This is a great travel memoir of the author’s months-long, exhilarating and perilous journey through Lebanon. Written in 1967, it captures a nostalgic snapshot of a (comparatively) safer, more innocent age, when serious Muslim/Christian conflicts still lay far in the future, and Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle-East. The author doesn’t dwell on the glamorous capital, though – or on any other buzzing urban settlements, for that matter – and instead heads for the hills. His journey takes him through fishing villages and Roman ruins; he visits forgotten Phoenician shrines and stays in a Greek monastery.
His journey winds not just through mountains and caves, but also through space and time. Lebanon’s ancient past, the memory of the goddesses that were worshipped there before the advent of Christianity and Islam, is always there, like a VR overlay to the modern landscape.
Shrines like these grow from half the crags and knolls of Lebanon, rude-walled and white-domed under trees descendent from the pagan groves. Every village has its saint’s tomb, or weli. Sometimes they belong to mad or holy men who actually lived, but more often the villagers know nothing of their origin. ‘A great prophet is buried there’, they say, or ‘a famous lady who died long ago’; or sometimes, embarrassed by the absence of any grave, they declare that a holy man or woman passed that way and so the place is blessed.
Thubron’s erudition is really staggering. He can glimpse the vicious struggle between the Greek pursuit of order and the feminine, fecund religions of the East in the design of temple columns. He remembers all the animals that various nations deemed sacred to the goddess Astarte.
In their Wagnerian twilight a partridge rose and vanished through the whiteness, and I accepted it as a portent, for the partridge was sacred to Astarte. Goats too belonged to her. So did the swan and the ram, the myrtle tree, the fish and the goose. Sparrows were offered on her altars and lions upheld her throne. But her special emblem was the dove, too holy in Syria even to be touched, but sacrificed in flames in Cyprus.
The writing is so beautiful that you often feel as if you stumbled into a dream. The book is relatively short – 200-odd pages – but it contains a whole universe within.
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