North Lebanon’s main feature lies in its notable number of medieval castles, churches and monasteries scattered all across its landscape. Many of these crusader structures have remained to this day and are in use by the local communities. There is also an equal number of Roman remains some significantly prominent and others not quite unearthed. The discovery of North Lebanon’s national heritage sites may prove an adventure to tourists and visitors. One can also gain a greater appreciation of the region by exploring its eco-touristic locations.
Ain Aakrine (Qasr Naous)
(86 km from Beirut) – Roman Temples
Qasr Naous is located on a High Plateau overlooking the Koura district. Its two Temple sites are each with enclosures and well-preserved doorways. The reconstructed “eastern temple” has one wall intact and parts of two other walls.
The “western temple” has not been fully reconstructed, but its foundation and the tumbled columns and capitals show it was a large impressive structure. On this site is a damaged bust of the Roman sun god, Helios.
Getting There …
From Chekka take the main highway East passing through Amyoun until you reach Kousba. From Kousba turn right and follow the road to Ain Aakrine. The temples are on the far side of the village.
Akkar El Atiqa
(152 km from Beirut) – Castle
Probably built in the late 10th century A.D. by Mouhriz Ibn Akkar, the castle was taken by the Crusaders in the 12th century and re-conquered in 1271 by the Mamluke Sultan Baibars.
During the Ottoman period, it belonged to the feudal family of the Banu Sayfa, then around 1620 it was partially destroyed by Emir Fakhreddine II.
Although the castle is in ruins, you can recognize two courts separated by a sort of ditch and surrounded by five rectangular towers. The higher court contains a vaulted cistern. The main tower at the southern end, which is still in fairly good condition, is decorated with a frieze of lions carved during restoration work carried out by Sultan Baibars. From here there is also a splendid view of the surrounding area.
Getting There …
From El Abdeh, north of Tripoli, drive in the direction of Halba, once there, take the road direction Rahbe or Beit Mellat then Akkar el-Atika. Located near the village of Akkar el-Atiqa (Old Akkar), the castle begins at a bridge over a little river, just where the road climbs steeply to the village of Akkar el-Atiqa. The castle stands on a narrow spur at 694 meters but the best view is from the village itself.
(172 km from Beirut) – Three Roman Temples
Akroum is the name of a mountain with many villages on its slopes, one of which is also called Akroum. Almost all these villages contain remnants from antiquity. Ancient tombs made of stone slabs or carved into cliffs can be seen, as well as the remains of churches. In and around Akroum village itself you will find a Roman temple, a large Byzantine church dedicated to Mar Shamshoum al-Jabbar (Saint Samson the Strong) and numerous cisterns.
Two interesting parallel structures can be seen at a place called Jabal al-Hussein. The best preserved is a temple on the north of the site whose cellar is divided by a large arch. During the Byzantine era this west-facing monument was transformed into a church. Nearby are the ruins of another temple, larger in size, but with only enough elements remaining to identify its basic plan. Fragments of cornices, Corinthian capitals and huge millstones are scattered in and around the structure.
In the little valley known as Wadi as-Saba, or Valley of the Lion, are two steles that appear to go back to Neo-Babylonian times. The first represents a figure wearing a tiara. Facing right, he is being attacked by a lion standing on its rear legs. The hunter, probably royal, is seizing the lion by the neck with his left hand while his right hand holds a dagger at the ready.
Sixty meters above the stele of the lion, at a place known as “Shir as-Sanam” or Cliff of the Statue, is another rock-carved stele in the shape of a cone. The bas-relief shows a king facing right, holding an unidentified object in his right hand and a scepter in his left, Above the king, who wears a tiara, are the symbols of divinity: the seven-pointed stars of Ishtar and the crescent moon of sin.
Getting There …
From El Abdeh, north of Tripoli, drive in the direction of Halba, when there, take the road direction Qubayyat, Aandaqet then Akroum.
