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Holy hotspot

As old cradles of civilisation, Lebanon?s sacred sites hold long memories.

india Updated: Jul 22, 2006 17:02 IST

Haifa Haifa is an ancient mosaic of coexistence between Jews, Muslim and Christian Arabs (the Prophet Mohammed’s wife Khadija had a sympathetic Christian cousin, Warqa-binNaufal, who was the first person the couple told of Mohammed’s interaction with the Angel Jibreel). Haifa also harbours Ahmadiyas, Druze and Baha’is.

Haifa holds the cave of the Prophet Elijah, the historic Jewish town of Shikmona and the Christian monastery atop Mount Carmel. Also on Mount Carmel is Muchraka, the place where Elijah burned the prophets of Baal, the fierce old god worshipped by the Canaanites (ancient coastal Lebanese).

In cultural continuity, Lebanon now holds international festivals at its ancient hotspots Byblos and Baalbeck. Baalbeck The Baalbeck International Festival goes back to 1955. This annual songfest happens in the Roman Acropolis in July-August (shortcircuited this year).

Baalbeck celebrates music from all continents, with nearly 40,000 spectators. This Thursday, July 27, between the temples of Jupiter and Bacchus, the legendary British rock band Deep Purple, pioneers of heavy metal, were billed to play. It would have been old rock amidst old stones, but looks like Ian Gillan and co will have to wait for another gig. So will the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band (jazz history!) scheduled to play on Saturday, July 29. Byblos Today the name Byblos will most likely tinkle a tiny bell as the Parisian fashion store, founded 1973, which ran on a young Gianni Versace’s first flush of creativity. In fact, Byblos, the original Lebanese city, jostles Damascus and Kashi for ‘world’s oldest inhabited’ spot. Its earliest settlers were the Phoenicians who supposedly came from the Arabian Peninsula around 1200 BCE. They made big cities at Beirut, Byblos, Tyre, Sidon and Baalbeck and spread their 22-letter Phoenician alphabet around.

Phoenicia (Phoenician means ‘red-haired’) is a Greek term for the coast of Lebanon. Located at the intersection of ancient land and sea routes, Phoenicia became a great commercial centre. Phoenicians discovered and used the North Star (Polaris) to keep their bearings at sea and founded trading colonies in Sicily, Spain and north Africa.

They traded with Kerala for ivory, sandalwood, and spices. Exporting cedar, pine, fine linen, embroideries, metalwork, glass, wine, salt and dried fish, they imported papyrus for paper, ivory, ebony, silk, amber, ostrich eggs, spices, incense, horses, gold, silver, copper, iron, tin and jewels. The Prophet Elijah sounds burned up in the Old Testament, rattling off a most traderly list of Tyre’s commercial goods in the voice of Jehovah.

Of these many luxuries, Lebanese cedar was at a premium in that area, which had little wood. Indeed, the Egyptian Pharoah Tutankhamen had furniture in his tomb made of fragrant Phoenician cedar. Phoenicia also produced the rare purple dye that came from the murex snail and ‘Tyrean purple’ was the color of royalty. Needing to keep track of their commerce, the Phoenicians developed the alphabet that the Greeks later adapted for their language. It also shaped the English alphabet and was the core of the Hebrew, Arabic, and Syriac script. ‘Byblos’, the Greek word for papyrus, led to ‘biblion’ or book, which led to ‘bible’.

The Phoenicians peaked around l000 BCE. Their downswing was well under way in 332 BCE when Alexander the Great cast a jealous eye, conquered Tyre and swallowed Phoenician culture whole into Greek. The north African Phoenician city, Carthage, founded about 800 BC, remained strong until its sack by the Romans in l46 BCE: Cicero, the Roman orator, had famously thundered in the Senate, “Delenda est Carthago!”(Carthage must be destroyed).

Today Byblos (Jbeil in Arabic) 37 km north of Beirut, is described as a prosperous place with glass-fronted office buildings. Its ancient sites remained buried until excavated by French scholars in the 19th century. So despite the long sway of newer faiths in Lebanon, Baal and Astarte (see box) live! Old gods ahoy! El, protector of the Phoenician universe, often called Baal (resonances, say some, with El-Lah/Allah), symbolised the annual cycle of vegetation and worked with the female deity Astarte in her role as the mother goddess. She was called Asherar-yam, Our Lady of the Sea, and in Byblos she was Baalat, Our Dear Lady. Astarte was linked with mother goddesses of neighboring cultures in her role as a ‘Jagadamba’, a combined heavenly mother and earth mother. The ancients prayed to her for good harvests, children and for protection and peace at home.