Last Days in Beirut

The church at Antelias

Does it feel like we’ve been in Lebanon forever? It’s amazing how much you can pack into 9 days! All good things must come to an end though, and here we come (side note: I’ve just now decided that is a very dumb saying, and I’m not going to use it anymore. All it does it make you dread the “inevitable end” of the good). I spent my last couple of days wandering around Beirut, making sure everything was checked off my sightseeing list, and revisiting some of the things I saw with Badveli in the rain or the dark.

Maria and I went on an adventure to the “Etchmiadzin of Lebanon”. As a refresher, Etchmiadzin is like the Vatican of the Armenian Apostolic Church. It’s where the Catholicos (the Armenian version of the Pope) sits… but of course, nothing is simple, so here’s another quick, complicated history lesson for you. When Armenia was under the control of the Seljuk Turks in the 1100s, the Catholicos ended up in Cilicia and set up camp there. A couple hundred year later, when the situation in Cilicia started to fall apart, a new Catholicos was elected in Etchmiadzin. The Cilicia Catholicos settled in Antelias, Lebanon, and now there are two Catholici, with the one in Etchmiadzin serving as the supreme Catholicos. The Catholicos of Cilicia is responsible for the Armenian Apostolic churches in Lebanon, Syria, Cyprus, Greece, Iran, and the Gulf countries.

The compound includes a cathedral, museum, library, the Catholicos’s residence, and a school for clergy. There’s also an Armenian Genocide memorial that includes sand and bones from Deir ez-Zor, the major “concentration camp” located in the Syrian desert. I put that in quotes because those words imply that there was something there, but it was just open, empty desert where people were sent to wait for death. There used to be a memorial and museum there, but those have since been destroyed in the Syrian war.

Chandelier party in the church at Antelias… hehe

Their mannequin nativity made me giggle

The building where all of the old Catholici are buried

Outside of the Armenian Genocide memorial

Inside the Armenian Genocide memorial

Plant. Covered. Walkways. ❤ ❤

The rest of my remaining adventures took place around Beirut. I started out my last day with a leisurely walk to downtown on Armenia Street (the name changes halfway, but we’ll just claim it all for Armenia). There are some cool alleyways that I had noticed earlier in the week and wanted to go back to check out more closely. Based on my walk, I’ve decided that every staircase should be painted, and every walkway should be covered with a canopy of plants. Those two things make everything look at least 100 million times cooler.

St. Elias… probably my favorite church from the outside. I tried to look inside, but it was under construction 😦

Stairs!

Seriously though, how much more fabulous do they look because of the paint?

These are the coolest ones

There’s some pretty fab graffiti too

Martyrs’ Monument

Once I made it into town, I paid a visit to Martyrs’ Square… and by “square” I mean “parking lot with a monument in the middle”. The square was the location of executions of Lebanese nationalists by the Ottomans and was thereafter known as “Martyrs’ Square”. The first statue was erected there in the 1930s, and it showed a Muslim woman and a Christian woman holding hands over a coffin. The current statue replaced that one in 1960. Martyrs’ Square was a place to gather, a place to demonstrate. During the civil war, it was right on the dividing line of the city, and the statue suffered a lot of damage. After the war, they decided to restore the statue and leave it with some of the war damage as a reminder. It has reclaimed its former position and now sits in the middle of two muddy parking lots. There are plans to rebuild the square, but they definitely haven’t come to fruition yet.

Street views

Pretty but deserted streets leading into the central square

Anddd empty…

Crusader Castle in Beirut… not quite in the same condition as the one in Byblos!

Yay for twinkle lights!

Another spot in the city that I visited with Badveli was the Beirut Souks. The name is misleading because “souks” implies that it’s a market, but it’s actually just a mall. Back in the day, it used to be a market. You know, one of those bustling, crowded, personality-filled markets. I love those places. The people-watching is always fabulous because they’re full of people with purpose. I think it’s cool when you’re in a place that seems like nothing but chaos to you, but when you look around at the people who clearly live and work there, they all know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going. From the outside, it looks like chaos. To the people on the inside, it’s organized chaos.

When all of the post-war redevelopment of the city started, the old shop owners were offered money in exchange for their shops. The payouts weren’t fair, but with the compulsory purchase power held by the developers, people really didn’t have a choice. I think the new building is nice and all, but it’s just like any other shopping mall. There’s nothing “souk”y about it. They did keep the old streets as the layout for the new corridors, but like… come on. I wanted to hate the building because of what it represents, but I can’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy it a little bit. Especially since when I went with Badveli, it was all decorated for the holidays, and you know what a sucker I am for lights! It’s nothing unique though, that’s for sure. Essentially, it’s like any other mall you’ve ever been in.

Beirut Souks

This would be way more ordinary without the decorations

A building in Saifi Village, an upscale neighborhood in Beirut that was completely rebuilt after the war

More Saifi Village views

Hard at work

The final activity of my last day was a trip to a gallery, Beyt Amir. There’s a little café in the backyard, and we went there for lunch before checking out the show. Maria unfortunately had a lot of things to do at work, so that mostly left Badveli and me alone except for a quick few minutes during lunchtime.

The big thing at this gallery is a bunch of panorama-type pictures of Beirut at different points throughout history. There’s one from 1870, one before the war, one right after the war, and one modern day. Then, an artist did a drawing of what the 2052 Beirut might look like. At the café, the artist’s black and white panorama drawing has been split into pieces and it’s used for placemats! Each table also has coloring utensils at each table, sooooo they’re obviously telling you to color. Badveli and I were talking… and then we were coloring and talking… and then we were so into it that getting our food was almost an inconvenience because we had to stop coloring to eat.