(78 km from Beirut) – Archaeological Tell and Church Wall Paintings
Known as Ammiya in the second millennium B.C., the modern town of Amyoun lies on an important archaeological tell. Of major interest are the churches of Mar Jurius (St. George), built on the cellar of a Roman temple, and Mar Fauqa, or St. Phocas, built by local architects during the Crusader period. The entire interior of St.Phocas is covered with Byzantine-style wall paintings of the 12th and 13th centuries. A third church is the modern red-roofed Mar Youhanna (St. John) perched on a rocky cliff with tomb openings on its southeastern facade.
Near the old town government building, or “Serail,” is the Chapel of Marina, an ancient burial vault converted into a chapel.
Getting There …
From Chekka (65km north of Beirut), drive in the direction of The Cedars, Amyoun is 12km far from Chekka. The Amyoun you want to visit is the one perched on a 364-meter-long cliff, not the new town along the highway that brings you into the area called Koura. If you look at the cliff, you will notice its facade dotted with a series of ancient tomb openings. This is Amyoun’s calling card. Two roads lead to the left from the highway, bringing you cliff side and into this picturesque town.
(107 km from Beirut) – Archaeological Tell
Arqa is an archaeological tell which goes back to the Neolithic Period. To reach the site one must go through the modern village and take the road that passes over a single arched bridge.
The ancient town of Arqa played an important role in the area’s history, and its name appears many times in the Bible, in Egyptian texts of the second millennium B.C., and in Assyrian texts of the 1st millennium B.C.
In Roman times it was called Caesarea of Lebanon, and the Roman Emperor Alexander Severus (222-235 A.D.) was born there. In 1108 the Crusaders took control of the strategic castle from the Banu Ammar, but the Mamluke Sultan Baibars captured it in 1266.
Archaeological surveys and excavations begun in the 1970’s have revealed numerous important structures representing almost every occupation level of the site from the Early Bronze Age to the Mamluke period.
Getting There …
From El Abdeh, north of Tripoli, drive in the direction of Halba, Arqa is 6km from El Abdeh.
(90 km from Beirut) – Old Cistercian Monastery
Built by the monastic order of the Cistercians during the Crusader period in the 12th and 13th centuries, this monastery has been under the authority of the Orthodox Church since the early 17th century.
The arrangement of structures around the cloister’s courtyard is characteristic of a Cistercian monastery plan. Both the church of Our Lady of Balamand with its unique bell tower, and the present entrance to the monastery, originally the refectory, were built in the 12th century.
In the 13th century the Cistercians constructed the Great Hall of the Monks that today serves as an attractive concert venue. The Chapter House, also built in the 13th century, was reconstructed sometime after 1604 by the Orthodox monks, who found that most of its vaults had collapsed after the fall of the County of Tripoli in 1289. The structure was made into a church dedicated to Saint George between the 17th and the 19th centuries.
The monastery possesses many manuscripts and beautiful icons, some painted by masters from the region. The altar screen of the Church of Our Lady of Balamand, probably dating to the end of the 17th century, was carefully restored in 1994.
Getting There …
Balamand can be reached by turning east off the highway about 8km south of Tripoli. A sign marks the turn.
(50 km from Beirut) – Ancient Remains and Old Churches
Batroun, on the coast south of Tripoli, was known as “Batruna” in the famous Tell al Amarna letters of the 14th century B.C., although its history goes back even further. The town was called “Botrys” in Greco-Roman times and during the Crusader era it was a seigniory dependent on the County of Tripoli.
Batroun’s fishing port, undoubtedly of great antiquity, still supplies local markets with fresh fish. The city’s sights can be best appreciated by heading on foot through the old part of town. On your way look for remains of the crusader castle within the walls of the 13th century souks and traditional houses.
