June 05, 2016

Anjar. A city of Beauty and Violence

The distant crackling woke me up. I was having a nap in the car to overcome the effects of the lack of sleep on the overnight flight on Middle Eastern Airlines to Beirut from Heathrow.

I got out to stretch my legs, and then I heard it again, but this time it was louder and more concentrated. Distant, but unmistakable, there was a fairly major gun battle raging beyond the Syrian hills behind me.

Halfway between Beirut and Damascus lies the ancient city of Anjar, right on the border between Lebanon and Syria. Surrounded by snow topped mountains, and situated on the fertile Bekaa Valley with abundant mineral springs nearby, it is the perfect place to build a city. 

Yet, the gunfire was a reminder of the long and violent history of this region. Anjar was not spared this, and the beautiful city had only a very short life, and a brutal end.

The city was founded during the Umayyad period around 710 to 715 CE. The Ummayad's were the first great dynasty to build an Arab Moslem Caliphate, or empire, that reached as far as southern Spain in Europe. 

Caliph Walid Ben Abudmalel built it at the crossroads of the main Arabian trading routes, and the existence of over 600 shops here shows that this was one of the key inspirations for the founding of the city.

There are also bath houses, a mosque, and the remains of two palaces, which suggests that it may well have been used as a summer retreat for the rulers, with temperatures much cooler in summer than in the sweltering Ummayad capital of Damascus.

Uncovered by archaeologists in the 1940's, the city continues to be excavated today. As with most ancient sites in the Middle East at the moment, it is deserted, with the number of tourists visiting it a mere handful. It is an easy city to explore and wander around, and particularly good for photography in the early morning.

The palace at Anjar
Inspired by Roman designs and technology, the shops crowd the sides of the two wide roads, both built with gutters running beside them, which then feed into large drains running beneath, and connected to an efficient sewerage system taking the waste water out of the city.

The sheer number of shops indicates the huge importance of trade, and made Anjar the ancient equivalent of a modern shopping mall, with large open spaces behind the shops used for either animals, or the storing of carts (maybe in the next excavation neatly marked cart spaces with three hour parking limits etched into tablets will be found). 

The main palace is in the south east corner, and its large size was clearly built to impress. This structure is the only one which has a more Arabic than Roman design. Despite earthquakes and invasions many of the walls of it are still standing.

The Tetrastyle (a four columned temple like structure) built where the two main roads meet, would not be out of place at Pompeii. The use of Roman traditions is also clear in the Bath House, where three rooms are used, one for changing, one for warm water, and one for hot water, with Roman inspired mosaics on the floors and hypocausts used for heating the floor.

Surrounding the city was huge defensive wall, with fortified towers. Yet this was not enough to save the city. The Ummayad's were portrayed by their opponents as morally decadent and living a life of luxury while their people suffered. The city of Anjar does little to assuage this perception.

The Tetrastyle at the junction of the main roads
A civil war enveloped the empire, with their opponents, the Abbasids, fighting a religious battle, identifying themselves as being closer in bloodline and beliefs with Muhammed than the existing rulers. They adopted the Black Standard, a flag that is now associated with modern jihad, and which has more recently become the chosen flag of ISIS.

Only thirty years after the city was built, and it is was still unfinished, it was ransacked and destroyed, with all the men, women and children inside massacred. The strong walls offered little protection from the armies of their opponents, who easily broached them and ran amok.

The Abbasid Caliphate was established soon after, and in a further sign of their brutality, they offered an 'Amnesty' to the remaining members of the Ummayad royal family. Over eighty turned up to receive their pardons, only to be murdered on the spot.

As I left Anjar, the gunfire had been replaced by bird song. A fitting epitaph for the city, built on beauty and tranquility, and then destroyed in sudden violence.

Getting to Anjar

Although only just under 60 km from Beirut, public transport to Anjar is a slow and painful process. Mini buses do run from the Charles Helou bus station to the nearby mainly Armenian modern city of Anjar but these are infrequent, and only depart when full.

The easiest way is to go on a tour, either by bus, or by a car with driver. Many day tours are offered by travel agents in Beirut, often combining Anjar with a trip to Baalbek.

Note that currently (June 2016) the Australian, US and British governments advise their citizens to not travel to the Bekaa Valley and Anjar, due to the security situation in Syria.

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