Travelogue

Chapter 13: A Gentle Stroll

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The following morning, we wake to the smell of freshly baked manqoushe and triangles of dough stuffed with spinach and sumac, a spice that lends a citrusy flavour, which are known as ftayer.

Out on the terrace of our overnight stop in Aitanit, one of the ladies from the village is hard at work. I’m ravenous, probably because I have a slight hangover. 

Our hosts in Aitanit pride themselves on their cooking and dinner the previous night had been an orgiastic affair, a massive spread of village specialities, including a couple of dishes that I’d only ever heard of before, like zingol, a simple but utterly delicious concoction of bulgur wheat balls and chickpeas served in in a tangy garlic-yoghurt sauce, which we washed down with copious quantities of arak baladi distilled in the village.

The meal had begun politely enough but then Maurice, one of the village elders, turned up hallway through. Tottering in on his cane, he deposited himself at one end of the table and proceeded to regale us with stories and zajal, an ancient semi-improvised, slightly sing-song form of poetry that still lives on in Lebanon, most of which I couldn’t follow, and had swiftly obliterated any notion that he was in any way feeble by making his way through at least a half bottle of arak while insisting that we match him, glass-for-glass.

As we had what our guide Joseph had described as a ‘short' day ahead of us, we’d taken Maurice up his challenge – some rather more gleefully than others – and we'd finally tottered to bed rather later than was probably good for ageing persons on a long-distance walk.

Consequently, breakfast is both lazy and subdued. The views made up for the absence of banter and from the terrace, we could see clear out over the steely waters of Lake Qaraoun, Lebanon’s largest dam. The sun is warm, hazy day, even if the air is still chilly, so we’re wrapped up in our fleeces, watching Antoinette, doyenne of griddle and oven, bake an endless stream of delights.

When we’d wobbled down to the dam the day before, at the end of what felt like a death march from Majdel Balhiss, the view had not been quite as inspiring. Several warm winters with relatively little rain and snow that was mostly gone by the end of February, even on Lebanon’s highest peaks, may have pleased Beirutis eager to resume weekends on the beach, but they'd played merry hell on water level. It was at least a dozen metres below where it should be, and several small islands of former valley floor could be seen poking through the water. Less appealing reveals included reefs of rubbish along the shores; tractor tyres, plastic bottles, mats of rotting vegetation washed into the lake and yes, shopping carts (though there can’t possibly be a supermarket within 30 kilometres ) and an expanse of pinkish scum, rainbow-tinted from oil and chemicals, that lapped gently against the massive retaining wall of the dam. This is a lake that much of southern Lebanon gets it water from, including the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Still, it was an impressive sight and it reminded me of Ibrahim Abd el-Al, Lebanon’s maverick post-independence water engineer and Minister of Public Works, who was the driving force behind its construction. Abd el-Al had drawn up plans to proved the entire country with water and electricity through hydroelectric projects, which fell prey to the mighty clash between the public interest and the private sector that still bedevils the country, and many other countries around the world and had he been given free reign, it’s likely that Lebanon, the most water-rich country in the Levant, would not suffer the shortages that plague it today. 

In a region officially classified as arid or semi-arid, water is a major geopolitical issue and one of the key instigators of conflict in the Levant. The 1967 War, in which the Golan, the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai were annexed, for example, grew out of four years of disputes over water diversion projects and dams being built along the Banias and Jordan rivers and the recent war in Syria has its roots in the long drought and water mismanagement that eventually drove farmers in the east of the country to begin demanding political reform. 

Abd el-Al himself was keenly aware of water’s political dimension and had advocated effectively for Lebanon during the crafting of the Johnson Plan, the never ratified agreement drawn up by the Americans for the equitable sharing of regional water sources in the 1950’s. Qaraoun was not part of that particular controversy, as it dams the only water source Lebanon does not share with its neighbours, though that hasn’t stopped some of the more conspiracy-minded from speculating that the Minister’s untimely, and rather suspicious death in 1959, as payback for his activism. 