I don’t know how long we sat at that table… but I do know that it was long enough for both of us to finish our masterpieces. It took stealing some markers and pencils from another table to make our dreams a reality, but we did it! It was only after we finished, took photos of our artwork, left them on the table, and went to the gallery that we realized we had colored a couple pieces of a bigger picture… and that our pictures fit next to each other! We rushed back to the table, and sure enough, they matched up perfectly! We found this to be extremely exciting and then obviously took a few more photos before going back to the gallery.

Our masterpieces. Whose is whose? (though I guess the last picture kind of gives it away)

Gate into the cafe

The exhibition was an interesting mix of things. There were the panoramas, plus some watercolors of old, damaged buildings from around the city. Those were cool because the surroundings were all just pen-drawn, and the building that was the focus was painted in watercolor. There were other things that were like little metal dioramas. They were showing war-damaged rooms and buildings but were kind of beautiful because of all the details and the lights that made them look like decorations. The building itself was also pretty. All in all, a great choice of lunch venue and afternoon perusal location.

Inside Beyt Amir

Isn’t this cool?? All of the details are crazy!

Me with my airplane kuftes

And just like that, my time in Lebanon ran out. Badveli, Maria, and I had our last supper, and before we knew it, Hovig was downstairs to take me to the airport. Maria, in a classic Armenian mother move, insisted that I pack kuftes for the road… because that’s such a normal airplane snack… I pretend to grumble in those situations, but it’s nice to feel the love that comes along with the food pressure because you know that you’re only being forced to take/eat food because you’re cared for and no one wants you to waste away (like that’s even possible in an Armenian household).

I was sad to leave, but I went with a full heart. Seriously, it was just the break I needed to refresh me and prepare me for the rest of my time in Armenia. It was nice to be around familiar people, eat familiar food (because the food in Armenia is NOT the Armenian food I’m used to, but the Middle Eastern and Armenian food in Lebanon are exactly what we ate growing up), spend time in familiar community, and just have a little time where I felt like I was truly at home.

I also took a stroll around the American University of Beirut’s campus. They have some really nice buildings! And lots of green space.

AUB greenery

If you keep your eyes open, you can find all sorts of hidden architectural gems in the city.

This is a pretty classic apartment building view. The curtains on the balconies help to keep out the rain and heat.

Mountains and Ministry

Another outside-of-Beirut adventure came about by chance. At church on Sunday, Maria bumped into an old friend who was visiting Lebanon for a few days. She was going out into a few villages the next day to see some Christian-run refugee schools, and their conversation resulted in an invitation for me to join!

The drive out of Beirut was beyond breathtaking. I took a few inadequate pictures out the car window before giving up and just looking with my eyes.

I was very interested to see the refugee situation in Lebanon and how it compares to Armenia. Before this, Armenia was my only real reference point, and that isn’t exactly a typical refugee scenario. One major difference is simply the number of people. In Armenia, a country of 3ish million people, the numbers we usually cite are that 22,000 refugees have come to Armenia, and 15,000 of those are still in the country. Lebanon, a country of 4 million people, is estimated to have around 1.5 million Syrian refugees, not to mention the almost 200,000 Palestinian refugees who have been there for decades now (though no one really knows the accurate numbers, so they could be higher or lower than these).

Another big difference I didn’t think much about beforehand is housing. I was answering some questions about the refugee situation in Armenia, and someone said, “What are the camps like?” I was a little thrown off and replied that there aren’t camps in Armenia. The person looked impressed by that fact, but I tried to clarify that that doesn’t mean Armenia really has its act together or that most refugees have decent living conditions. Maybe things are “better” for people here, but it doesn’t seem productive to use that word when the situations are just two varying levels of horrible.

One of the refugee camps from a distance. It’s a little tent city, and with the cold of winter (which can be decently cold despite being in Lebanon), a tent is definitely not an easy or comfortable living space.

There are estimates that as many as half of the school-age Syrian refugee children in Lebanon aren’t going to school. Despite many initiatives to change that, various challenges such as language barriers, transportation costs, and kids working to help support their families all contribute to keeping kids out of school.

We visited two out of the six total schools that this particular ministry operates. Between all six, they have about 1,600 kids enrolled! The principal at the first school explained that even though it’s a school run by Christians, they don’t explicitly teach the kids about Christianity. For a while at first, they just operated the school and gained the trust of the community. After that, they started talking a bit more about stories from the Bible and such, and they do teach Christian values.

Kids at the first school singing and dancing. They were all so excited to show off what they’ve learned.

She told a story about a boy from one of their schools. His father told him to go and steal some fruit, and the boy said that they learned at school that you’re not supposed to take things that don’t belong to you. The kid’s teacher went to see the father, explained what they’re teaching the kids about how to behave, and said that it only works if they’re also getting the same reinforcement at home. She told him that they needed to work together.

Now that the school has been around for a bit, they’re gaining people’s trust more and more. They’re bringing the parents in for meetings and getting them involved. Most of all, they’re just trying to show the people God’s love. They said that they’ve heard multiple times from the families they work with that the only people who treat them like they’re people and not animals are the Christians. That’s nice and I’m glad that the Christian community is treating people right, but honestly, that statement mostly just bothers me. They are people. Why is it so hard to treat them that way? Or better question, why is it so easy to not treat them that way?

One of the classrooms in the second school. The school is located in what looks like a very small strip mall. You can see the garage-type door on the opposite side of the room.

We have this horrible human habit of thinking that we deserve what we have, and if people are in unfortunate situations, it’s their fault. How do we have such undeserved, high opinions of ourselves? As if we deserve success and happiness because we’ve never done anything wrong in our whole lives, and they don’t because they definitely have done something that justifies their circumstances.

