thought to myself.
I had my shot. Thanking him for his generosity and commending him to God, I turned to leave.
“Tell me, why did you want to take my photo?”
After chatting so easily earlier, Mohammad suddenly looked rather shy, not to mention decades younger.
“Honestly? Because I think you look really amazing standing there, especially in that red keffiyah. Very striking.”
With a little smile, he turned back to his flock and ambled down the hill. And probably instantly, Mohammad al-Jawz forgot that we had ever existed, at all.