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Lebanon... land of the Phoenicians

Michael Knipe is a former foreign correspondent of The Times who was based in Africa, America and the Middle East and reported from a total of 80 countries, including Lebanon.

The Roman temples of Baalbek, the wines of the Bekaa Valley and the remnants of Lebanon’s Phoenician, Persian, Arab and French-colonial past are once again within the reach of western travellers. Lebanon is regaining its reputation as an attractive destination for the more inquisitive European travellers, as well as for being the secular playground of the Arab world.

I am fortunate enough to have seen Lebanon from a triple perspective, having enjoyed its golden days before the 1975-91 civil-war, witnessed its pain during the war itself and its hopes and disappointments during the years of post-war mayhem and reconstruction.

Yet, being driven around the country, I find myself marvelling at how well this diverse nation of four million people, divided into 17 officially recognised religious groups – Sunni and Shia Muslims, Maronite, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Christians and Druze - has hauled itself back from the abyss.

The Bekaa Valley, for years a notorious no-go area for visitors, is now back on the tourist map, renowned today for its wineries and the magnificence of its historic sites.

In Beirut, the National Museum, closed and badly damaged during the civil war, has been stylishly reconstructed. Exquisite mosaics, statues, sarcophagi and other artefacts from the Bronze Age to the Mamluk period, which were encased in concrete and hidden during the conflict, are now splendidly displayed.

Ten miles (17km) north of the capital, two six-mile-long (10km) underground caverns that were closed off and, reputedly, used to store ammunition and weapons during the war, are once again open to visitors. Called Jeita grotto, these caves consist of a quite remarkable series of dramatically atmospheric, cathedral-like, limestone chambers, adorned with weird and wonderful forms naturally sculpted over millions of years from countless drops of water, one of which is the world’s largest stalactite.

Driving eastwards from Beirut, en route for Baalbek, the 12-lane highway is jammed with traffic. But the atmosphere is relaxed and within 15 minutes of leaving the Mediterranean coast I was in mountains with the surrounding landscape coloured by pale pink blooms of flowering cyclamen.

The Bekaa is an agricultural fertile valley that runs, half a mile above sea level, for 75 miles between two mountain ranges that reach 3,000 feet. On either side of the road are wheat and cornfields, apple orchards and vineyards. One of the country's largest and most successful wineries, Chateau Ksara is welcoming passing tourists these days - and their finest wines are highly rated by international connoisseurs.

A few miles further I gained my first sight of the slender columns and fragile arches of Anjar, elegant remains of a city that is one of Lebanon’s more recent historical sites. Anjar flourished for only a few decades during the eighth century-era of the Arab Muslim state of Umayyad and is now the country’s most significant Arabic historical site.

The Umayyads recycled Roman and Byzantine columns and capitals to build their city. Remnants of palaces, public baths, fortifications and a mosque have been uncovered and visitors can stroll along Cardo Maximus – the main street – which is flanked by the sites of around 600 shops, some of which have been reconstructed.

Six rose-coloured Corinthian columns (currently under renovation) – the tallest in the world - soaring 72 feet (22 metres) into the skyline are the first things you see as you arrive at Heliopolis, the City of the Sun, as Baalbek was known by the Romans. They belong to the Temple of Jupiter, the single largest religious construction erected by the Romans. Originally there were 54 of these massive columns, made of granite transported by land and sea from Egypt.

Nearby, surrounded by 42 columns 62 feet in height, is the Temple of Bacchus, which is the best-preserved Roman temple in the world. The construction of Heliopolis took place over three centuries through the reigns of eight emperors. And whatever amazement one feels at the sight of these magnificent edifices, which have survived earthquakes, wars and other desecrations, it is likely to be matched by awed perplexity over the origin of the foundations on which the temple complex stands.

These consist of immense, finely crafted and precisely positioned stones that date back to the early Bronze Age of 2900 BC. Each one is between 63 and 65 feet in length, 14 feet high, 12 feet deep and weighs in excess of a thousand tonnes. How they were placed into position continues to puzzle engineers and scientists, as it could not be achieved today, even with the use of modern technological implements.

Back in Beirut, sipping a cold glass of chardonnay at a pavement café in the city’s pedestrianised Place d’Etoile, I watched Japanese, European and white-robed Arabs from the Gulf States strolling past, and Christian and Muslim Lebanese in western dress mingling freely and easily. The atmosphere was entirely serene.

Place d’Etoile and the nearby Martyrs’ Square were at the epicentre of the conflict during the civil war, situated on the so-called ‘green line’ that divided the Christian East from the Muslim West of Beirut during the conflict. After 15 years of shelling and shooting from both sides, the grand buildings that lined the square were burnt out shells, abandoned by their owners and inhabited by homeless refugees. However, thanks to bold and ingenious urban planning, the bombed-out buildings were bulldozed into the sea, to provide the basis for land-reclamation, with the land being sold to developers to fund the rebuilding of central Beirut.

Today the historical core of the city has been reconstructed with much of its early character retained: facades have been decorated and sculpted in their original Ottoman and French colonial styles, the souks have been mapped out and rebuilt along the same narrow alleyways they have occupied for thousands of years, and the churches and mosques have been tenderly restored.

I strolled along the Corniche, the city’s five-mile-long, coastal promenade, passing men fishing, couples courting and large groups of Kurdish men and women picnicking. Then to the fashionable cafés and shops of Hamra Street, the Oxford Street of West Beirut, and a wander through East Beirut’s fashionable Mono Street. The city is no longer divided between Christian East and Muslim West.

Lebanon’s prospects look bright. The economy is being soundly managed, infrastructure is being restored and entrepreneurs are investing, especially in the tourism sector.

Alternatively, if you are interested in tailor-made travel to Lebanon, please either call one of our specialist travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.