Whatever the reason, Abd el-Al’s death meant that he never got to see his plan through and with no one to champion it during the increasingly fractious decade and a half of political turmoil that precede Lebanon’s civil war, the plan fell apart completely. As we walked along the top of the barrage, I couldn’t help feeling that he would be simultaneously thrilled and appalled by the scene. 

The smell coming off the big convex griddle is mouth-watering. I’ve rarely met a manqoushe I don’t like but the ones being prepared for us this morning are extraordinary. The redoubtable Antoinette is churning them out by the dozen, flattening the balls of dough on the griddle and then slathering them with kishkza’atar, sojouk or cheese, as well as baking them plain. 

Even more impressively, all the ingredients, including the grain used to make the flour, have been grown on her farm - or in the case of the za’atar and some of the other herbs on the table, collected from the mountains nearby - and the manqoushe are being made from a proprietary blend of grains that she has ground at the village mill to her specifications. 

Antoinette bakes quietly but with ferocious intent and buzzes about, making sure no one’s plate is ever empty for more than a minute and that cheese, jam (both her own, of course) and honey (ditto) are never out of reach. Her energy finds it match in our bottomless appetites. 

But breads are only the Round One. On top, there are also bowls of a thick, steaming porridge-like soup made from the same kishk that in paste form and enlivened with tomato, garlic and bit of chilli, Antoinette is spreading on the manqoushe.

For me, kishk was love at first bite but because of its sour, vaguely vomity smell, it is recognised to be an acquired taste. In its raw form, kishk is a powder made from a combination of mildly fermented yoghurt and bulgur wheat, which is traditionally spread out on rooftops to dry in the sun. It is usually made into a paste and baked on a manqoushe, but in the winter, it is used to make a thick, porridge-like soup, to which chunks of meat can be added. There are as many ways of serving it as there are people in Lebanon, and personally, I like mine meatless and liberally dosed with garlic and toasted pine nuts. It is heavy, particularly if your eyes are bigger than your stomach and you have a second bowl, but it packs so much energy and is the perfect way to start a long day’s walk.

Suitably stuffed, we roll out of Aitanit, stopping by a small spring in the middle of the village to fill our water bottles. There’s a fountain nearby, above which a statue of the Virgin Mary has been placed. Next to it is a small, kiosk-like building that we are told was originally a musalla, a prayer room, although the last of Aitanit’s Muslim inhabitants moved out decades ago. 

 It reminded me of Majdel Balhiss with its prominent mosque, and little calligraphic plaques reading 'god' decorating many of its homes. Like Aitanit, it was once mixed, but its last Christians emigrated over 60 years ago, with most former residents now living in Canada, but the village church remains intact. 

At the risk of sounding preachy, it is examples like this - which are repeated in different forms all over the country - that make up the real Lebanon, the country not of eternal conflict and division, but the country of compromise and tolerance, if not necessarily of acceptance. 

This Lebanon is the only country in the world to observe a joint Islamo-Christian holiday, the March-time celebration of the Annunciation. It is where Muslims once attended Easter Mass, not to worship, but to enjoy the spectacle, where many Christians voluntarily observe the Ramadan fast and where, when there were still caravans, pilgrims departing on the long and hazardous journey to Mecca for Hajj were blessed by all the country’s religious leaders, Muslim, Christian and Jewish.

To me, these examples, domestic in their dimension, said far more about Lebanon than the dramatic headlines and shrieking stories of division and hatred and also explained why, despite the invasions, the occupations, the massacres, the detentions, the 17,000 Missing, the population exchanges and the (forced) emigration, this tiny country resisted the temptation to physically divide, in the end.

The rolling trail we follow is about halfway up the mountainside and passes through a series of high altitude pasturages, some of which contain traces of ruined buildings, and occasionally devolves into a tortuous, rocky track, one section of which curls around a cleft in the mountain so deep that navigating it feels suicidal. 

We’re accompanied for part of the way by Abu Jasseer, a local guide who is kitted out from head-to-toe in military gear a bit like a camouflage Christmas tree, his eyes hidden behind a pair of wraparound RayBans, de rigeur facewear for former soldiers (and hitmen) all over the region. 

