KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
Byblos is considered to be one of the oldest, continuously inhabited towns in the world. It may be derived from the Greek word bublos (meaning papyrus), as it was once a stopping off place for Phoenician shipments of papyrus to Egypt. It was called Gebal in the Bible, the Crusaders called it Giblet and now it is also known as Jbail. This name seems to be more like the ancient name in the Bible. I prefer the name Byblos, but can’t seem to correct my pronunciation from the first time I said the name, I seem to want to call it ‘Byl-bos’, I think it’s a hangover from ‘The Lord Of The Rings’, Bilbo Baggins.
The first inhabitants were fishers and shepherds back in the 5th century BC. It is home to a major archaeological site that contains one impressive ruin after another, traces of all the civilizations that have occupied Byblos over millennia. The site, facing the sea, includes the foundations of Stone Age houses, several Canaanite and Phoenician temples, ancient city walls, Roman ruins, and an imposing Crusader castle, built in the 13th century.
Byblos is celebrated as the birthplace of the linear alphabet. This alphabet was thought to be an easier way to record the trade transactions than the cuneiform script and it quickly spread throughout the civilized world. The sarcophagus of the Phoenician King Ahiram, discovered at the site, bears the oldest known inscription of the Phoenician linear alphabet.
The forests of the mountains just inland became a major source of wood for Egypt and Rome and unfortunately the Phoenicians were too eager to export this vast resource and eventually the deforestation led to their downfall. It’s hard to imagine this tiny harbour was responsible for making the business men of Byblos wealthy, as they exported Phoenician goods all over the Roman empire. The residents spent lavishly on their buildings. Centuries later, the town became an increasingly important religious centre.
Under Muslim rule, following the conquest in 636 AD, the trading focus turned to the east and Byblos faded into insignificance. It wasn’t until 1860 when a French historian, Ernest Renan began to excavate the site that anyone realized the history that was encapsulated in this tiny port on the sea. One hundred years later, it became a popular place for the international jet set to weigh anchor on their luxury yachts.
This all came to an end with the outbreak of the civil war, and today Byblos is a laid-back place to spend a lazy afternoon wandering through the ruins and having a meal or a drink along the picturesque harbour. The ancient souq has been beautifully restored and is a wonderful place to wander. One shop is of special interest. Memoire De Temps sells 100-million-old-fossils found in a quarry 800m above sea level by a local paleontologist.
The quarry had been in his family for three generations and the fossils are now displayed at almost every natural history museum in the world. These are the only fish fossils found in the Middle East and all the fish are now extinct. For a small price you can purchase your own piece of history, complete with a certificate of authenticity. Once again, we resisted temptation to buy anything in the souq shops, and once again, I felt a little guilty because we visited on a day when there were few tourists. Luckily, we are just early birds for the coming tourist season and hopefully things will be bustling for the shopkeepers before long.