I remember that when I visited Byblos, in the Jbeil district of Lebanon, in the summer of 2011, I felt like a true beholder of history. Historians agree that it’s the second oldest continuously-inhabited city on earth, runner-up only to the Palestinian city of Jericho. I sat at Feniqia restaurant in the heart of the old Phoenician city, eating shanklish cheese and tabbouleh and imagining life in that very spot, if time were to rewind 7,000 years.
Since about 5,000 BCE, people have been walking the streets of this city. Bartering turned into buying and selling; hunting and gathering was first conducted out in nature, but in the present day, it all goes down in the local souk. Undoubtedly, homemakers hunt for the freshest red peppers to use for muhammara (see our recipe here) and gather the heartiest chickpeas for making hummus, a recipe that has been perfected over generations.
Through successful trade with Egypt, Byblos grew from a small village to a wealthy city. Today still it thrives, by way of a modern phenomenon called tourism, attracting travelers like me looking for a journey back in time.
Although thousands of tourists visit Lebanon every year, with Byblos as the top of their to-see lists, municipal leaders say they expect an increase in tourism by up to 30 percent, in the foreseeable future. There are plans to inaugurate five-star international hotel chains and, well, keep up the good work with the Lebanese cooking.
Archaeologically, Byblos is fascinating. It is home to Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Greek and Roman ruins, including a Church of St. John the Baptist and a restored 12th century Crusader castle.
The Byblos International Festival is an annual summer music festival and the biggest public event in Lebanon. Musicians and singers from all over the world, including but not limited to the Middle East, fill the air with everything from classical sounds to pop tunes. For the last few years, the municipality has projected a brief 3D animation movie showing historical highlights of Byblos on tower walls in the fishermen’s harbor.
Efforts for environmental sustainability are also at work. The air in Byblos is cleaner than it has been in a while. With aims to make Byblos more pedestrian-friendly, local leaders recently closed part of the old city to vehicles after 4pm on weekdays and noon on weekends. With decreased air pollution and less noise, visitors will be breathing fresh air in this very old city.
I’d recommend a few days in Byblos, although it could easily be made into a day trip from Beirut. I think spending more than 24 hours there only makes sense, for you’ll be stepping far, far back in time and there’s a lot of ground to cover!
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