Postcard from Byblos – I

Tourists of the world, Byblos is ready for you. The allure of ancient Byblos is itself ancient. There is a modern Lebanese city here, to be sure, and the luxury retail outlets you attract or which attract you (it’s hard to tell) but walk toward the sea and into the quiet, tasteful souks, along the walkways of small, tumbled sea stones. As if the roads were paved with ladyfingers. Find your way into a church. It’s a fine escape from the remorseless Mediterranean sun. In the dim stained-glass light, you can reckon at your own pace with this building’s 900 years. Maybe try staring dumbly at the vaulted ceiling. The design is so visible, the lines so clear, and yet the size and weight and age of the stones floating above your head is, really, its own divine mystery. There are a few modern touches—bound Bibles, for example, from a printing press invented when this church was already older than America is now—but you will not find it hard to feel the presence of an awesome God. Byblos has signs of a more vengeful God, too, if you prefer. Hike up the hill to the Citadel, built by the Crusaders, repurposed by successive militaries all the way into the 19th century. From the top you’ll have a commanding view of the ruins of ancient Byblos. Below you, there’s the amphitheater the Romans put in. That’s a temple influenced by the upstart Egyptians, and over there you can see the shafts where the Phoenicians buried their kings. Those, those are the bare limestone settlements left behind by Neolithic settlers who, presumably, like you felt the heat of midday and looked down to the shore to scout out a place to swim. It is not hard here to find a spot where the sea is clear of trash, where the water is hard-to-believe clear, where the reefs and shoals make a playground from which you can leap and dive through the azure waves. As you dry on the rocky shore, the souks will transform into a mosaic of restaurants and cafes. When you’re ready, when your skin is caked with salt and you feel as if you’ve slipped a bit from your own place in history, you can wander back into town and break bread, as people have been doing here every night for thousands and thousands of years.