Adventures at home, abroad, and online

Category: Childrens Crusade Page 2 of 7

Italy to the Holy Land, and then on to India


Lion Gargoyle
Six colums

After finally getting my Indian visa, I decided to spend my last day in Lebanon at one of the classic sights, the Roman ruins of Heliopolis. They are up in the mountains, where the cool air made wandering around in midday sun a little more bearable. The ruins are incredibly well preserved, and were far larger than the Parthenon. The temple of Bacchus has a lovely carved ceiling and lion shaped rain spouts, as well as a good mosaic of the hedonist god himself.

Israeli bombs
Bottle rockets

As the Bekka valley is the home of the party of god, there is a Hizbollah museum and gift shop just outside the ruins entrance. A diorama room filled with middle-school level styrofoam cutouts represents their apparent military glory over the bat-winged Israelis. Their marketing department must work overtime to produce the vast array of pins, flags, t-shirts, and DVD’s available for sale. I almost purchased some, but the thought of directly giving them money was a little much. Besides, I already have a beach towel.

Tonight I went to the Bourj al-Barajneh refugee camp just outside of Beirut for a screening of Slingshot Hiphop, a documentary about several Palestinian rappers. It was one of the best films I have seen in a long time, and does an excellent job at humanizing the conflict. There is no US distribution deal yet, but the director told me she is working with Sundance to get it out there. At dinner and drinks afterwards, a fellow American regaled me with the entire history of Tupac and the other American political rappers who are cited as inspiring forces in the film. As always, my education continues.

Krak des Chevaliers

On the notion that I need to storm a castle in every country I visit, I went to a crusader stronghold today. TE Lawrence called it the “most wholly admirable castle in the world”, and I think I agree. It is remarkably well preserved, and the interior is still as musty and dank as it has been for the last thousand years. I found a passageway marked “secret entrance”, which was pitch black, steep and rocky, so of course I had to try it. Sadly, I was without my torch, so I couldn’t go too far without killing myself. Still, it was an admirable Indiana Jones moment.

After the castle, I took a pea green 1960’s Mercedes taxi across the border, in another stereotypical middle east experience. The driver had three teeth, started the car with wires under the dash, played arabic pop as loud as the speakers could go, and drove like a madman. It was great, and I even made it back to Beirut alive. In all, a good excursion.

Conquering Krak
Berber column


Got here safe and sound, after only a three hour wait at the border. A tour guide I met in line was very helpful, and procured the forms I needed to fill out, which were visible no where. Having to fight through the crush of people just to find out you don’t have quite all the documents you need is quite disheartening. However, when you consider what we would have done to a Syrian who arrived on our shores without a visa, it was actually quite mild.

Umayyad Mosque

Last night I wandered around the old city, stopping for pistachio encrusted ice cream, felafel and a fresh squeezed orange juice. Not sure my stomach can handle the blackberry juice that seems to be everywhere; I really don’t want to get sick again. The Umayyed Mosque is breathtaking at night, when the marble courtyard gleams with the reflections from the lit minarets. The interior is nicely decorated, but not as overwhelming as the mosques in Istanbul. The rectangular layout might have something to do with it.

Synagogue Fresco

This morning I went to the National Museum, which has an incredible 2nd century synagogue with walls covered in frescoes. They are apparently quite serious about visitors not taking pictures of it, with several hand written NO PHOTO signs. First the guard eyes me as I leave with my camera slung over my shoulder, and I put it away. But then he follows me down the hallway, and threatens to take me to the soldiers unless I delete the photos. I do, and then wait for him to leave on his rounds.

Here’s where I got stupid. I went back and did it again with no one there. But when the guard saw me leaving the synagogue for the second time, he was on to me. He demands my camera, which I refuse to give him. Now he gets angry, and I get angry too. He grabs my elbow and tries to lead me to the soldiers, but I shake him off, tear up my entrance ticket, and leave the museum. This might seem out of character, but getting around here seems to require a level of aggressiveness that would be out of place in the States. But when you have to fight through lines every day, you sort of get into the spirit of it. Anyways, I may have gone too far, and I’ve tried to tone it down a little; and now I know that they’re serious about NO PHOTOS. No matter, the lighting is better in the postcard pack than I would have been able to manage anyways.