These people had lives back in Syria. They had businesses. They were teachers, writers, mechanics, artists, jewelers, shopkeepers. They didn’t start the war. Most of them didn’t want the war and would have been happy to keep on living life the way they were. They are just people who were caught in the middle of a conflict in their country. They deserve to live as much as any of us. They deserve to build lives and to be able to support their families. They deserve to be treated with love, respect, and dignity. How can you look at a person, know nothing about them, and think of them as less than you? Saying it like that makes it sound ridiculous… because it is. Somehow though, we manage to do it constantly.

Every time I hear someone talk about their experiences in Syria during the war, I get this weird mix of emotions. It’s the same thing I feel when Maria and Badveli talk about something that happened during the war in Beirut and they’re so matter-of-fact about it. “Well, this bus only ran to here, and then you walked to taxis over here but you had to be careful because of snipers, and then you drove to these buses here and you had to be careful again because other snipers, and then you got home!” I think I feel a combination of horrified and baffled because the words don’t match the tone. The words are horrific, and the tone is simply factual. It’s amazing what people can get used to. We can train ourselves to feel like almost anything is normal, even when it absolutely isn’t. People shouldn’t have to know what shelling sounds like or how to avoid getting sniped or what to do when bombs are being dropped on their neighborhood. Those are not things that should have to be accepted as part of “normal” life.

View from one of the schools.

Visiting those schools, it was hard to reconcile the knowledge of the horrible things those kids have lived through with the smiles on their faces. Part of that is because kids are amazingly resilient, and in these schools, part of it is definitely because of the teachers. It was immediately clear to me that the teachers are passionate about their work and that they love the kids. I was so impressed. I’ve seen a lot of teachers all over the world, and you can very quickly tell which ones see teaching as more than a job. They know that they can have a huge impact on the kids and who they will become, and they take that responsibility seriously. In all of them, I saw that look in their eyes where you know that they love those kids like their own. The students can feel it too, and every single kid in those schools was clearly thrilled to be there. Their families are still facing plenty of challenges, but for a few hours each day, they get to be regular kids who smile and laugh and play.

Kids at the second school taking a break from classes to sing, dance, and run around.

I’ve had some very unique opportunities this year to see the world from different angles. Some have been fun and beautiful and some have been sad and uncomfortable, but all of them have been equally important. Ignoring sad things doesn’t make them go away. Paying attention, letting yourself feel, and trying to understand are what lead to empathy. Empathy connects people. And paying attention usually also reveals hope because where there’s a problem, there are “ordinary” people working to fix it. I think that’s pretty amazing.

Anyway, I know this isn’t exactly my usual type of post. I’ve just been thinking a lot about these things recently, and my experience in Lebanon reinforced a lot of the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head. I’m still not completely sure what to do with them, but for now, they’re pushing me to see people and situations in a new way.

Here are a few more pretty mountain views 🙂

Byblos

I’ve already decided that I need to go back to Lebanon because there’s SO much more to see there (and because I had a great time hanging out with Badveli and Maria). I spent most of my time in Beirut, so I definitely have to go back to see the major sights that I didn’t get to outside of the city. Next time will be a cross-country tour… which sounds intense until you remember that it takes about 2 hours to drive across the country from west to east and maybe 6 from north to south.

HI, PRETTY WATER!

Anyway, we did get out of the city a couple of times, and one of those adventures was to Byblos (Jbail in Arabic)! Byblos is a coastal city north of Beirut. “They” say it’s one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. “They” seem to say that about a lot of cities though, so I’m a little hesitant to listen to anyone who tries to claim that title. People in Armenia say that about Yerevan too, but there are a TON of waaay older cities than Yerevan. I guess that when you say it’s “one of the oldest”, there isn’t a clear place to draw the line. Convenient. Well then, I’m one of the oldest people in the world. I’m one of the tallest humans. I’m one of the coolest people in the universe. These all could very well be true as long as you stretch your imagination a little bit.

View of the city to the north of the castle

Wow okay, I got a little carried away with that. Like I was saying, pre-rant, Byblos is old. That certainly can’t be argued… Back in the day, Byblos was a fishing village until it turned into an important Phoenician port, shipping out the famous Lebanon cedars and more. It was known for both that and for fantastic shipbuilding. The city grew very wealthy due to its trade with Egypt, and it was heavily influenced by Egyptian culture. It’s also one of the Phoenician cities that gets a few shout-outs in the Bible (though that’s not exactly a good thing because it’s usually when one of God’s prophets is foretelling judgment on the city that will lead to its destruction or something to that effect).

That water though…

As Tyre became more and more important, Byblos became less and less and started to decline. It had a resurgence under Babylonian and Roman rule until almost fading out completely during Muslim rule. During the brief upswing, they exported a lot of papyrus. For this reason, the Greek word for book, biblio, came from the city’s Greek name. And the word for Bible came from the Greek word for book… so the Bible is kind of named after Byblos. After the Muslim conquest of Byblos, they cared so little about the city that they didn’t even bother fixing the things that were destroyed during their invasion. Byblos was nearly forgotten until the 1860s when it was brought back into the picture by a French historian (Ernest Renan).

Today, Byblos is becoming a more and more popular tourist destination because of its beaches, history, and beautiful setting.

Obsessed.

One of the restored “souk” streets in the city which basically just sells souvenirs and such now

The “modern” Christmas tree in Byblos. Hovig despised it. I thought it was kind of interesting.

Badveli asked one of his car-owning friends, Hovig, if he could drive us there, and thankfully he said yes. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Hovig has the same *brilliant* sense of humor as Badveli and I do, so all it took was a few corny jokes before it felt like we were old friends.