St. Georges Church, one of many old churches in BatrounAlong the sea front starting from the north end of town you will find the century-old Maronite cathedral of St. Stephan (Mar Stefan), the beautiful 13th century Greek Orthodox Church of St. George and the tiny chapel known as “Sadiyat al-Bahr,” or Our Lady of the Sea. This simple white washed building has a wide verandah overlooking the sea and an excellent view of Batroun’s sea wall, which is what remains of a huge quarry famous in Hellenistic and Roman times.
Batroun also has a rock-cut Roman theater. Today it sits in a private garden, but your visit is welcome. Compare the motifs carved on the arch of a doorway near the theater with those over the door of the church of Saint George . These were made by the same hand that decorated the tombs near the Mar Estephan church in the neighboring village of Wajh al-Hajar.
If you Have Time …
Musaylha Castle (6 km from Batroun)
The fortress was built by Fakhreddine II in 1624 to guard the route from Tripoli to Beirut. You enter the diamond shaped castle by a narrow path and rock-cut steps. The door, which is protected by a machicolated window, opens onto a triangular courtyard that leads to the different parts of the castle.
Getting There …
Batroun is situated on the coast, 50km north of Beirut.
(95 km from Beirut) – Ancient Remains
Northwest of Douma and two kilometers north of Bchealeh village, are extensive remains of a religious or military settlement from the Romano-Byzantine era. The site may also have been a Canaanite “high place.” Situated above the hilltop Maronite monastery of Mar Yaqoob (St. James), the ruins and the panoramic view are well worth the effort of getting there.
The ruin is a jumble of stone blocks, some quarried building stones, others natural. Remains of walls, basins or reservoirs, shaft tombs cut into the rock and other structures can be discerned. The entire site is littered with pottery sherds. West of these remains is what appears to be a stone of sacrifice. Shaped like a mushroom, it is surrounded by a man-made circular indentation which drains into a deep groove, possibly to receive the blood of a sacrifice.
Getting There …
From Batroun take the main highway East towards Aabrine, passing through Sourat, Deir , Kfar Hilda, Douma until you reach Bchealeh.
(81 km from Beirut) – Roman Temple
In Bziza village in the Koura plain east of Tripoli, is a well preserved Roman temple with three of its frontal portico columns still standing. In Byzantine times a two-apse church known as “Our Lady of the Columns”, was built within its walls.
A short distance from the Roman temple is the barrel vaulted Byzantine chapel of St. Elias which sits beneath two huge oak trees. On the right wall, near the altar, is a medieval wall painting showing a halo and a portion of a saint’s body. South of the temple a short walk brings you to a series of rock cut tombs at road level.
Getting There …
From Chekka (65km north of Beirut), take the main highway East towards Amyoun, from there turn south and drive about 3km.
(87 km from Beirut) – Ancient Remnants
This red-roofed town, which stands at the head of a long fertile valley known as Kfar Hilda, is proud of its ancient remnants. In the town square sits a 4th century A.D. sarcophagus, bearing a Greek inscription recording that this was the burial place of Castor, who died in 317 A.D. He was a priest of the two gods Hygeia and Asklepios (health and healing). Other ancient remains are set in the walls of the churches of Mar Doumit and Mar Shalleeta.
On the post office lawn nearby are some mill stones and oil presses, probably from Late Roman or Byzantine times.
Near the roadside just above the town is the ancient church of Mar Nohra built into the rock.
From the wooden door fashioned from tree slabs to the yard shaded with a large Holme or Mediterranean oak, this charming spot is definitely worth a visit. Stone picnic tables are provided.
Getting There …
From Batroun take the main highway East towards Aabrine, passing through Sourat, Deir Billa, Kfar Hilda, until you reach Douma. You will have driven 37km from Batroun before reaching Douma.
(65 km from Beirut) – Crusader Remains
Enfeh is a small fishing town on the coast of North Lebanon built around the ruins of several short-lived cities going back to the pre-Phoenician period. Natural dwelling caves abound on the surrounding hill of Al-Gheer; the original city lies on a small near-island about half a kilometer into the sea. Its outstanding feature is that it is the only town throughout the eastern coast of the Mediterranean to be carved out of its rocky surroundings.
