Chapter 32: Agatha Christie Died in My Room

Sfeera.jpg

The Syr Palace Hotel in Sir el-Denniyeh is equal parts melancholy and delight.

Built in 1934, it’s a dusty and slightly decrepit testament to the most fashionable furnishings of the 1930’s and 40’s, with a sprinkling of pastel 80’s Neo Deco knock-offs offered up as a concession to modernity. 

My room, a vast echoing chamber with a massive and (for the first half of the 20th Century) luxurious bathroom is even more Period, and mercifully devoid of the airbrushed Duran Duran flourishes that ‘enliven’ the public areas below. The dark wood bed is every bit as rigid and uncomfortable as ones I used to sleep on in 50¢-a-night hostels in the subcontinent and the wardrobe door doesn’t fully close. But there’s a pink tasselled bedside lamp, even if it barely illuminates the bedside table, and a wobbly writing desk in one corner, a reminder of the days when people sent postcards not Selfies, and so I’m discretely charmed.

I set the ceiling fan creaking resentfully into motion, because having been shut up since oh 1945, probably, the room is slightly musty, though the sheets are starched to perfection and the towels delightfully perfumed. Slumped moistly on the bed post-shower, I’m drowsily entertained by the thought that this is a room in which Agatha Christie could quite easily have lived during her Middle Eastern sojourns. Or died, for even with the fan on and the windows open, it is intolerably hot tonight.

Of course, it was not always this way. Once upon a time, when Sir el-Denniyeh was a popular mountain resort, the red and white splendour that is the Syr Palace was the place to see and be seen. Smartly-dressed families would drive up from Tripoli to spend the weekend, foreigners would come for the summers and the hotel's vast, vine-shaded terrace, with its tinkling fountains and legion of snappily-clad waiters, echoed with laughter and smouldering passions, as guests flirted, plotted coups and drank in the sweeping view over the river and the valleys below as they drank up their cocktails.

Then the bad times came. The summer holidaymakers stopped coming, as did the weekenders. During the war, this previously mixed town found itself forced to choose sides, and so it underwent massive demographic change. 

As the money dried up, conservatism crept in. Cosmopolitanism gave way to rigidity. Neatly clipped moustaches to straggly beards. Long hair was pinned up and then covered, and the Palace’s bar was strongly ‘encouraged’ to turn its cocktails into mocktails. No great loss, for by then, there were few in the town that would openly drink alcohol, anyway.

After the war, Sir el-Denniyeh remained neglected. Its conservatism received fresh encouragement from the Gulf, and attitudes hardened further. Ignored by the State, and surrounded by the wilds, which were as ideally suited to hiding jihadists on the run as they had previously been to bandits of a more pecuniary kind, the town and by extension the region around it developed a reputation for extremism. 

If that reputation was not unfounded, it was unfair, for it was not the inhabitants who were extreme, but rather those who came here to hide. The families did not return to summer, the tourists did not visit and the bar developed a layer of dust. But even in decay, the Palace remained the grandest place for miles and so it found new life hosting weddings, coming to life for at least a few hours on select summer nights. Marooned in time, mouldering but magnificent, the Syr slumbers, its hallways filled with the ghostly sighs of more graceful years past.

None of whom, thankfully, disturb my sleep and so after an excellent and much needed rest, we are back on the bus after breakfast to return to the trailhead in Kfarbnine. Well, we will be eventually. First, we’re making a stop at Sfeera.

There, amidst a cluster of drab homes, probably as poor and unkempt as they were in Roman times, are the remains of the temple built for Septimus Severus, future emperor of Rome, who lived in Lebanon for 4 years and whose heirs built the Coliseum. 

It’s an impressive site, small but much more intact than many of the hundreds of temples strewn across the country, most of which are no more than a pile of stones. But then Severus chose wisely, for not only was this spot relatively isolated, it also occupied a strategic position and commanded cracking views inland and along the coast, so it was worth preserving. By way of proof, we can make out the smudges of Homs and Tartus to the north, as well as the chain of small islands off Tripoli. On very clear days, it’s apparently even possible to see the coast of Cyprus. 

Sfeera, which was quite grand with satellite shrines dotted across the hillside behind, is a rare example of a temple dedicated to a man rather than a god. Though it wasn’t unusual in Rome for Emperors to be deified - Caesar, Hadrian and Augustus all had their own Imperial cults (as did Livia, so it wasn’t only about the boys) – elevation usually took place after their deaths. Perhaps Severus wasn’t willing to wait to die to be made a god, or didn’t trust that it would happen. Whatever his reasoning, he seemed to believe that as your mother probably told you, if you want something done properly, you ought to do it yourself. 

Sadly for Severus, his act of self-aggrandisement was never completed. No one really knows why and while I doubt he would be pleased to find his temple in ruins today, it might tickle him to know that he hasn't entirely been forgotten. The town that grew up around the temple is named after him. First called Severus, it became Sephiros, then Safira which finally became today’s Sfeera. Immortality, then. Of a kind.

When we do get there, Kfarbanine smells every bit as fragrant as Fradis.

We climb quickly out of the village, passing a rusting mobile water driller, just like the ones the Israelis would bomb in 2006 claiming they were missile launchers, then we continue down into a scrubby wadi past rows of beehives and climb in earnest all the way up to Tallet Hankoufa, from where we are presented with jaw-dropping views of thick forests and the snow-covered peaks behind Hermel. I’m reminded again of just how beautiful Akkar is, a far cry from what I'd always thought of as fairly dry and topographically unimpressive region. 