We went to the Crusader castle in the city, and I absolutely loved it. The castle was built in the 12th century by… you guessed it, the Crusaders. Besides the castle, there are also extensive ruins on the grounds. You can see the foundations of temples and dwellings and fortifications, and the actual castle has been restored to give you a better idea of what it was like in its former glory. It’s pretty cool because there are ruins from practically every part of Lebanon’s history… prehistoric dwellings, the Phoenician necropolis, Egyptian temples, Persian fortress, a Roman amphitheater, and more. The site is right on the coast, so there’s a beautiful view of the sea which is made even better by the fact that you can go all the way to the top of the castle to see it. I kept marveling at how pretty and blue the water is… and Badveli and Hovig responded by saying how gross and dirty it is because trash and stuff get dumped into it. Well excuuuuse me. I didn’t say it looked clean (though from afar it looked fine), I just said it looked pretty.

Entrance to the castle

Can you see me?

Me, Badveli, and Hovig on top of the castle

Badveli took over as the official “Lara in holes” photographer during the trip. Can you find me?We were at the castle until closing when a guy started aggressively blowing a whistle to get people to leave. I, of course at that very moment, was poking around a building on the site that I felt like maybe I shouldn’t be poking around. (My recent approach to sightseeing has been “do what you want until someone yells at you” because so often, things that you wouldn’t be allowed to do in the US are totally okay in other countries. If you limit yourself to the things you think would/should be allowed, you’ll probably miss out on something.) Since you get super jumpy when you think you’re doing something wrong (or at least I do), the instant the whistle started blowing, I was sure that it was someone whistling at me for being somewhere I shouldn’t be. I’ve been to places (I can’t remember exactly where… Machu Picchu maybe?) where that’s the how the guards get your attention. I kind of spazzed and ran to what I deemed a more acceptable location before realizing that he wasn’t whistling at me. And of course, Badveli and Hovig laughed at me the entire time (to be fair, I deserved to be laughed at). Apparently not having learned my lesson about trying to look semi-normal, I then ran around like a lunatic, trying to see the couple of things we hadn’t gotten to yet before the whistle man kicked us out.

Poke poke poking around… this is just moments pre-whistle and spaz attack.

The castle from my illegal (but not actually) stop on the steps of that building

Egyptian obelisk temple that was relocated to this site to conserve it

Weird flower field

Looking south

We used the last hour or so of daylight to walk down to the harbor where Hovig was a helpful tour guide by showing me where you can see trash floating in the water. I chose to ignore it, not because I think it’s fine that the water is gross, but because I wanted to enjoy the illusion that the water was blue and pure and that humans weren’t doing what they do best and ruining nature.

Despite the garbage, it really was beautiful. There were some very nice rocks, and the sun was starting to set. Boats bobbed around in the harbor, surrounded by picturesque buildings. The air was that perfect, comfortable temperature, and a breeze was coming off the sea. We stayed there for a bit, me soaking in the beauty of the moment, Hovig looking in disgust at the dirty water, and Badveli most likely making a fantastic(ly bad) joke (Badveli – by bad I obviously mean good… but if not good, definitely funny… or at least cringe-worthy).

The harbor

Sunset!

Admiring the *clean* water

Okay, quiz time. What’s the best way to make a great day into a phenomenal day? The answer is ice cream. Always ice cream. On the ride back to Beirut, we stopped and got Arabic ice cream which is different because it uses flour made from orchids that helps keep it from melting and mastic tree resin to help stabilize it (whatever that all means). I’ll be honest, if you didn’t tell me that it wasn’t normal ice cream, I never would have known. It was delicious. We were supposed to just stop to pick up a container to bring back with us, but we obviously ate some there also (unless Maria is reading this… then that didn’t happen and we just did what we were told because we’re very good at following directions). Then, I ended up eating ice cream TWICE, and that’s how you make a phenomenal day into a historic day that will be remembered forever.

If you remember anything from my blog, let it be this: Ice cream makes everything better.

LOL

Chocolate and vanilla because I’m boring

Pigeon Rocks, Luna Park, and the Coast

When I finally awakened from my post-Christmas caroling coma… I wanted to go right back to sleep. But no! I had a set amount of time in Lebanon, and I had to make the most of it. By the time I managed to pull myself together, Maria was home from church with plans for us to check a few more things off our sightseeing list.

We hopped on the bus and went all the way to the western waterfront of the city where Badveli was waiting to meet us. Our first stop was the famous “Pigeon Rocks.” There isn’t too much to say about these… They’re a couple of big rock formations out in the water. They are definitely cool looking! And it was nice to be by the water. They probably look even cooler during the sunset, but we were there earlier in the day and saw the awesome sunset from elsewhere along the coast.

Apparently, people sometimes try to go through the hole in the big rock in boats. Like… come on. After watching the waves crash against the rocks and the water rush through the hole for about five seconds, I was convinced that that’s a terrible idea. I’m all about adventure and taking risks or whatever, but not when they’re stupid. Sorry, that was strongly worded and full of judgement. Let’s try again… As fun as it sounds to attempt to launch myself through a rocky hole in a little boat while waves try to smash me into tiny pieces, I think I’ll pass. (I don’t think that was any less judge-y… oh well, I tried.)

Pigeon rocks. Aren’t you tempted to brave the tunnel?

From there, we walked north and went for a nice stroll along the water. The weather, finally after three days of constant rain, was perfect. There’s nothing like the feeling of the sun warming your face, and the smell of the air reminded me of the beach back home. It was a snapshot of summer in the middle of winter, and what’s better than that? I’m sure it gets miserably hot during the summer months, but I was happy to enjoy the warmth while it was juuust right.