Unfairly, I image that he’s what a grunt would look like if it took physical form, the kind of ‘guy’ the Greeks would call a pallikaras, one so self-consciously macho, he’s almost a cliché. When he starts regaling us with tales of hunting wild boar – the mountains here are full of them - and whips out a video of one he’s filmed squealing as it lay dying, my initial assessment feels slightly less uncharitable. 

The route isn’t especially interesting, but the views over the lake are magnificent in places, despite the thick silvery haze, which has completely hidden the mountains on the far side of the valley. 

Above Saghbine, we pass a man ploughing a series of tiny fields with a horse. It’s an incongruous sight, especially in an age of micro-sized Japanese farm machinery. We wave ‘hello’ and when he waves back, we stop to watch for a while. The sound the blade makes as it turns the furrows, the smell of freshly-ploughed earth, the gentle encouragements from the man and the way the horse’s mane catches the breeze transports me to another time, a much harder but also gentler time of callused hands and sun-burned necks, of rising at dawn and of glasses of lemonade at 10. I am returned to the world of today by the loud blast of a horn from the village far below. 

And then somehow, we have reached our destination, the village of Ain Zibde. Today’s walk has been comparatively short and relatively free of punishing altitude changes, more like a stroll in the (high altitude) park, than a trek. 

Perhaps to ensure we don’t feel too smug about ourselves, Joseph reminds us that that tomorrow’s walk will not be so accommodating, and will kick off with a punishing 800m ascent and end with an equally strained 800 metre descent, as we are about to leave the Beka’a Valley and cross over the top of Mount Lebanon for the slopes overlooking the coastal strip. 

It sounds ghastly, but showered, with the sun warm on our faces, plates of homemade cake and cool glasses of toot, sweet mulberry syrup, a holdover from the days when Mount Lebanon was one of the silk-making centres of the world, fourteen hours is too far into the future for most of us to contemplate seriously, and as our hosts bustle about, preparing what will turn out to be a stunning candle-lit dinner on the garden terrace, we even have time for a pre-prandial nap. 

Chapter 11: Wild Honey and Sinking Ships

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We cross the small square at the top of the souk and wind our way through the tail-end of Rashaya, which peters out in a sprinkling of old homes with wild, overgrown gardens, to emerge on a low bluff on the outskirts of town.

From here, the trail leads down steeply through a small crevasse, into bright, flower-filled fields but after a picturesque start, we spend the next hour and a half walking past a succession of villages that are difficult to describe as anything but depressing, despite the magnificence of their surroundings. The trail leads through open fields, but we’re too close to the busy cross-valley road, so the soundtrack of wind and birdsong we’d walked to the day before, is supplanted by the swoosh of passing cars and the low rumble of trucks. It's also surprisingly hot and for now, the best views are all behind us. It isn’t long before my lack of sleep begins to take its toll. 

As the last of the fly-blown villages recedes from view, we hike past a rusting roadside fair that exudes all the cheer of a bout of dysentery. A faded billboard nearby advertises a glitzy new hospital offered to ‘the honourable people’ of Lebanon by ‘brotherly’ Iran. From the looks of it, the sign has been there for years but the hospital hasn’t materialised. What has is a bunker-like branch campus of the Lebanese University (Sixth Division), which is apparently dedicated to the pursuit of business administration. It looks like the kind of place that will serve as the headquarters of a cabal of cannibal bikers after the Zombie Apocalypse.

An Eternity, or three kilometres later - you choose - the trail finally veers away from the road and, allahu akbar, we begin to wind our way uphill through the gentle beauty of vineyards and cherry orchards beginning to bloom. Spring has not yet sprung up in the mountains and down here on the valley floor, which is some 1000 metres above sea level, the full fandango is still a couple of days away, but this little tease of What Is To Come, is heady.

At the top of the hill, we pass through the outskirts of a small village. The inhabitants are hard at work in their fields, but as we pass, they take a break to stare, evidently puzzled by the sight of a bunch of strangers walking through these parts, so we smile, wave and offer warm ‘hellos’ to those nearest. Eventually, a couple wave back hesitantly, though I get the sense this is less a welcome, than concern we might stop for a chat. Between the bleak villages below and the chain gang welcome in the foothills, it’s almost as though we’ve stumbled into a parallel Lebanon, where all the normal (saving) graces don’t apply.