Some of the carvings go all the way back to the Phoenician period, and possibly earlier, as witness to the fact that the name of Enfeh appears on the Tell-Amarna tablets of ancient Egypt. The remains of subsequent settlements include dwelling caves, places of worship, cisterns, water tanks and wine presses, as well as steps and roads all carved in the rock. One ancient quarry, known as the Great Trench, was used by the Phoenicians as a dry dock; it served for defensive purposes during the Crusader period.
Enfeh harbors a number of ancient churches, the oldest of which contains remnants of its original Byzantine frescoes; it is rather poetically called ‘Saydet el Reeh,” or “Our Lady of the Wind”. Also in Enfeh is Lebanon’s sole surviving Romanesque Church which was built by the Crusaders. Large numbers of presses and jars of a wide range of styles and origins, made of clay, have been found both inland and under water and continue to be discovered to this day. According to archeologists, they are evidence of Enfeh’s once pre-eminent manufacturing and commercial position.
Along the length of the bay, the salt marshes add a typically picturesque note to the landscape, especially in places with the traditional wind wheel which pumps seawater better than the noisy and polluting diesel engine! The production of sea salt is a staple of the local economy. “White gold”, as it is called, provides for an inexhaustible natural resource which can thus be extracted without endangering the environment.
Getting There …
Enfeh is situated on the coast, 65km north of Beirut, or 15km south of Tripoli.
(127 km from Beirut) – Crusader Remains
At Beit Jaalouk, lie the basaltic remains of a little temple erected in stages starting in the first century AD, and later made into a church in Byzantine times. These remains, restored by the Directorate General of Antiquities, has some dedications in Greek letters. One of them, a statue base measuring 110cm x 67cm, was dedicated in 262 AD by the priest Drusus to Nemesis who was considered the mistress of cosmic destiny. A wheel of fortune is etched into the rock below the name of the goddess.
In the valley below the temple is the Menjez river. North of the temple towards the river, you can see the old Roman canalization with supporting walls, 5 meters high. This water course winds its way for some distance both east and west of the temple and makes an interesting hike. The town of Menjez is the site of the monastery of Our Lady of the Fortress, located at the end of a long stone paved road. Built in 1890, the structure stands near the remains of a Crusader castle where cisterns and tombs may also be found.
Getting There …
From the center of Halba, turn left in the direction of Qubbayat. Continue until you come to an artificial lake to your right, about 18 km away from Halba. Half a kilometer beyond this is a left turn in the direction of Menjez which you follow for 5 km. Then take a right fork that dead ends at the Hamlet of Qosayr. Just beyond a grove of large oak trees and a tomb, turn right onto a dirt road, which, if dry, is passable by car. About 1 kilometer along this road is a small building and from here a ten minute walk along the path to the right leads to the temple site.
(131 km from Beirut) – Old Monastery
Deir Qannoubin served as a fortress palace for the Maronite Patriarchs from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The monastery can be reached by foot from Blawza or Diman, a walk of several hours that gives an idea of what the journey was like for early pilgrims and patriarchs. A shorter way is by the path that begins at the bottom of the valley.
The monastery’s church, half built into the rock, is decorated with frescos from the 18th-19th centuries. The eastern apse has a Deisis (a representation of Christ between the Virgin Mary and St. John the Baptist) with St. Stephanus taking the place of St. John the Baptist. Another small apse shows St. Joseph holding the Child in one hand and a saw in the other. In a second apse is the figure of the prophet Daniel in the lions’ den. On the northern wall a fresco represents the coronation of the Virgin by the Trinity, with nine miter-capped Maronite Patriarchs looking on. At the entrance of this church is a cave where a naturally preserved body can be seen, mistakenly believed by the local population to be that of Patriarch Youssef Tyan.