I’m sure it’s completely safe…

Our next stop was Luna Park, an amusement park right on the coast. Luna Park isn’t any sort of special name for that particular spot. More like it’s the generic name for “amusement park”. Fun fact: there are a ton of “Luna Parks” in existence. The name originally comes from Luna Park on Coney Island in New York, and it was borrowed by a few other developers who built amusement parks across the world. Now, in more countries than just Lebanon, saying “Luna Park” is the same as saying “amusement park”.

I wanted to go on the ferris wheel, something Badveli and Maria had never done before, probably because it’s another one of those “this ferris wheel has been here since before the beginning of time” situations.  But you know, remember how I was talking about risks and how some are worth taking? Terrifyingly old ferris wheels are almost ALWAYS worth it.

Since this isn’t exactly high season for the ferris wheel, there was no one else riding when we got on. That meant that we got an extended ride and went around like 5 times. I’m fairly certain the operator just started the ride, went and drank a cup of coffee, and then came back to stop it. We got a great view of the city and the water, and the ferris wheel had those cars that you can spin around and around until you feel like you’re going to throw up, so that was fun too. I was just happy that my brothers weren’t there with us because they’re known for spinning those things so fast that you can feel your stomach trying to leap out of your body… and so fast that everyone watching is almost positive that your car is going to disconnect from the ride and spin off into oblivion. Thankfully, our experience was slightly less dramatic than that, though still pretty great.

Ferris wheel party!

Photo credit to Badveli for this cool pic!

View from the ferris wheel

After the park, we kept walking along the water. It was such a pleasant night, and hearing the water crash up against the shore is always so calming. There was a spectacular sunset, and all of that put together was almost enough to make me forget that the first few days were filled with rain and rain and rain.

Can you spot the lighthouse?

Picture perfect!

Check out the water!! So blue! ❤

Sunset walk along the water.

Sunset!

It’s almost like the clouds were intentionally and perfectly arranged to make this look as cool as possible.

Armenian Christmas

After my day of trekking all over the universe with Badveli (you can read my last post HERE), all I wanted to do was sit on their comfy couch like a huge bum and go to sleep early. There was only one problem… it was Armenian Christmas Eve, and I was signed up to join the youth/young adult group in their overnight caroling. It’s a good thing that I really wanted to go because otherwise, I don’t know how I would have made it through the night. I took a 50ish minute nap when we got home and then dragged myself out of bed, feeling fresh, rested, and ready for some late-night singing! HA! That’s not true. I basically rolled out of bed and then zombied around for at least the next 45 minutes until my body woke up.

Family Christmas card

The main Beirut Christmas tree.

Unlike most of the other Christians in Lebanon, the Armenians celebrate Christmas on January 6th. I’ll give you the five-second explanation of why that is… everyone used to celebrate on the 6th of January. In the Roman Empire, there was a pagan holiday celebrating the birth of the sun on the 25th of December. They changed it to the celebration of the birth of the Son (hehe) and left January 6th as the Epiphany, or the revelation of Christ as God in the flesh. Armenians celebrate the birth and revelation of Christ on the same day (which is why the Armenian Christmas greeting says, “Christ is born AND revealed”) because they weren’t part of the Roman Empire and didn’t have the same pagan holiday problem.

Anyway, like I was saying, most of the Christians in Lebanon celebrate on December 25th. Since there’s such a significant Armenian population though, they leave up the Christmas decorations until January 6th, and Badveli said that they even replay the Christmas programming on TV! Isn’t that cool? It was also nice for me because it meant that I got to see the Christmas decorations even though I didn’t get to Lebanon until January.

Here’s a light sculpture to rival the Yerevan ones!

Badveli and me inside the light sculpture

Speaking of Christmas decorations, we saw a ton of nativity scenes that didn’t quite get my stamp of approval. One thing that threw me off was that they were always in a cave instead of a barn-type structure like we usually show in the States. I didn’t have an issue with that, it was just interesting. Since I was with Badveli, of course that launched into a discussion about how we don’t actually know that it was a barn and it could have been a cave and it could have even been in a house because people often kept their animals inside their houses at night. Then that led to a discussion about how the way the Christmas story is told always makes it sound like a pregnant Mary was turned away from inn after inn by heartless innkeepers, but probably “there was no room for them” just means that there wasn’t an empty guest room, so they stayed in the living room with the animals which wasn’t a weird thing at the time. Yeah, I know. Brain cramp. I’ll stop.

Okay, back to the issue at hand… I did have one very big problem with most of them: scale. Picture this: a manger scene. Mary and Joseph. The wise men. A baby Jesus that is AT LEAST the size of Mary, if not larger. A sheep that is smaller than baby Jesus. The donkey that supposedly carried pregnant Mary for months and months is smaller than everything. I’m no expert, but a baby cannot be bigger than its mother. I know he’s God in human form and all, but that means he’s human… which means that at birth, he’s a normal baby size in relation to his mother. He is not bigger than a sheep. He is definitely not bigger than a donkey. He is definitely not bigger than a tree, unless that tree is just a seed. My favorite nativity looked like everyone in the congregation just brought in whatever animal figurines they had at home. It had some normal-sized sheep, some tiny ones, some plastic ones, some stuffed ones… I enjoyed it.

Look at baby Jesus. Look at everything else. THIS DOESN’T MAKE SENSE.

Christmas tree maze!

Wow so I’ve gotten veryyyy distracted. What was I talking about before I got all sidetracked? Do you even remember at this point? Oops. That’s right, caroling! So like I was saying long, long ago, I was signed up for Christmas Eve caroling. I guess this is something that all of the church youth groups do, and everyone seemed confused when I told them that I hadn’t been caroling in years, and midnight Christmas caroling isn’t really a thing at home. Basically this is how it works: the youth group is split into groups, each group is given a list of church members’ addresses, and they go from house to house caroling and getting donations. Unlike sane people who would do this during the day, we met at the church at 8PM(ish) and didn’t hit the road until about 9. We had something like 30 houses to visit and quickly fell into a rhythm of unloading ourselves from the van, getting buzzed into the building, singing a couple of songs, reciting a Bible verse, giving them the custom-made ornament that was this year’s gift, getting stuffed full of chocolates, and loading back into the van. I got so much chocolate that it was kind of like Christmas-style Halloween but with singing.