Silk Loom
Pattern Punchcards

Wandering back to the Old City, I shopped in the souq for gifts, stopping at a handmade silk store. The loom is actually run on punch cards, which I found particularly amusing. While there are tacky belly dancing outfits available on every corner, they are either really trashy or made of low quality fabric. The silk is expensive, but much nicer, and also a typical Damascus ware.

Damascus Steel
Azem Palace

The Azem Palace is labeled as a “must see” in the guidebook, and it’s clear why. It was the home of the governor of Damascus in the late 1700’s, and is now used as an ethnographic museum. While the displays are a little cheesy, the architecture is simply stunning. The alternating basalt and sandstone walls are typical of the area and time period. They also had a great weapons room, although the tradition of swordmaking seems to be replaced by cheap souvenirs.

Moonlit Minaret
Abu Shady

At night I wandered around the Christian Quarter, getting myself thoroughly lost. I eventually had dinner at Leila’s Terrace overlooking the Umayyed Mosque. Seeing it at sunset, I was struck again by its beauty and stature. I then saw a professional storyteller at an atmospheric coffee shop. He seems to be the last of his kind, replaced like so many things by television.

This is the most stereotypically “middle eastern” place I have ever been, with the busy souq, chaotic traffic, and generous hospitality that entails. They have done a wonderful job of preserving the character of the Old City, without opening it to the kind of rampant development that would destroy it. While it was a hassle to get here, it was definitely worth the trip.

Hizbollah Beach Party

After two days of downtime due to sickness, we’re back in action. We went south to Tyre yesterday and spent the afternoon on the beach. Found some sweet towels, which will make excellent souvenirs.

Hizbollah Beach Party

Today we got permits to visit the “secure zone” of Hizbollah controlled towns. Our permit required color photocopies of our passports and new photographs, but ended up being a slip of paper with a number written on it. Sometimes things are just laughably ad-hoc in the Middle East. Stormed a castle that was originally built by the romans, captured by the Crusaders in 1139, used by the PLO to shell northern Israel until 1982, was used by the Israelis during the occupation which ended in 2000. Now there is a yellow Hizbollah flag on the top, and the castle is in rough shape.

Chateau Beaufort
Storming the castle

We also toured through several villages that were heavily bombed by the Israelis in the 2006 war, where reconstructions is still underway. As our gracious host explained, the Lebanese are experienced at rebuilding. We also saw a former Israeli detention center, which was also bombed during the most recent conflict. Hizbollah banners and martyr posters line the streets, and it isn’t hard to see why the population supports them. Of all the “non-state actors” in the region, they are the only one to achieve any real gains against Israel. My feelings about the group are mixed, however despicable the qassam rockets were they haven’t been involved in suicide attacks within Israel. They do seem to be a more classic nationalist organization than your stereotypical international terrorist group.

Israeli Artillery
Blue Helmets


Wandered around the downtown today, seeing the massive rebuilding project. The area was where the worst fighting during the civil war was, but you’d hardly know it today. There are shops galore, a huge new mosque, and the Parliament building, even if the representatives haven’t met in two years. It’s almost like Disneyland, in that new-old building style.

Tanks on the street
Dunkin Donuts
Shebab at the beach

At Jared and Jenna’s insistence, we went to a concert tonight in Martyr’s Square. It was both the worst musical experience of any concert I have been to, and also the most fun. Mika is apparently a big deal, especially in Lebanon, his homeland. I’d never heard of the guy, but I guess that means I’m out of the loop. It was a remarkably strange performance, with giant inflatable pizza slices and milkshakes surfing the crowd, a squadron of zaftig dancers, and several interludes with animal costume performances. Words cannot quite describe the, well, gayness, of this show. Still, the crowd loved it, and we decided to as well. When in Beirut, you have to party hard.

Big Girl
Jared and Jenna loving it
Serious fans
Cartoon motion

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