Not far from here is the chapel of Mar Marina, famous saint of the valley, where 18 Maronite patriarchs are buried. Interestingly, the Patriarch Tyan is listed among those buried here.
Getting There …
From Chekka take the main highway East towards Amyoun passing through Hadath El Jebbe, and Bcharreh. Qannoubine is 6km away from Bcharreh.
(58 km from Beirut) – Outdoor museum
The town of Rachana, south of Tripoli is a “Museum Village” that comes to life with modern sculpture made of wood, stone, granite, or metal. The credit for this unusual site goes to three brothers, Michel, Alfred and Yussef Basbous, prolific and creative artists who turned their hometown into a true artist workshop that is visited by many tourists every year.
Michel built himself an unusual house using only waste materials for the construction. Upon his death, the building was converted into Yussef’s studio. This true family tradition is destined to continue thanks to the sculptors’ children who had already had a chance to prove themselves in the original art of their fathers with their own distinctive personalities. The place is worth visiting.
Getting There …
From Byblos, north of Beirut, drive past Amchit some 17km where a north-east turn-off will lead you directly to Rachana.
(120 km from Beirut) – Roman Temples
There are at least three temples around Sfireh not far from Sir El Donnieh in North Lebanon; two of them are visible on high hills at the far side of the village. The third, in Sfireh itself, is somewhat harder to find. The Romans in Lebanon often built temples on the highest and most magnificent sites possible. Not surprisingly, in later centuries these strategically located temples were sometimes reused by local chieftains as defensive castles. The main temple of Sfireh, built in the 2nd century AD, is a good example of this. Known in the area as “Qalaat al-Hosn” or “fortress castle,” it overlooks the entire region from a height of 1,250 meters.
This is one of the best preserved temples in Lebanon; even though the roof is gone its waits still stand at almost their full height. Originally it was probably surrounded by great columns like the Bacchus temple in Baalbeck, although no trace remains of such a colonnade. Look for carvings on the front of the temple and for the square holes in the floor that were used for door supports. There is a Greek language inscription on the outside wall. From here a steep path winds left up the hill to another more ruined temple. You’ll find a fallen altar with a carved bull’s head inside a wreath, a design repeated on the three sides that are visible. Also notice the fine stone work of the standing wall. The view from this hill is a good one but if you climb even higher there is a panorama looking towards Sir El Donnieh, Qornet es-Sawda, Ehden and the Akkar. From Sir El Donnieh you can even walk to Qornet es-Sawda, the highest peak in Lebanon at 3,088 meters. But it’s best to plan ahead because the walk will take at least six hours.
Back in Sfireh look around the southwest part of the village for the remains of yet another temple. This one is hidden away among modern-day buildings, but if you want to investigate, ask for “Beit al-Kebir” (big house). Villagers will help you locate it. To see the actual temple, you have to get behind the modern house, whose terrace is built on top of the Roman wall.
Getting There …
From Tripoli take the main highway East towards Sir El Donnieh. Sfireh is 9km away along a narrow road.
(132 km from Beirut) – Rock-Cut Monastery
In the Qadisha valley is the cave monastery and church of Mar Antonios Qouzhayya. One of the largest monasteries in the valley, it has been in continuous use since the early Middle Ages. In the cave of saint Antoine near the entrance you can see the chains that were used to hold victims of insanity in an attempt to cure them. The facade of the church is manmade but the interior is fashioned from a natural cave with carved niches.
In the 16th-17th centuries the monks of Qouzhayya imported Lebanon’s first printing presses which were used to print the Psalms in Syriac. A later press, purchased in 1871, can be seen in a museum which also houses a collection of sacred and ethnographic objects. At the entrance to the museum a shop sells books and religious souvenirs.
Getting There …
From Beirut, head north towards Chekka, some 68km, and then turn right at the highway that leads to Amyoun passing through Kfar Hazir Amyoun and Kousba before you reach Tourza.