We went to a Christmas concert for an Armenian children’s choir. The director of this choir also directs another children’s choir in Artsakh!

I. Love. Lights.

Badveli and Maria promised me that I wouldn’t have any trouble communicating because the other youth (for them, youth means like teenage to 30) could all speak English. They were right, and it was almost depressing. Everyone could speak PERFECT English. Like accent-less English. The kids in my group were telling each other wordplay jokes in English. Once you know a language well enough to understand jokes that are only funny if you see the double meanings of the words that are used, I’d say you have a pretty solid grasp on it. Then, they’d switch effortlessly right back into Armenian. And they didn’t speak much Arabic that night, but they’re obviously all perfectly fluent in that too. Meanwhile, I’m like, “I kind of speak some Spanish (though not anymore since it’s completely confused with Armenian) and some Armenian… but Eastern Armenian, not Western which means I only understand like 20% of what you say instead of the 40% I would understand if you were speaking Eastern.” Talk about depressing.

Nothing like a beer bottle Christmas tree to get you in the holiday spirit!

Then, I had to attempt to sing Christmas carols in Armenian while reading fast enough to keep up. I did kind of okay… by the end, I was hitting maybe 90% of the words, so we’ll call that a win. I also didn’t realize until almost the last house of the night that most of my group thought I knew ZERO Armenian. I’m at least slightly better than that. A couple of the people in my group were joking about something in Armenian, and I chimed in in English. They all stared at me like I had 6 heads until someone said, “I thought you couldn’t speak Armenian.” HA! I explained that I’m learning and my Eastern is better than my Western but I can understand some and blah blah blah. I know it’s kind of stupid to be excited that I exceeded expectations when the expectations were so embarrassingly low, but hey, I’m going to take what I can get.

I also was apparently expected to fall asleep because “that’s what people do their first time out”. I can proudly say that I stayed awake the whole time, sang at every house, and once again exceeded the embarrassingly low expectations that were set for me.

This building wins.

By the time I got home and to bed, it was 6AM. Church was at 10AM, but Badveli and Maria told me that I could skip if I was too tired. I was going to try to go… until I set my alarm and my phone helpfully told me that my alarm was “set for 3 hours from now.” HAHAHAHAHAHA no chance. I reset it for noon instead, giving me a solid 6-hour night. Still ew, but infinitely better than 3 hours.

Rain, Ruins, Everything

Ready for more walking? How about more rain, some ruins, and a little bit of everything else? I left off my last post at St. George Maronite Cathedral in downtown Beirut. Directly next to the church and Al-Amin Mosque, there’s a large area filled with ruins! At the moment, it doesn’t look like much besides a grass-covered pile of rocks. There are a few columns standing, but besides that, it’s hard to tell what exactly is there. Supposedly though, the ruins date back to the Hellenistic period (around 320BC – 30BC) and have layers from the Roman, Byzantine, Umayyad, Mamluk, and Ottoman times as well.

Future Garden of Forgiveness

The site was discovered during the post-civil war excavations. There’s a procedure to follow when ancient ruins are found during construction: construction halts, the authorities are notified, and archaeological excavations are undertaken until they are considered complete. Then, a decision is made about what will happen, based on the findings and secretly probably the level of influence of the developer. The ruins are either left in place, moved, or demolished to make way for the construction.

These particular ruins have been set aside in the Beirut master plan as an area to be left unbuilt. The intersection of the Roman city’s two major streets was found there, and archaeologists also think that the famous Roman law school was located nearby. They haven’t found the school, but they know it was next to a church whose ruins have been located. There was a competition to decide what to do with the land, and a plan for creating a “Garden of Forgiveness” was selected. The project hopes to be “a step towards social harmony in Beirut by raising awareness about the need to resolve historical grievances”. The plan integrates the ruins and also includes lots of trees and water features and other things that I guess are supposed to suggest peacefulness and harmony. The construction is currently on hold though, so for the time being, the overgrown pile of rocks is here to stay.

The ruins with St. George in the background

Outside of St. George

There’s ANOTHER St. George church on the other side of the ruins, St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. It was originally built in the 1760s, but there had already been churches on the same site for hundreds of years by then. The first known church there was built in the 5th century AD, and that’s the one I mentioned that they know was located next to the Roman law school. That church was destroyed along with the law school in the 6th-century earthquake, and a new church was built in the 12th century. Another earthquake in the 18th century destroyed that one as well, and another new church was built. During the civil war, the church was shelled and left in ruins. Geez. Talk about bad luck.

When they decided to rebuild the church in the 1990s, they used the opportunity that the ruined church presented to conduct some archaeological excavations before reconstruction. Over about a year and a half, archaeologists worked to uncover and decode the layers of history underneath the church. They found the ancient cathedral, plus evidence of other churches built on the site. There are also graves, remains of a paved street, and columns that used to line the colonnaded streets of the Roman city.

St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral. I just think this is the coolest picture ever with the lights and the frescoes visible through the windows.

Excuse this picture of a picture, but I thought it was really cool because it shows the church with the floor all opened up during the excavations.

