Our first stop, the archaeological site with its crusaders fortress (picture above, centre). Natacha meets us at the entrance and is our guide. She is trained in Archeology and teaches World Civilizations in a local High School. She conducts our visit in very good English. In the end, we discover that her first “second language” is really French. She attended school in French, and “On le parle ŕ la maison.” (We speak French at home.)
Of particular note, during our tour, Natacha takes us to see the site museum
which apparently was a gift from the Province of Quebec to mark the 2002 Sommet
de la Francophonie held in Lebanon, a meeting of the 53 countries where French
is spoken around the world. The museum is very well done, and I was quite
pleased to see that my the own provincial government has made such a tasteful
addtion to the archaeological park.
However, the real highlight of the tour was the “descent into the burial pit”. The Phonecians cut pits straight down into the limestone cliff, 11-12 metres in depth (about 36-40 feet), and then cut a nitch or shelf into the side of the pit to house the stone sarcophagus. At one of these burying holes in the archeaological park, it is possible to climb down a steep passage way to the level of the sarcophagus. Here we see Natacha and Fr. Krikor saying something like, “Come on down, it’s not so bad!”
Following nearly an hour long tour of the archaeological site, we head to the Abi Chmou (Light House), a restaurant next door to the archaeological site, which Natacha recommends heartily for Lebanese mezze. Today this means a variety of dips, scooped up with rolled portions of khoobz Arabi, the ancient flat bread of the Arabic world. We’re served dips made from various kinds of hummus (chickpea and tahini), yogurt and bab ghanoug (smoky eggplant). These are garnished with mint leaves, paprika and olive oil. The mezze also includes tabbouleh (mainly parsely and tomato) and another plate of mixed greens and tomato. One interesting local delicacy, a kind of spicy beef tartare. All this is “washed down” with arak (lion’s milk) which I gather is “always drunk with mezze.” Arak is the Lebanese version of the French pastis (Pernod or Ricard) or the Greek ouzo. It is made from aniseed, and is very refreshing on a warm afternoon (like today!)
I enjoy Fr Krikor’s company very much. It is awfully kind of him to take the
time to show me a part of his beautiful country. This also provides me the
opportunity to ask questions about many aspects of Armenian life and culture. As
is the case for a growing number of Armenians and other Christians in Lebanon,
his family seems to be slowly migrating away from the Middle East. Fr Krikor has
a sister and soon his brother living in Montreal. On several occasions, he and
others in the community have declared that the future of Lebanon is Moslem, and
the epoch of significant Christian presence in the region, the very birth place
of Christianity, is drawing to a close.
On leaving the restaurant, Fr Krikor has a conversation in Arabic and Armenian with a group of young people from Christian backgrounds, gathered around the reception desk — one of the girls is Armenian. They talk about the riots in Beirut and wonder what all the fuss is really all about. He tries to show them the offensive cartoons, which he finds relatively tame, on the BBC website but the restaurant’s connection is a bit too slow!
We conclude our time in Byblos (Jbail) with a short visit to the “Birds’ Nest”. This is an Armenian Orphanage founded in the early 1920s to provide a home for dozens of dislocated and orphaned children following the Armenian genocide. The Birds’ Nest was founded by the Danish missionary, Maria Jacobsen, through the work of the K.M.A, or Women’s Missionary Workers, from Denmark. Today the Birds’ Nest, just next door to the archaeological site in Byblos, is home to about 50 youngsters, ages 2 to mid-teens. A few are orphans, most come from broken or troubled homes. A member of the Brotherhood of the Catholicosate is chaplain and administrator of the Birds’ Nest, and there is a staff of about 15, including 3 Armenian nuns.
Maria Jacobsen is buried at the Birds’ Nest (see the cross in the photo) and on this day following the riots at the Danish Embassy in Beirut, one wishes the Moslem world might be reminded of the tremendous humanitarian contribution the Danes haave made in the region and around the world.