An hour later, the much more welcoming village of Kawkaba Bu Arab lurches into view. It’s perched on top of a rocky outcrop, part hill, part ridge, that dominates the rolling farmlands on the valley floor. From a distance, the dense cluster of houses looks a bit like a dreamy, medieval citadel. It’s somewhat less attractive closer up. The few graceful sandstone homes that haven’t been ‘modernised’, have been overwhelmed by a froth of concrete boxes, most of which stand empty and unfinished, but Lebanese hospitality is back in full(on) effect and our ‘good mornings’ are returned with warm invitations to come in and have a cup of coffee. We don’t, of course. Though genuinely meant, such invitations are a ritual welcome, usually said in the understanding that you will decline with a polite ‘no’ or perhaps a ‘killak zo’, an essential Levantine phrase that literally translates as ‘you are all good taste’ but which can also serve as the equivalent of a ‘you’re too kind’. It’s apparently a holdover from the formalised greetings of Ottoman times. 

Though otherwise unremarkable, Kawkaba Bu Arab is the location of the tomb of a 17th Century Druze hermit called Sheikh el-Fadel. The holy man is famous for performing a number of modest miracle, and like Francis of Assisi, is said to have had a way with wild animals.

He lived for most of his life in a small cave on the outskirts of the village and is buried a short walk away from where we have arrived, in a maqam built later in his honour. Like most words in Arabic, maqam has a number of different meanings. It is the word the Druze use to describe their shrines and in Sufism, to describe the stages the soul must go through in its quest for God, but its literal meaning is ‘place’. Rather more delightfully, maqam is also used to describe the modal structures of classical Arabic music and Sephardic Jewish temple songs. So in addition to physical location, the word carries connotation of transcendence and tone.

The maqam turns out to be a large compound containing the sheikh’s original grave site, his new shrine, a simple sandstone cube with arcades topped by a crisply whitewashed dome, a few administrative buildings and a prayer hall. One end of the compound is shaded by two of the largest oak trees I’ve seen in Lebanon, absolute monsters that have been saved from the axe because Sheikh el-Fadel liked to sit under them and read. The new, cupolaed shrine bears an inscription dating it to 1321. For a while there’s a brief but animated discussion between a couple of the hikers as to whether the date is Gregorian or Islamic until Robin ambles over and explains that the Sheikh died in the 17th Century, so the date is Anno Hijrah, not Domini, which means that the new tomb was built in 1903.

It is a quiet, meditative place during the week. The only visitors apart from us are a young Druze couple, who have come with their newborn to pay their respects but the guardian tells us that at weekends and especially on feast days, the maqam fills up with visitors from all over Lebanon and, in quieter times, Syria. From somewhere, I can hear the trickle of water, and as the trees sway in the breeze, it sound like their shadows are play music across the flagstones. 

Like any self-respecting hermit, Sheikh el-Fadel survived on a combination of charity and self-sufficiency, receiving modest offerings of food from villagers and foraging for anything else. As evidence of his blessed nature, wild animals are said to have brought him morsels of food, and if his supplies ran perilously low, the hive of wild bees nesting in the cleft near his cave would produce extra honey to feed him, which would ooze down the rock face in sticky, golden rivulets. 

A profound respect for Nature is one of the principal tenets of the Druze faith and it was the Sheikh’s close relationship with wild animals that earned him his saintly reputation. Of course, there are always doubters. One day, a local man turned up at the cave one day with a group of friends and challenged the sheikh to feed them all, if he could. At this point, the saintly gentleman had nothing but a little stale bread to offer but he asked them to sit – an invitation that was not politely declined - went out to the cleft, and returned with bowl of honey. When it was finished, he went out and got them more, and more, and more. Their doubt banished by bulging bellies, the men left and never bothered the Sheikh, or his bees, again.

