Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ghosts in the Cedars

Perhaps it was inevitable that Lebanon would be more affecting in many ways than Istanbul. The Turkish city is much more European in its nature. It is more happily - even smugly - contemplative of its glorious Ottoman past and its modernizing present, and both the relics and the cutting-edge seem smoothly integrated into the city's life. In Lebanon the feelings of both historical and modern tension are much closer to the surface. You can see them in the almost frenetic pace of Beirut's nightlife, the beautiful girl in the drop-top Porsche racing by Hizbollah protests, the bored shopgirls smoking outside their stores in the abandoned downtown, and even the grandeur of Baalbeck's ruins. It whispers through the mountains and curls like fog around the bombed-out bridges of the Israel war.

Baalbeck was particularly affecting to me. All the antiquities I have seen in the East are either settled in cities or turned into massive tourist attractions. The Pyramids, Luxor, the mosques of Istanbul - all of them are in one way or another streamlined and modernized for tourist audiences. Baalbeck is different. It is the best-preserved Roman temple in the world, yet its remote location means that few tourists venture there these days. For 2000 years, it has been the greatest structure as far as the eye can see down the Bekaa valley, and it may well stay so for the next 2000. Surrounded by acres of farmland and snow-covered peaks, it must have seemed one of the wonders of the world, and yet it was no more than a backwater of an Empire that stretched from Arabia to Scotland.

The temples' stones and pillars were used by Justinian to build the Haga Sofia, by the Arabs to fortify the temple and the Crusaders to bolster the walls, by the Ottomans to build a castle and now they lie shattered in green moss. The broken colossus of Ramses inspired Shelley's Ozymandias but I find the cyclical destruction and rebuilding of this vast complex much more affecting.
I can't help but reflect, as I stare at the six pillars which are all that remain of Jupiter's temple, on the futility of human ambition. And yet I return to Beirut where people are stubbornly, urgently erecting new towers of steel and glass and concrete to replace the buildings shattered in fifteen years of war. Lebanon and the Levant are littered with the wreckage of human civilization and the scars of man's cruelty, yet they struggle on. The Lebanese are sick to death of war and it is hard to blame them. There are so many bullet-scarred buildings on the former Green Line that 20 years later, they still haven't finished replacing them. But you can still go to one of the hundred best restaurants in the world, visit the regions chicest clubs and bars, and talk for hours with strangers on the bus. They want to live and they want to be great, in spite of their troubles, and even Hassan Nasrallah says that 3 more years of stalemate are preferable to anymore civil war.

The irony is that I thought Lebanon would be the most dangerous leg of my trip, yet it was in Istanbul that I found myself in danger, while I know people who were on the Greek ferry that sunk this week, and a Turkish plane was hi-jacked today. The world is un-predictable and you never know what will come each day it turns. Whether the answer is silent prayer or joyful partying, one way or another we all have to find an answer.