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joi, 9 august 2012

Postcard From...Baalbek

The mighty Roman ruins of Baalbek jut dramatically out of the fertile plains of Lebanon's Bekaa valley. They have drawn visitors for centuries, as chronicled in the graffiti of ancient travellers scrawled into the vast limestone walls and columns.

But with the spiralling civil war in neighbouring Syria and numerous countries warning against travel to Lebanon, this tourist season has been a tough one. On a recent trip the touts selling Hezbollah T-shirts and guidebooks outnumbered the smattering of visitors.

It's not really a surprise that many stay away. This is the heartland of the heavily armed Hezbollah, where powerful local clans often engage in deadly clashes.

As I relaxed with a mint tea after exploring the ancient ruins, the unmistakable sound of gunfire broke out behind the café, echoing off the walls of the great temples erected to worship Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus.

The shopkeeper at the stall next door continued to read his paper without flinching, but even my companion – a reporter who has spent much of the past two years dodging bullets in Libya and Syria – began to grow nervy as the lead flew back and forth.

The café owner tried to reassure us, distressed at losing what little custom he had. "Stay, drink your tea, it's just the kids celebrating the end of their exams."

Although there may have been a few celebratory firecrackers interspersed in the mix, it transpired that the local hash farmers, incensed that the authorities had set fire to their cannabis fields, had attacked a police station just a few hundred metres away.

It may be some time before packed tour buses make regular stops at these ancient wonders, some of the most monumental and best preserved relics of the Roman Empire.

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