The cave where this modest Lebanese remake of the Feeding of the Five Thousand took place, is now part of the maqam (though the bees are conspicuously absent) and the view it commands is magnificent. Clearly the Sheikh knew the importance of location, and here at the tip of the promontory, the ground plunges precipitously to the valley a hundred or so metres below. Flanking us in the distance on either side are the snow-capped mountain ranges of the Anti-Lebanon and the Lebanon, and the luminous pale blue sky is stippled with tiny cottony puffs of cloud, which drift by in the breeze casting their shadows on the wine-coloured earth, striped yellow and green with crops and pasturelands.

On the hills opposite, we can make out the similarly citadel-esque outlines of Kfar Meshki. The soil may be rich and the landscapes magnificent, but prospects in the Beka’a are limited and so like nearly all of its neighbours, this tiny, mostly Christian village has been emptied by a century and half of emigration. As improbable as it seems, there are are people in Sydney, Montreal, São Paulo and Caracas who can trace their roots to this beautiful, unloved and overlooked part of the country.

It was this pursuit of a better life that briefly earned Kfar Miski a place in global headlines, when in 1912, at least 10 and possibly 14 - the figures are disputed - of its inhabitants ended up going down on the Titanic. 

Despite its size, the Lebanese made up a significant enough swathe of the ill-fated ship’s passengers that during the evacuation scenes in the James Cameron film, a brief snatch of Arabic can be heard in the background. Watching the film in Beirut when it came out, this was greeted by a explosion of clapping, hooting and whistling that somehow managed to outdo the adolescent appreciation of Kate Winslet’s breasts a few scenes earlier. 

The exact number of Lebanese passengers on the Titantic depends on which account of the tragedy you read. There were definitely 93, most of whom joined the ship at Cherbourg, and so Kfar Mishki isn’t the only Lebanese village to have lost inhabitants that cold April night, but it is possible that there were as many as 125 on board. 

There are several reasons for the confusion. Census records from the Ottoman Era are unreliable because in the more remote parts of the country, which in those days meant anywhere more than a day’s journey from the nearest regional capital, many people never bothered to get documented. Even in cities, it wasn’t uncommon for people to live their entire lives without leaving a single official record of their existence.

The Titanic’s passenger logs are more accurate, but when it comes to accounting for Lebanese passengers, they are still unhelpful. Many emigrants, on their way to new and better lives abroad, gave Anglicised versions of their names – ‘Butros’ became ‘Peter’, for example – while others were mis-registered, so that in one case, the Lebanese family name ‘Badr’ was written down as the more Germanic-sounding ‘Badt’.

However many Lebanese there were on board, they accounted for nearly all of the Titanic’s Middle Eastern passengers. The only other confirmed Arab passenger was an Egyptian called Hammad Hassab, but thanks to the largesse of his American patron, who had paid for his passage, he was not only travelling First Class, he also survived. The Lebanese, most of whom were in Third Class, weren’t as lucky and whether there were 93 or 125 of them, only 23 lived to tell the tale.

As we begin to thread our way down the hill, Robin tells us the story of one of those that did not, Fares Shehab, an accomplished oud-player who was on his way to New York to become a professional musician. In another one of those moments of delicious irony Lebanon does so well, Shehab was a scion of the princely family whose palace we have only just visited in Hasbaya.

Like most early 20th Century aristocrats, the Emir was titled but broke, and so and along with his compatriots, he was travelling below decks and was trapped when the crew locked the gates, in an attempt to allow the Upper Deck passengers evacuate first.

As people panicked, he pulled out his oud, the only possession he had tried to rescue, and attempted to calm the situation. The gambit worked just long enough for the crew to briefly reopen the gates and let some of the women and children through, before locking them again. According to survivors, they could hear the Emir’s oud  above the shouting and pleading as they fled. Perhaps like the orchestra on the upper deck, which was halfway through Nearer My God to Thee when the Titanic sank, Fares Shehab also continued to play until the end, and if so, perhaps the haunting sound of the oud provided some those who died with him a final moment of solace before the cold, cold waters of the North Atlantic flooded in and took their lives.

Rashaya to Kawkaba

LMT Section 24

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Chapter 4: Cool Feet, Crumbling Ruins

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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.

Marjayoun to Hasbaya

LMT Section 26

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association