After the excavations were finished, they turned them into a museum and restored the church above. Badveli and went to visit the church first, and it was AWESOME!!!! I love frescoed churches, and literally every surface in this church was covered in frescoes. There were magnificently done, and they actually had them lit so that you could see everything! I wish I’d had all day to scrutinize each fresco, but it would have taken hours to do anything more than quickly glance at them while walking a loop through the church. The frescoes obviously all had to be restored after the war, but a few bullet holes were left as a reminder. I like when they do that… It’s like saying, “We’re rebuilding and moving on because that’s what we have to do, but we also can’t forget about the past or pretend that it never happened.”

Inside St. George Greek Orthodox Cathedral

I have no words… except for HOW FREAKING COOL IS THIS???

EVERYTHING was painted.

It’s a little creepy looking up at the church from the museum!

Material timeline!

From there, we went to the crypt museum to check out the ruins. Badveli had never been before, and I was glad that we were doing something new for him so that the whole day wasn’t just him playing tour guide for a bunch of things he’d already seen a million times (most of the day was that, but thanks to this museum, it wasn’t the WHOLE day).

The museum is small, but it’s one of the coolest archaeology museums I’ve ever been to. Since the museum IS the excavation, things are mostly left where they found them. You can see the layers of churches and their different mosaic floors. You can see exactly where graves were found, and a bunch of them still have the skeletons inside. When you first enter, there’s a wall that shows what is basically a vertical timeline of the site. The different material layers in the soil are identified and dated so you can see the various civilizations all stacked on top of one another. The Ottoman layer has a skeleton sticking out, so that’s fun too (eek!). They also have cases with various things in them, but it’s so much cooler knowing that those things were found right next to where they’re now displayed.

A grave… creepy. The last year has made me VERY certain that I want to be cremated because as cool as skeletons are, do I really want people from hundreds or thousands of years in the future digging up my bones? Nooo thank you!

The floor of the medieval church!

It also gives you an idea of how archaeologists piece things together. Since you’re looking at exactly what they were looking at, you can see what columns they used to determine the orientation of the medieval church or the fragment of fresco that was the basis for their assumption that the entire church was painted. The museum has a path for you to follow with numbered stations. At each, you press a button on the information panel, and lights turn on to direct your attention to the places it’s talking about. It was very well done! I felt like I was an archaeologist too, uncovering the secrets of the site as we went from station to station. Maybe I just have an overactive imagination, but it was awesome.

You can see the walkways and information panels

Doesn’t it just look like a cool museum? (I ran around and hit like 5 buttons to turn the lights on for this picture.)

You can see two layers of mosaic floors!

Fresco remnant from the medieval church.

Archaeologists in training!

From there, we walked out into the central square of Beirut. There’s a clock tower in the middle (that escaped damage during the civil war because was disassembled and hidden until it was over) and the Parliament building. It’s a bit eerie because the car traffic is incredibly limited there, so it’s practically a ghost town. Fun because you can walk in the middle of the street, but still just a little weird.

Clocktower! This was taken on a sunny day later in the week, and even with the nice weather, you can still see that there are barely any people out.

The baths on a sunny day when I went back later

Another area of ruins in the city is the Roman baths. They were discovered originally in the late 1960s, were further excavated in the 90s, and are designated as land to remain “unbuilt” in the city. They aren’t the best-preserved baths I’ve ever seen, but they’re definitely still impressive, especially when you think about the fact that they were buried under the city for hundreds of years! The floors are almost completely gone, but they’ve re-set many pieces of the little pillars that held up the floor in the hot room so that the warm air could go underneath. I need to brush up on my Roman bath knowledge again because I didn’t remember too much beyond that, but it was still cool to look at while not knowing anything.

The Roman baths! And you can see the tower of Saint Louis Capuchin Cathedral in the background.

The baths from above

Right near there is the Grand Serail which is the headquarters of the Prime Minister. Badveli said that they can get pretty defensive if you try to take pictures…  even if you only want a picture of the Armenian church Surp Nishan that happens to be right next to it. I’m not interested in getting on the wrong side of someone with an assault rifle, so I didn’t try to take one from any closer than from the Roman baths.

Grand Serail to the left

Surp Nishan from an angle where no one will yell at you for taking a picture.

Inside St. Louis Cathedral

From there, we walked over to ANOTHER church, St. Louis Capuchin Cathedral. It was originally built by Capuchin missionaries and is named after the French King Louis IX. By the time we got there, it was getting dark outside which made it extra dark inside. We couldn’t see much of the interior, but luckily, the stained glass windows were still bright! I went back later on during the day, and I got to enjoy the stained glass again and see the pretty paintings on the ceiling above the altar. No matter how many churches I see, I’m still amazed by how each of them has something that makes it different from the rest. I haven’t gotten sick of them yet! That’s saying something, too, because I’ve been to Rome and I’ve been to Armenia, and they both have more than enough churches to keep you busy.

We saw a couple more things after that, but I’m going to save those for later. When we were both about ready to collapse, we decided to walk the 40ish minutes back to the apartment because it was rush hour. That means walking is probably close to as fast as driving, and I wanted to see the nighttime street life anyway. The walk was nice, though it would have been even nicer with functional sidewalks. I know, I know. I expect too much sometimes.

Check out those paintings!

St Louis Cathedral

Louis from the front

Downtown Beirut Tour!

The next day, Badveli and I braved the rain and walked around downtown Beirut. This was one of those infrequent times when I wished that I had a step tracker or something to know how far we walked because we were on our feet practically the entire day!

This was as much as we could see of the inner part of the museum (I stuck my head through the window in the exterior doors in an effort to see as much as possible)

We started off at another museum, Beit Beirut (House of Beirut). Unfortunately, it was closed, but we looked at what we could from the outside, and Badveli explained the story and described the interior to me. The building was built in 1924. It was an apartment building, originally called the Barakat house after the family that commissioned its construction. The building’s architecture was very transparent, connecting the occupants to the city around them with beautiful, unobstructed views. There were eight families, both Muslim and Christian, living in the building when the civil war broke out. They evacuated, and the building was taken over by Christian militias.

