Beirut, Lebanon: 48 Hours of Holiness

I arrived in Beirut on a wet Good Thursday evening. Beirut was oddly quiet, and I was almost oblivious to the fact that it was a holy time for Lebanon. It wasn’t until I was exploring the neighbourhood of Mar Mikhael the next morning that I realised Beirut’s relative peace was in anticipation of Easter. During the 48 hours prior to Easter Sunday, I mostly hung around eastern Beirut — a largely Christian part of the city — where the onset of the holiday was intimately clear.

My short stay in Beirut prior to the festivities of Easter made it clear to me that Lebanon was a kind of holy place for many. From refugees to pilgrims, Lebanon offered a special solace evident to those coming to benefit from it. On that weekend in Beirut I was drawn to it’s unexpected holiness— religious and otherwise.

Mar Mikhael, Beirut, Lebanon: A house in Mar Mikhael has holy statues on its front yard window sill. Mar Mikhael is a largely Christian neighbourhood in eastern Beirut. Religious segregation of Beirut is fairly recent; before the Civil War, districts of Beirut were mostly heterogenous but became divided along religious lines after the 15-year war. Today, Beirut’s Western districts are known for their Sunni residents while East and North are predominantly Christian.

Unlike many places around the world, Lebanon’s diversity is synonymous with religion. There are 18 officially recognised religions in Lebanon — the majority of which are either Christian (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Protestant) or Muslim (Sunni, Shia, Druze). Lebanon also has the largest community of Christians in the Arab world. Religion is a strong marker of identity in Lebanon, and Lebanese pride in the traditions, rituals and history of their respective faiths is clear throughout the country. Many publications and outlets have made Lebanon’s religious diversity the scapegoat of its political instability. Yet it seems that it is precisely it’s ‘holiness’ that brings peace to many of those passing through.

Below are a series of images captured in the two days prior to Easter Sunday where biblical symbols and rituals are prominent particularly in the outskirts of Beirut. Each image tries to capture the spirit of the capital as well as the stories of those who have come to Lebanon precisely for a type of peace they believe only it can provide.

Beirut, Lebanon: Nighttime view of Beirut from Chalhoub Building, Mar Mikhael. Like Damascus and Jerusalem, Beirut is an ancient city. Beirut is said to have been named after the Phoenician daughter of Adonis and Aphrodite “Beroe” in the Hellenistic period. Beirut is also mentioned in the Bible as a holy place.
Mar Mikhael, Beirut, Lebanon: The buildings in the neighbourhood where I was staying. A lot of modern buildings are coming up around Beirut, but many bullet-ridden buildings are kept as a reminder of the Lebanese Civil War. They are treated like holy sites of Lebanon’s history.
Mar Mikhael, Beirut, Lebanon: A girl walks around the neighbourhood on a rainy Good Friday morning.

10:00 am I began my 48 hours in Beirut exploring the central district. I walked from downtown Beirut to the waterfront and watched fishermen, families and refugees enjoy the breeze and the sea. I remember my family bringing us there to see the Rouche rocks as children in the 90s, and the scene is exactly like I remember it — except I also remember staring at lovers kissing by the ledge of the corniche. Beirut is a haven for Arab lovers, including the Arab LGBT community, as it has always been more accepting than its neighbours Damascus and Amman. Around Beirut’s corniche you will find a mix of locals and visitors, old and young, and different communities enjoying the sounds of the crashing Mediterranean waves. It’s almost a religious pilgrimage for all those in Beirut walking up and down the corniche all hours of the day.

Corniche, Beirut, Lebanon: A fisherman sits by the coastline waiting for the catch of the day. Lebanese fishermen have been fishing at Beirut’s corniche religiously for decades. Many cities have parks, but in Beirut the boulevard by the coastline — the corniche — serves as one.
Bliss street, Beirut, Lebanon: I walked from Corniche to Hamra through Bliss Street where the American University of Beirut campus is. The University was founded by Christian missionaries in the late 1800s.
Hamra, Beirut, Lebanon: A mural by Chilean grafitti artist INTI sits in the middle of Hamra’s bustling neighbourhood. The mural makes biblical references to life, death and ancient religions.

From Beirut’s corniche I walked to the infamous Rue Hamra. Hamra was once the intellectual centre of Beirut, and attracted political activists in the 60s and 70s. Today Hamra is the Champs Elysees of Beirut and attracts tourists, visitors, artists and some of its oldest pubs and clubs are still around.

Beirut has attracted tourists and visitors for decades. Once called the “Paris of the Middle East”, Beirut has always been considered the go-to city of the region. It competes with its affluent oil-rich Gulf neighbours in attracting migrant workers, tourists, visitors, investors and the like. Beirut has large migrant labor communities, including Ethiopians, Bangladeshis, Filipinos and others. Largest of them is the Ethiopian community who now have designated churches around the city specifically to service their Orthodox faith.

Hamra, Beirut, Lebanon: A man sits underneath calligraphy that reads “Beirut is better”. The writing is reflective of how Lebanese feel about the capital — they often compare Beirut to other Arab capitals and conclude by saying that Beirut is better in every way, environmentally, economically, socially, politically. Many Arab and non-Arab tourists are attracted to the culture, history and infrastructure of the city. The writing continues out of the frame to say Beirut is better “…by bicycle”.
Hamra, Beirut, Lebanon: Outside a supermarket in Hamra a sign reads “there is injera (bread)” in Amharic. There are almost 100,000 Ethiopian migrants living in Lebanon, and are the largest group of migrant workers in the country. They come to Lebanon looking for economic and work opportunities.

Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon at the top of Harissa, Lebanon

5:00 pm I headed to Jounieh, only 16 km north of Beirut, to take the telepherique — a gondola lift system — up to Harissa for views of Lebanon’s coastline. It takes about ten minutes to get to the top and there sits a Marian shrine, Our Lady of Lebanon, a prominent Lebanese pilgrimage site. Our Lady of Lebanon is considered one of the most important shrines in the world honouring the Virgin Mary.

On regular days, the telephrique is a mode of transport for the residents of Harissa. They take the gondola up and down the pine forest mountain running errands and going about their daily lives. On holy days like this one, the telephrique is jam packed with pilgrims visiting Our Lady of Lebanon to give prayers and light candles. At the shrine, I met families from Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq who came to Harissa specifically to pray over the Easter holidays. I also met families coming from Europe and elsewhere.

Views of Lebanon from inside the telephrique
Harissa, Jounieh, Lebanon: A Jordanian gentleman kisses the statue of Our Lady of Lebanon, a pilgrimage site and Marian shrine. The man came with his wife and friends to pray at the shrine the night before Easter, and leans over to kiss the statue after finishing his prayer.

Gemmayzeh, Beirut, Lebanon: Gemmayzeh is Beirut’s notorious nightlife spot. While out drinking with friends I passed by this graffiti sign that reads “God, is that you?”. Although Gemmayze is full of well curated street art, but this sign seemed oddly sincere.

10:00 pm At night, I headed to Gemmayzeh, Beirut’s infamous neighbourhood. I’ve been seduced by Gemmayzeh’s allure since I was a teenager. There’s nothing like an Arab road full of beer, pubs and nightclubs to lure in an assuming teenager unfamiliar with nightlife. As an adult, Gemmayzeh is still attractive but more for people watching and listening to drunken stories.

Despite it being a holy weekend, everyone was out partying full force. Unlike most weekends, the partying started relatively late that evening. I believe this was actually due to it being a holy weekend; many were off the next day. Not to mention that partying is a kind of holy activity in Lebanon. Lebanese people have a reputation for being the most elated of the Arabs — there was a rumour in the 80s that when Israel occupied Lebanon the Lebanese used their one hour curfew to party at the beach. It did not surprise me that Gemmayzeh was quite rowdy that night.

Gemmayzeh, Beirut, Lebanon: Friends outside a bar in Gemmayzeh drink and chat. Despite it being a holy weekend everyone in Beirut is out partying full force.
Gemmayzeh, Beirut, Lebanon: I took this portrait of Adam outside a bar. Adam is a journalist and filmmaker based in Beirut. He’s a British national and moved to Lebanon over ten years ago — he said that he left his comfortable corporate job as a management consultant to travel the world and document stories. For some reason, he says, he stuck around Beirut. Just like many foreigners, Adam seems to be addicted to Lebanon’s holy allure.
Gemmayze, Beirut, Lebanon: Portrait of Moussa (Arabic for Moses), a Syrian refugee selling flowers to party-goers on the streets of Beirut’s notorious nightlife spot Gemmayze. Moussa is a 10 year old and has been in Beirut for only a month. On Easter Sunday eve, Moussa comes up to me and asks to get his photo taken. I don’t know why exactly he wanted to be photographed, but we kept shooting until he was satisfied with the results. He didn’t ask me to send the photo or share it. He just wanted to be photographed. (As of October 2016, Lebanon hosted over 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Lebanon is also home to half a million Palestinian refugees).

Byblos, Jbeil, Lebanon

10:00 am I headed out to Byblos in the morning, which is only a 45-minute drive outside of Beirut. Visiting Byblos is a habit I picked up from spending summers in Lebanon with my parents. We visited Byblos every time we went, mostly for the fresh fish and beautiful views, so it has become a sort of ritual for me. A ritual I feel applies to Lebanese as well as Levantines living outside of Lebanon.

Byblos is the epitome of a Levantine city — first inhabited by the Canaanites in 7000BC. Named “Jbeil” in Arabic, a derivative of its Canaanite/Phoenician name, Byblos means ‘mountain’ or ‘mount’ in Ancient Greek. Byblos is known as the city where scripture began and Ancient Greeks often imported their papyrus paper from Byblos, hence the Ancient Greek word for paper “bublos”. The Bible is said to have come from “bublos”. In many ways, Byblos is an ancient holy site, and a site for modern rituals.

Byblos, Lebanon: Tourists resting on a structure inside the Byblos citadel.
Byblos, Jbeil, Lebanon: A group of graduating high school students come to Byblos citadel in Jbeil to celebrate the end of their school years. A student plays the tabbleh (drums) while other students dance and a teacher chaperones. Byblos citadel is a UNESCO world heritage site, and is the oldest inhabited city in the world.
Views of Jbeil from Byblos citadel

Mar Mikhael, Beirut, Lebanon: A Marian statue sits on top of an office desk at a gas station in Mar Mikhael.

10:00 pm For centuries, Lebanon has been the centre of crusades. From the Hellenistic period to the European colonial project, Lebanon was a site for religious and holy activity. Even in contemporary history, after Ottoman Rule, Beirut became the centre of missionary activity in the region, which brought about institutions like the American University of Beirut. In the late 70s, Lebanon even became a target in Israel’s zionist project. The religious diversity and piety of Lebanon is often used as an explanation for its turbulent past.

Lebanon, however, is a holy site in many other ways. Its been the home for refugees, a site for political activism, a site for economic prosperity, a site for personal growth, and a site for spiritual journeys. The holiness of Lebanon is lost on those that don’t see past the sectarian differences and religious diversity.

Mar Mikhael, Beirut: Lebanese flag is mast on top of a building on Easter Sunday eve