(85 km north of Beirut) – Roman Temples
Tripoli has a special character all its own. Thanks to its historical wealth, relaxed lifestyle and thriving business climate, this is a city where modern and medieval blend easily into a lively and hospitable metropolis. known as the capital of the North, Tripoli is Lebanon’s second largest city.
Forty-five buildings in the city, many dating from the 11th century, have been registered as historical sites. Twelve mosques from Mamluke and Ottoman times have survived along with an equal number of madrassas or theological schools. Secular buildings include the hammam or bathing-house, which followed the classical pattern of Roman-Byzantine baths, and the khan or caravansary.
The souks, together with the khans, form an agglomeration of various trades where tailors, jewelers, perfumers, tanners and soap-makers work in surroundings that have changed very little over the last 500 years.
Tripoli in History
Habitation of the site of Tripoli goes back to at least the 14th century B.C., but it wasn’t until about the 9th century B.C. that the Phoenicians established a small trading station there. Later, under the Persians, it was home to a confederation of the Phoenician city states of Sidon, Tyre and Arados Island. Built on the trade and invasion route near the Abu Ali River, Tripoli’s strategic position was enhanced by offshore islands, natural ports and access to the interior.
Under the successors of Alexander the Great during the Hellenistic period, Tripoli was used as a naval shipyard. There is also evidence that it enjoyed 3 period of autonomy at the end of the Seleucid era.
Under Roman rule starting with the takeover of the area by Pompey in 64-63 B.C., the city flourished and during this period the Romans built several monuments here.
The Byzantine city of Tripoli, which by then extended to the south, was destroyed, along with other Mediterranean coastal cities, by an earthquake and tidal wave in 551.
After 635, Tripoli became a commercial and shipbuilding center under the Umayyads. It achieved semi-independence under the Fatimid Dynasty when it developed into a center of learning.
At the beginning of the 12th century the Crusaders laid siege to the city, finally entering it in 1109. The conquest caused extensive destruction, including the burning of Tripoli’s famous library, the Dar AL’ILM, with its thousands of volumes.
During- the Crusaders’ 180-year rule the city was the capital of the “Country of Tripoli.” But Crusader Tripoli fell in 1289 to the victorious Mamluke Sultan Qalaoun, who ordered the old port city (today al-Mina) destroyed and a new city built inland near the old castle.
During the long Turkish Ottoman rule (1516-1918) Tripoli retained its prosperity and commercial importance and in these years more buildings were added to the city’s architectural wealth.
Featured Sites in History
1. The Citadel
Overlooking the city is the imposing Citadel of Tripoli known as Qal’at Sinjil (Saint Gilles) which has been renovated and changed many times during its history. Today the castle’s main features are an octagonal Fatimid construction converted to a church by the Crusaders, some Crusader structures of the 11th-13th centuries, a number of 14th century Mamluke additions, as well as additions made by the Ottomans in the 16th century. The present state of this huge fortress (140 meters long and 70 meters wide) is largely the result of extensive restoration work by Mustapha Barbar Agha, governor of Tripoli at the beginning of the 19th century.
2. Church of St. John of the Pilgrims Mount
Significant remains of this Crusader church were found in the Maronite Cemetery of Saint John about 200 meters south of the Castle on Abu Samra hill. There are two joined chapels, the larger of which has a semi-circular apse. The smaller one, with a rectangular apse, was reserved for funerary use. The church was surrounded by a large Crusader cemetery.
3. The Great Mosque
Begun in 1294 and completed in 1315, the Great Mosque was built on the ruined 12th century Crusader cathedral of St. Mary of the Tower. Its large courtyard is surrounded by porticos and a domed and vaulted prayer hall. Inside, one can still see elements of western architecture from the old church, including the northern entrance and the Lombard style bell tower which was transformed into the minaret.
Getting There …
Tripoli is situated on the coast, 85km north of Beirut.