Mountain Villages, Castles and Booza in the Shouf

Ozge!

Ozge!

Ozge is leaving for Turkey on Tuesday! The beginning of the end. It seems that many of the people I’ve met here over the past couple of weeks are half & half’s like me, or political science students with a particular interest in the Middle East, here doing an internship – regardless, the one thing they all seem to have in common is that they’re all only here for the summer. Rats. It’s okay – I’ll just have to make the most out of my time with them, their last few weeks here!

So today was declared Ozge’s day and I promised to go along with whatever plans she made. Which is actually awesome for me because Ozge always seems to make amazing plans.

Last night, before I left Dany’s the two of us decided to meet up at 11:30 am on Hamra street and make another day trip to somewhere in Lebanon. Up late as usual, I rushed to get dressed and picked up two manaeesh with vegetables for us for breakfast, and hurried over to find Ozge waiting patiently for me with a cup of coffee for each of us. Mmmm boy! Great minds think alike! We were off to a good start!

Untitled We headed down to the Cola transport hub where we met up with two friends of Ozge’s, an Australian guy and an Irish guy, whose names I have embarrassingly forgotten. Ozge wanted to explore the Shouf – a mountain range southeast of Beirut that is part of the Mount Lebanon Range. So we headed off in a shared taxi for the village of Deir al-Qamar (Pronounced ‘Dare al Um-ar’ – in the Lebanese dialect of Arabic they almost always drop the ‘q’ sound, in case you were wondering – which I’m sure you weren’t, but now you know. Don’t ‘cha feel lucky?), a small village in the Shouf, which Lonely Planet describes as “one of Lebanon’s prettiest villages…and one of the best-preserved examples of 17th and 18th century provincial architecture in the country.” Good plan!

The beautiful Shouf

The beautiful Shouf

The drive up from boiling Beirut into the considerably cooler green mountains was beautiful and when we weren’t chatting or checking out the view, I read up on Deir al-Qamar. ‘Deir’ means ‘monastery’ and ‘al-Qamar’ means ‘moon’, so basically the name translates to ‘Monastery of the moon.’ I don’t know what the story behind that name is, but I like it! The taxi dropped us off along the main road in Deir al-Qamar around 1pm and we took a minute to orient ourselves and take in the sights.

View down the main road of Deir al-Qamar

View down the main road of Deir al-Qamar

Dany Chamoun wearing a shirt with the logo of the Tiger's Militia

Dany Chamoun wearing a shirt with the logo of the Tiger's Militia

Deir al-Qamar really is a beautiful city. It’s filled with stone buildings with red-tile roofs, assembled around a large center square, called Dany Chamoun Square. Dany Chamoun was a Lebanese politician and the son of former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun. He was born in Deir al-Qamar and was known for his opposition to the occupation of Lebanese territories by Syrian and Israeli foreign forces and for his role as a leader of the Tigers Militia in 1968, the military wing of the National Liberal Party (NLP) during the Lebanese Civil War. He and his family were assassinated in 1990, and in his honor, they named the main square of Deir al-Qamar after him.

Random fact about Dany Chamoun Square – apparently in the 16th century they held jousting and other equestrian competitions there. So cool! Now it just houses a small 19th century fountain that dispenses clean drinking water from the nearby Shalout spring. The fountain itself isn’t anything spectacular, but the ice-cold water hit the spot.

Main Square in Deir al-Qamar

Dany Chamoun Square in Deir al-Qamar

Okay, being totally honest – aside from being a cute town with an interesting history, there’s really not much to do in Deir al-Qamar. We browsed the small souk where I bought a patch of the Lebanese flag for my backpack and took a peek in the bizarre wax museum that’s housed inside the old palace of Emir Fakhreddine II, that was built in 1620. We walked past the small Mosque of Fakhreddine that was built in the Mamluk style in the 1490s and down a hill to the Church of Saidet at-Talle that was built in the 7th century, destroyed by an earthquake in the 8th century and then rebuilt under Fakhreddine in the 16th century. Whew! Actually, one thing that is cool about this city is that it has housed Muslims, Christians, Jews and Druze and has the religious monuments to prove it.

L1010105L1010106So with our tour of this tiny village complete (took about 1 hour) we decided to treat ourselves to some booza (the Arabic word for ice cream – such a fun word!) from a small stall in front of the Palace of Fakhreddine. YES! And the best part was – they had banana royales. Okay for you poor, select individuals who have yet to sample the delicious amazingness that is a banana royale, I will fill you in – sliced banana, 3 scoops of the ice cream of your choice, topped with whipped cream and hot fudge. HEAVEN!! Yes, ice cream makes me that happy 😉

Booza!! Banana Royale with pistachio ice cream! Ah! SO HAPPY!

Booza!! Banana Royale with pistachio ice cream! Ah! SO HAPPY!

After our delicious snack, we decided to make our way to the nearby palace of Beiteddine. Okay, and here is where we encountered our first problem of the day. Transportation. There were no cabs to be found in the bite-sized village of Deir al-Qamar and Beiteddine is 6 kilometers away. Oh dear…Luckily, there is only one road connecting the village with the palace and so we set off on foot, arms outstretched, thumbs erect hoping against hope that someone would be kind enough to pick us up. Luckily after about 30 minutes of walking a lone cab passed by and drove us, 4 sweaty, pathetically unsuccessful hitchhikers, to Beiteddine for 2,000 lira each. Score!

Interior courtyard of Beiteddine

Interior courtyard of Beiteddine

The palace of Beiteddine took about 30 years to build and was completed in the early 1800s. It’s massive and gorgeous and perfectly in tact. There are large courtyards with fountains, steam baths, intricate mosaic floors – the details decorating this place are nuts. It’s pretty awesome. I actually visited the palace the first time I came to Lebanon with my Mom in 2005, but I was psyched to be going back.

