The Wandering Scot

An occasional travel journal.

Browsing Posts tagged Mosaics

The Chouf Mountains

I arranged a car and driver for a trip from Beirut up into the Chouf mountains.  The road from the coast quickly entered low, but steep, mountains, heavily wooded and very green.  Higher up, the hills became more mixed, sometime still green and wooded, sometimes rocky and barren.

Chouf Cedar Reserve

At the Chouf Cedar Reserve at Maaser ech-Chouf, I spent 40 minutes wandering through an old Lebanese Cedar forest.  The overall reserve is apparently quite large, but this particular section is quite small, although it contains quite a number of large old trees.  The largest single trunks seemed to be around 3ft diameter.  The largest “trunks” seemed to be aggregates of multiple trees grown together.  Some of these were 6ft or more across.  A park sign claimed that one such aggregate was 3000 years old, but I’m afraid I’m a little dubious.

The young trees are straight and tall and thin, like firs.  The older trees develop the horizontal growth in elegant stratified green layers that is so distinctive.  Walking through the forest was very peaceful and calm, especially after the noise and bustle of Beirut.

Jumblatt Palace

Moukhtara is the home of the Jumblatt family and thus the unofficial capital of the Druze and the Chouf.  I had been planning to stop near the Jumblatt family palace and maybe take a few discreet photos from the roadside.  But no.  My driver took me up to the front security gate and indicated I should go ahead.  Um, OK.  The security staff were in civilian clothes and while they weren’t overtly waving any big weapons around, they were also distinctly watchful.  However they seemed reasonably amiable towards a random wandering Scotsman.  After the main gate, I had my bag taken to be searched and it was then indicated I should continue without it.  I retrieved my camera and was given a slightly reluctant nod.  It was indicated I should turn it on.  Having my lens open out got an approving nod.  Then one gentleman was delegated to take me up to the main house.  I got as far as the main outer courtyard, with a good view of the quite majestic grand manor building.  It seemed very pleasant, with grand sweeping exterior staircases and a fine view of the Chouf.  It was actually unclear how much further I was allowed or expected to go, but I decided that I should consider myself fortunate to take some pictures here and not push my luck.  So after only a couple of minutes, I trotted out again.

Beiteddine: Middle Courtyard

The Beiteddine Palace was the large, sprawling, graceful palace of a semi-independent regional governor.  It was built around 1800, mostly in a classical Arab style, but also using some modern elements.  There are three courtyards, ranging from one very large and very public to a semi-private small inner court with a charming fountain, to the (unfortunately closed) private inner court.  [Or so says Lonely Planet.  There is also a common Syrian pattern where the middle court is for family and the rear court is for servants, which actually seems to fit the layout better.]  There are large stables in arched stone galleries beneath the last two.  The palace is well worth visiting for itself, but the advertised highlight is the collection of 5th to 6th c AD mosaics in the stables.  Although the collection is large, the quality is generally much lower than at Antakya.  There are some good geometric pieces, many weaker animals ones, and only a few humans.  There is no real attempt at the full painting style seen at Antakya.

Antioch

Ah, Antioch, Queen of the East!  The famed Western terminus of the Silk Road!  The greatest city of Roman Syria!  I’ve wanted to visit it for many years.

Alas, the modern city of Antakya (aka Hatay) is a pleasant provincial Turkish city, but with only glimmers of its great past. I kept a wary eye open for Patriarchs, but none of the five modern contenders for the title of Patriarch of Antioch and All the East actually deigns to live in the modern city.

I managed to persuade a taxi driver to take me to the old City Walls.  It turned out that he had no idea what I was talking about, but we stopped and got directions and all was well.  They are on a ridge to the East of the city, but you can’t approach them directly.  You need to circle around to the back of the ridge and come in from the East: first head roughly 5 km NE along Antakya Reyhanli Yolu (E91), then about 6 km south, towards Kuruyer, then back about 1km NW.  Look for the signs saying “Antakya Kalesi”.  We eventually found an old ruined tower and neighbouring sections of wall, set just outside the top of one of the jagged hill ridges surrounding Antioch.  This is presumably part of Justinian’s wall, perhaps part of the keep?  A little bit beyond the walls there is a small cafe and viewpoint, with a good view over the city.

Back in the city I toddled around the fine Archaeological Museum.  This has a variety of good pieces, including a very fine 3rd c. AD sarcophagus and some 13th c. bc Hittite entry lions, amidst much else.  But the highpoint is an amazingly large collection of 2nd to 5th c. AD mosaics.  They are all somewhat damaged, but some are of very high quality.  The general aim is Western-style “photo realism”, which is fine by me.  I am amazed at how well they can sketch a human face with only a few fragments of stone

After visiting the local Tourist Information stand and (rather to my surprise) getting a bunch of helpful English brochures and a map, I strolled over to the Habib-I Neccar Mosque. This site started as a Roman Temple, was converted to a church, became a Mosque in 636 with the first Arab conquest, became a Church in the Byzantine reconquest, became a Mosque again in the Arab reconquest, became a Church again after the Crusader conquest, and then ended up as a Mosque after another Islamic reconquest. Needless to say the building is not the original, it has been through a number of restorations and rebuilds, notably in 1268 and 1857.

On the NE outskirts of the city is the Cave Church of St Peter. This is supposedly one of the very earliest Christian churches, founded by Peter himself. The modern cave has been heavily restored of course, with a 19th c. cut stone facade.