City of the Sun

**Baalbek is the destination where you should not go, it is notorious for drugs and harboring fugitives and renegades. It is where tourists are more likely to be kidnapped and sold, for a lot of money.

Let’s disregard that and go with the reality of our experience instead:

When Jessika said we were going to Baalbek and that I should not google it before we go, I could not help but take a sneak peak. Still, that did not fully prepare me for the beauty and the regality of the place. This site is also known as Heliopolis, city of the sun, where the Romans worshiped Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus. I had my eye on Baalbek for some time, however, Jessika insisted that we wait until we can go with her old friend Jad from her reporter days. Wikipedia figures that Baalbek as a “Hizbollah stronghold.” I can’t help but note that there was a presence. As we entered the region we were offered Hizbollah pamphlets along the smaller parts of the highway. You have to go through two military checkpoints along the way; we passed with ease.  Not all of the checkpoints have tanks, this one does, naturally. The region borders Syria. I must say that the highway to Baalbek is probably the best I’ve seen in Lebanon, no doubt this has something to do with the movement.

Our instructions are to call Jad when we enter the town for directions to his house. We make our way his place and are welcomed into his home by his new wife Hala and their 1 year old daughter Tia. They live in a big one story house along with Jad’smotner, this is where he grew up. Three generations living under roof is not an anomaly in Lebanon, its normal, usual. We talk for a while, mostly about our recent weddings and news. Tia is a ball of energy; she bounced around the room playing with anything she could get her hands on. We gave her a subtle drum beat at one point, and she immediately began dancing. Jad loves to laugh and smile, he sees and finds the subtle humor in life. It was written on the whole family’s faces and we could feel it as soon as we walked in the door.

First we stopped by the old train station to take pictures. It is a quant station from a different time. The rail system was shut down during the civil war and has since remained closed. Then we passed through the city itself, just for a quick look before we make our way to the ruins. The streets are bustling with life, as they are in Zahle. The biggest difference at first glance are the hijabs, this is a predominately Shia area. It is full of small markets, kitchen stores, heater stores, clothes shops, jewelry stores, nothing out of the ordinary.

The ruins are simply majestic. You really get a feel for the area because you get to climb and explore to your hearts content. There are very few ropes or closed off areas, and not a single tour guide running around telling you not to touch anything. In this instance, we will have to let the photos do what justice they can.

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After the more than satisfactory intake of beauty from the ruins, we headed back to Jad’s place after spending some time at the park. People were sunbathing, smoking hookah on the green freshly cut grass and kids were running around after each other, two girls clinging to their mom’s long skirt pleading her to buy them some cotton candy in blue, pink and green. The place is spacious, not too crowded for a holiday, just right. It was past lunch time and our stomachs were growling. There is one thing that you should not miss when in Baalbek and it is the “SfeehaBaalbekiyeh”, which is not to be confused with any other Sfeeha. Sfeeha is half-open pillow-shaped dough stuffed with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, lemon juice and spices. You go first to the butcher and get the meat then take it to the baker after you prepared the stuffing. Of course, the baker is running late but it is all good when the three big boxes of Sfeeha come with two bottles of fresh yogurt. Jad’s mom prepares the table and adds extra lemon pieces. The grease is what makes the Sfeeha so addictive and delicious, and because the little pillows are just the right size to fit as a nibble, one goes through a box not knowing how much he has ate, just like they say in Lebanon: he who drinks should not count how many glasses he has had. The same goes here.

We leave with one full box, the Baalbekies are not any less hospitable or generous than the rest of the Lebanese and as we drive the 30 minutes back to Zahle, the sun beams from the few clouds here and there saying goodbye to the visitors of the sun.

-Cowritten by the Valentines