As we pulled into the palace entrance, we waved goodbye to our driver and made our way over to the ticket counter….where we encountered problem #2. Because of the summer Beiteddine festival, the palace closed early – we were an hour too late. Uuuuuugh! Such a bummer. So now what….We took a quick break to rest and collect our thoughts. On the walk + drive over, we had noticed a castle that seemed a little out of place in the middle of the Shouf and we decided to head back there and check it out. 15 minutes of walking and more unsuccessful hitchhiking later, we found ourselves in another taxi and on our way to Castle Moussa.

Exterior of Castle Moussa

Exterior of Castle Moussa

Okay, what to say about Castle Moussa? This place is a trip. So freaking bizarre! Basically the story begins with this guy named Moussa – Moussa Abdel Karim Al Maamari, to be exact. He was born in 1931 and was one of those kids obsessed with the Middle Ages – you know, knights, castles, kings and queens. Pretty standard. So the little Moussa is in grade school and the teacher asks his students to write a short essay on where they want to live when they grow up. Moussa writes about his dream of living in a castle – he’s a kid, so far this all sounds pretty normal, right? The teacher thinks the idea is ridiculous and beats Moussa in front of his classmates, who all laugh and ridicule him. Okay. That admittedly sucks.

So Moussa is so traumatized by this whole thing that he makes it his life goal to prove his teacher wrong and build himself a castle. And this is where the story begins to get a little bizarre. This guy devotes his whole life to learning about the restoration of old palaces and castles in Lebanon (he actually worked on the restoration of Beiteddine), and once he has saved up enough money, he buys a plot of land in the Shouf and begins, literally, to build his dream castle. He built the ENTIRE thing by hand, an impressive feat that took him 60 years to complete. This place has a moat, a drawbridge, medieval style ramparts – oh, he went all out.

Oh and it gets better. Inside his fabulous castle Moussa decided to recreate scenes of daily life in Lebanon with wax figures. All of which he also made himself. And you can tell. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s impressive that he did all that he did, but the quality of the wax figures – some of which move! – is bordering on 8th grade history project. But this dude definitely would have been given an A for effort!

First thing you see upon entering Castle Moussa - A wax representation of traditional Lebanese daily life

First thing you see upon entering Castle Moussa - A wax representation of traditional Lebanese daily life

Seriously, walking through this place was like walking through the surreal dream of a 10-year-old boy. It started out pretty standard for a historical wax museum – figures making bread, dancing the dabke (traditional Lebanese dance), welding, etc. But as you walk from room to room the displays just get progressively weirder. First of all, evidence of how traumatized this guy was – there is an entire life-sized recreation of his teacher beating him in a classroom full of his mocking classmates. What the what?? I mean, I guess that was where the inspiration for the castle began…And I thought I had problems letting go…

The infamous and traumatic beating of Moussa

The infamous and traumatic beating of Moussa

Another room housed a miniature representation of Noah’s Ark, complete with small plastic animals (lions, tigers…a dragon…and a dangling Santa Clause. No joke.) on a rotating conveyor belt, continuously filtering into the ark. And then things just got more random. Moussa must have been a collector of old irons, because in many of the rooms, there were multiple irons, arbitrarily placed on the floor. There were also large wax hands and large wax feet that kept popping up in display cases and on the floors of exhibits. What the what?!?

The room pictured below featured wall mosaics with a waterfall running over their surface, a stuffed peacock, irons on the floor, guns on the wall, an old woman carrying rope…etc. Ummmm….Why??? I don’t get it.

L1010132

I don't get it...

Oh and it’s not over yet…then the gun collection began! I told you, surreal dream of a 10-year-old boy – castle, awesome wax people, and guns! Well surreal dream of a 10-year-old boy manifested in the reality of a 70-year-old man….At least 15 rooms packed with guns followed. Random wax hands and feet were still thrown into some of the exhibits for good measure, alongside the occasional large display case of daggers, swords and Bedouin jewelry. I felt like I should have been high or tripping on acid to really appreciate this place.

Bellies aching from laughing and mouths sore from gaping at the bizarre wonder that is Castle Moussa, we all packed ourselves into a shared taxi and headed back to Beirut. But the day wasn’t over yet!  A shower and a quick nap later, I headed over to Ferdinand, a small bar on Rue Mahatma Gandhi for Ozge’s farewell party.

Me, Omar and Ozge at Ferdinand - the three best Arabic students ALPS has ever known, and my two closest friends here in Beirut

Me, Omar and Ozge at Ferdinand - the three best Arabic students ALPS has ever known, and my two closest friends here in Beirut

Ozge’s co-workers and friends – many of whom are my flat mates (small world!) – filtered in over the course of the night and we all sipped wine and beer, talked and laughed until finally fatigue pulled us all home to our beds. What a day!

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2 responses to “Mountain Villages, Castles and Booza in the Shouf

  1. Marie-Noel Salem

    I really like your writing style and the way you described your journey through the Castle of Moussa. It pleases me to see people visiting my home country and it also saddens me that I never visited its cultural and historical side and chose to get tanned at the beach when I had the chance to take a vacation in sunny Lebanon. Your page surely inspired me to explore my home country’s castles this following summer. Thanks!

  2. Hey girl…i like reading the synopsis of your daily trials and tribulation’s…it gives me an idea as to to what in the hell is going on in this world of ours…if those little boy’s with their shoot ’em up toys had just one ounce of your perception as to the way to live…we might be able to sit down and enjoy this wonderful oasis that has been given to us…what is it…? ego’s…power-hungry mis-fit’s…or just plane dumb-ass…i sure don’t know but please be careful…we need that little ‘spark’ of happiness that you create … f:)

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