It is located along the Green Line, the road that divided the east and west sides of the city during the civil war. There are five major crossings, and the Barakat building is on the corner of one of them. That strategic location, plus the architecture that allowed for such fantastic views, made it into an ideal location for snipers to prevent people from crossing the street.

After the war, it was discovered by a Lebanese architect, Mona Hallak, who became determined to preserve the building and share its history. She said, “To me it represented Beirut: before the war through the archives I found under the dust and debris, during the war through the sniper additions, graffiti and bullet holes covering its walls, and after the war through my fight for the preservation of our heritage, identity and memory against the sweeping amnesia.”

Beit Beirut

It took years of battling with both the Barakat family and the city, but she was eventually successful in ensuring its preservation. It went through a serious restoration process to make sure it was structurally sound while preserving the interior and exterior damage or “war architecture”. There was also an addition to support its new function as a museum.

I would have loved to go inside. It seems like a pretty spectacular and powerful place, and despite the damage, you can still see the beauty and elegance of the building. Welp… guess I’m going to have to go back to Lebanon! Oh darnnnn…

Ruins on the left, shiny new mosque in the back, construction on the right.

Armenian Catholic Church! It looks exactly the same as every church in Armenia except for the material, doesn’t it?

From there, we wandered towards downtown, pausing to observe the absurd amount of construction happening along the way and wonder about the buildings that have gone seemingly untouched since the war. There’s a big developer that has control over practically all of the rebuilding and development in the downtown area. They have compulsory purchase power which means that they can force people to sell their property even if they don’t want to and pay them way less than it’s worth. There’s a weird feeling that you get in a lot of parts of town that they’ve heavily developed. They certainly look nice, but they’re missing personality and life. There’s no color, both figuratively and literally because everything is built out of the same, yellowish stone. The streets look like they should be full of people, but it’s like the city falls asleep as soon as you step into one of the little development pockets.

I kept having these conflicting feelings because often, I thought that the buildings were pretty. But what’s the point of having pretty buildings if no one can afford to use them? Buildings are made to be used. Otherwise, they’re worthless. Yes, architecture is also art, but what makes it such a cool art form is the fact that it needs to be both functional and beautiful. Without function, you have nothing more than a very large sculpture. The city changes from a living, breathing place into an inauthentic, amusement-park-type attraction.

Here’s one of those pretty but deserted streets… See what I mean?

Also, sometimes you have to wonder if more buildings really are better. More buildings means more people. More people means that you need more space for people to do their living. Not just apartment space, but outdoor space. Space for kids to play and people to socialize. A city with only tall buildings quickly turns into a very isolating, suffocating place.

Detailing on the side of Al-Amin Mosque

From there, we walked past Al-Amin Mosque. It was built between 2001 and 2008 and is the largest mosque in Lebanon. There’s some controversy surrounding the procurement of the land that it’s on, but I can’t mentally handle learning about more complicated history sooo… here’s the one second summary of what I think I know, and we’ll leave it at that: the prime minister at the time was the one who managed to do the previously un-doable purchasing of land which seems a little questionable. That’s all I’m going to say.

Of course, the controversy doesn’t stop there because why would there ever be a simple story for me to tell you? That would be way too easy. The mosque’s architecture is Ummayyad, Mamluk, and Ottoman-inspired, and many people think that it looks out of place in the center of Beirut. It’s also extremely large which makes it stick out even more. The minarets are 72 meters high!

Personally, I didn’t love the exterior. It definitely felt like it was forced and didn’t quite match the other things around it. However, I went back later on my own and went inside… and it was spectacular. The painting, calligraphy, and gilding in the dome were like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I could have stared at the ceiling, marveling at its beauty and complexity, for hours. I kept thinking, “Who the heck can do something like this? And HOW LONG did it take them??”

The church and mosque from behind with all of their towering components.

Well, let me just say… the internet, my friends, can be a wonderful thing. Guess what? The dude who did all of that is named Harout Bastajian, aka definitely Armenian. He specializes in the painting of religious buildings, and he says that the painting of Al-Amin Mosque took him and his team ONLY 3 MONTHS. Ummm how.

Obsessed.

IS THIS NOT THE COOLEST THING YOU’VE EVER SEEN??????

My visit to the mosque was also very interesting because they have a guy there just to talk to visitors. I was the only visitor at the time, so I got to ask him anything I wanted about the building or Islam. He was trying to convert me which obviously wasn’t going to work, but I was excited to have someone to answer my many questions. I’ve been getting more and more interested in learning about other religions so that I have a basic understanding of what other people believe, and reading about religion on the internet only leads to headaches. When you’re talking to someone, you can ask them exactly the things you’ve been wondering about and get answers that aren’t written for religious scholars.

Directly next to the mosque is a church, St. George Maronite Cathedral. One of the complaints about the mosque is that it dwarfs the church, and I guess they decided to deal with that by building a randomly tall clock tower topped with a tacky (in my non-objective opinion) light-up cross. To be honest, I don’t know why they built the clocktower and if it actually had anything to do with the mosque or not, but there is kind of a nice sentiment behind the height they chose for it. It was going to be a bit taller to match the height of this clock tower in Rome, but they decided to cut off a few meters so that it’s the same height as the towers on the mosque to send a message of harmony and solidarity between the religions.

I think that’s enough for now, right? I don’t want to overwhelm you with information all at once… we’ll save more overwhelming for the next post. 🙂

The campanile (aka clock tower)

Night view! You can see my favorite glowing cross.

Inside St. George