an area of the map for world news.
the August 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48,
Byblos by the Sea
Sandokan (travel magazine, on-line edition), Rome, Italy,
May 18, 2001
It is suggestive to juxtapose Byblos [Lebanon]
and the sea. There one can still imagine the 7,000 years of
history and illustrious charactersreal and mythicalwho
have landed on this shore and walked along these same sands.
Yes, one can truly say that history has passed by here.
In the inlet that embraces the port and the beach, the sea
is respectfully calm; an atmosphere of anticipation pervades
the narrow streets of the town center.
Byblos, that city which we studied in school in the pages
dedicated to the Phoenicians, has in reality received and
been host to many other cultures. A seaport, a strategic point
both commercially and militarily, is today a tranquil, small
city in which ancient history and diverse cultures coexist
in mutual respect. If its neighbor Beirut is frenetic and
convulsive, Byblos is the exact opposite. Its rhythms are
those of the fishermen who meet on the beach at first light
to untangle their nets, the rhythms of walking (cars dont
come into the narrow little streets in the center of town).
Here one learns again to enjoy the little things.
The small boats of the fishermen, once the fish are unloaded
and sold, can become a means of travel along the coast. The
fishermen, for a few Lebanese coins, will generally give tours
lasting a quarter of an hour. But just askits
hard to refuseand you can find yourself embarking on
a half-day cruise, going off to explore the sea bottom in
search of ruins.
From the beach of soft white sand you feel the reassuring
embrace of the city behind you. The little restaurants offering
authentic Lebanese cuisine and the cafés facing the
sea are meeting places not only for the tourists on day trips,
but above all for the local residents who stop in for a few
minutes or hours to read the papers or discuss in Arabic something
that always seems very important. It may be politics, sports,
or an episode of city life.
Byblos is one of the most ancient cities in the world. Different
civilizations have left their still-visible marks on the archaeological
sites that extend over a very broad area. Byblos was already
settled in the Neolithic period; there are traces of habitations
dating back to 5000 B.C.; around 3000 B.C. it had become one
of the most important ports on the Mediterranean for trade
with Egypt in cedar and olive oil.
The Phoenicians settled here around 1000 B.C., and thanks
to them the first phonetic alphabet was created, which seems
to have developed out of a need to have a system for recording
commercial transactions. Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians,
Alexander the Great, who prepared here for his war against
the pharaohs of Egypt, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Crusaders: All
have sown seeds of culture and tradition here, with the result
that today Lebanon is a rich and multifaceted country. Diverse
cultures live together peacefully.
Walking in the labyrinth of narrow streets in the small ancient
city, marked off by walls of the whitest stone, one comes
upon a little plaza in which the Church of San Giorgio stands.
On Sunday afternoons in summer, religious services are held
outdoors. People singing and praying in the streets are a
A short distance away there stands a mosque. At sunset, and
at three other times during the day, the Muslims say their
prayers. Then the muezzin begins his song. At this point the
religious service being held under the symbol of the cross
pauses and waits in silence for Allah to receive the homage
of his people. Its a matter of just a few minutesas
soon as the muezzin finishes his song, the ceremony in front
of San Giorgio resumesbut time enough to understand
that, at least here, in tranquil Byblos, people know respect
The Church of San Giorgio was built by the Crusaders when
they landed in 1104 and restored the city to its ancient splendor.
In addition to the building under the sign of the cross, they
built the Castello, which still dominates the ancient citadel
from the top of a hill not far from the center of town. Climbing
to the the highest point in the building constructed of enormous
stone blocks recovered from ruins dating from the Roman and
Phoenician eras (among the largest ever used in a medieval-era
building) affords a panoramic view of Byblos.
The atmosphere of the Middle Ages can also be felt walking
through the narrow streets of the souk [market], recently
rebuilt but in a manner to preserve the structure in the various
styles that have characterized it through the centuries. It
is not frequented by tourists, at least not by those who arrive
by train, walk around with a guide carrying a red umbrella
(the better to be recognized), and quickly depart at a precise
The little shops are frequented by the local people doing
their shopping and by the chance curious tourist who may have
penetrated into the labyrinth; here is the common life of
everyday Byblos. The shops sell everythingsmall artisanal
objects, clothing, pirate CDs of Arabic and pop music, Lebanese
bread sold in very large loaves that keeps for several days
and tastes good toasted, the strange fruit called loz (a green
berry the size of an almond, eaten whole), perfumed oils,
spices, sweets, honeyed cookies, and the freshest fish caught
hours before by the fishermen.
This is everyday Byblos. The atmosphere is calm, the people
smiling and helpful. They dont all speak French or English,
but in the quiet rhythm of their lives, they always find time
to try to understand when someone asks for information.
The history of Byblos is a story of transience and permanence,
of open doors to the diverse foreign cultures that Byblos
has accumulated and that its people today continue to accumulate.
Archaeologically, Byblos is one of the richest sites in Lebanon.
Besides the Castello of the Crusaders, there are many ruins
from past civilizations. The bastions of the fortification,
which extend from the Castello to the sea where the ancient
city ended, date back to 3000 B.C. Here are six different
structures, which together create a wall 25 meters thick.
From the same period is the Temple of Resheph, burned and
rebuilt, today called the Temple of the Obelisks. The oldest
temple is that of Baalat Gebal, which also has been burned
and rebuilt twice. Only six columns remain in the colonnade,
dating from 300 A.D., which leads up to the remnants of the
The Roman Theater is among the best-preserved buildings. It
has been rebuilt, and the present edifice is one-third the
size of the original, but its visual impact is striking. It
faces the sea, and has a series of small doors in its facade.
The mosaics that once formed the pavement have been transported
to the National Museum in Beirut.
The tombs that make up the Royal Necropolis are unique in
form. When they were discovered, they were completely empty.
The most important tomb is that of King Hiram, upon which
the inscription can still be read in primitive letters: Take
care, for below you is death.
Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon in 539 B.C. At this time
Byblos was re-evaluated strategically from a military and
commercial point of view and came to be seen as a link joining
the Occident and the Orient. An intact fortress dating from
this period demonstrates that Byblos was an important advance
post of Persian civilizations movement toward the West.
The city became one of the most important centers of worship
in the cult of Adonis.
In 333 B.C., the army of Alexander the Great liberated Cilicia,
Lycia, and Pamphylia before arriving at Issus, where they
encountered and defeated the Persian army of Darius III. From
there, Alexander departed for the conquest of Egypt, passing
through Phoenicia to Byblos, where he met no resistance. The
city made an alliance with him, allowing him free passage
to the south.