We wander through more ruins, clustered on the crown of the hill, the remains of an old village perhaps, parts of which have been refashioned into shepherd huts and animal pens. 

Our steep ascent is followed by an equally steep descent. At the bottom, we’re suddenly hip-deep in goats. The song of shepherd boy drifts down from somewhere above, serving as delicate counterpart to the sound of bells and of goats farting. Something around here must be making them gassy. 

We stop briefly at a spring, Ras al-Ain, where ice-cold water flows out from under a big rock. As we fill up, a young boy rides by on a donkey. He pretends not to notice us, but is unable to entirely hide his secret smile of delight at becoming the subject of so many photographs.

From here, the trail runs uphill and along a small, narrow and very rocky wadi that leads up to a vast, grassy plateau covered in buttercups and daisies that sway in the breeze. The pasturelands are ringed by low hills, covered in gnarled old oaks. The clouds have rolled in on the way up and it’s cool enough for our breath to steam, but after several days of walking in blazing sun, it’s a welcome change. At first, anyway. It’s elysian up here, so we decide to stop for lunch, lolling in the knee-high grass, watching the clouds roil overhead and by the time we're ready to get going, I’m shivering. 

Thankfully, the chill dissipates as soon as we get walking again and on the way down, still under the spell of the scenery, we stumble onto an illegal construction site. In a bowl hidden from sight, the trees have been torn out and lie on the ground, roots shrivelling in the sun, ready to be turned into firewood. The earth here is rich in iron oxide, which leaves violent, bloody scars on the landscape where digging machines and tractors have gouged up the surface.

The vista is so violent, that we stop and stare. Like a Greek chorus, the sense of judgement and distaste we radiate is palpable. One of the walkers takes a couple of photos. The digger grinds to a halt and two men, one fat and one smoking, amble uneasily towards us. 

They attempt conversation and are met with stony silence. Then they try to offer us coffee and when that fails, the fat man slinks back to a hut on the other side of the destruction. Joseph engages the smoking man in conversation, while Robin leads us away. We turn our backs, cold anger streaming off us, and walk away. The men watch until we are no longer in sight. Then the digger starts up again.

When he catches up a couple of minutes later, Joseph confirms that the dig is illegal, and explains that in the past, encounters between walkers and despoilers like these have lead to fist fights, which is why he trod so carefully, and why Robin whisked us away so quickly. Given their obvious unease, especially at having been photographed, he exchanged small talk with them to defuse the situation. Personally, I think they should be shot. Or quartered. The destruction was so wanton, so unforgiveable, that I wish Nature could bite back. 

The descent to Qemmamine is deadly and we hack through fresh thorny undergrowth and clamber over rocks and along paths made treacherous by layers of wet pine needles, oak leaves and loose stones. The descent is relentless, down, down, down with no relief until we hit the dirt road just outside the village, which like most of the settlements we’ve passed in these parts, isn’t easy on the eyes. 

Once again, the setting is spectacular. Qemmamine is crammed into a vertiginous valley, hemmed in on all sides by sheer walls of rock, thickly forested where the trees can find purchase, that rise thrillingly and vertically above us, far into the sky, peaks wreathed in cloud. Although we’re not as high up as we were just a few days ago, these mountains feel much taller. 

For most of its length, Mount Lebanon resembles the seafloor it originally was; a chain of soft, rounded peaks that overwhelm with open, expansive views, rather than raw, physical presence. Not in Akkar. Here, the peaks thrust, rather than roll, and their flanks are riven by narrow, plunging river valleys. They sharpen and become serrated and as the forests thicken, the vertical difference between the valley floor and the pinnacles increases, so that in places you find yourself craning your neck awkwardly to be able to take in a sheer rise of a thousand metres and more. 

I’m no slouch when it comes to poking around Lebanon’s off off-the-beaten-track nooks and crannies but nowhere I’ve been in the last 18 years has prepared me for Akkar. Compared to the rest of Lebanon, this part of the country looks like it has only just been made and so wind and water haven’t had time to smooth its edges. It is magnificent, yet more proof of the incredible beauty of this tiny, abused little country. And of how much has already been been lost.

It’s no surprise that such a wild region should also be home to Lebanon’s most remote village, for incredibly, Qemmamine was only linked to the rest of the country by a paved road in the 1990’s. While this makes me wonder how magical this place must have been before electricity, roads and satellite television arrived, I’ve been to enough wild, remote places not to romanticise too much. The convenience of modern technologies may have made taken the edge off life, but there is a good reason our ancestors were so quick to adopt it, when it came along.

Our entrance to the village leads to another inadvertent moment of comedy. As we walk towards the homes we’ll be staying in for the night, a young boy rides by on a very unhappy looking donkey. Not only is the poor thing loaded down with what looks like half a forest, but his rider decides to show off as he passes, and tweaks the poor mount’s tail to make him bray. And bray our little donkey does, bray and break free from the boy, who loses his grip and falls on his backside with a resounding thump.

Setting off up the road at an extremely determined pace, Donkey makes a break for freedom, forcing the boy to chase after him. The boy's mother, who has seen the whole performance, is even less impressed. Catching up, she gives her son a slap so tight, he almost goes sprawling again and then rushes over to appease Donkey.

Still braying, but this time in triumph, Donkey is led gently home, boy beside him, head hanging low.

Kfarbnine to Qemmamine  Section 3 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Kfarbnine to Qemmamine

Section 3 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association