Anjar, the Umayyad city in the heart of Lebanon
Anjar - Situated in the middle of Lebanon’s eastern Bekaa valley, the breadbasket of the Roman empire in the Levant, the ancient city of Anjar bears outstanding witness to the Umayyad civilisation.
With its archaeological sites, green fields, restaurants and hotels along the riverside, Anjar is a favourite destination for tourists and residents alike, competing with its larger neighbour, Zahle, which is dubbed the “bride of the Bekaa”.
Founded during the Umayyad period under Caliph Walid ibn Abd Al-Malik, Anjar is a unique example of eighth-century town planning and an inland commercial centre at the crossroads between Beirut and Damascus.
The archaeological site discovered in the 1940s includes a fortified ancient city surrounded by a 370-metre wall flanked by 40 towers. A north-south axis and a lesser east-west axis, above the main collectors for sewers, divide the city into equal quadrants.
Public and private buildings are laid out according to a strict plan. The great palace of the caliph and the mosque in the south-east quarter occupy the highest part of the site, while the small palaces (harems) and the baths are in the north-east quarter to facilitate the evacuation of waste. Secondary functions and living quarters are distributed in the north-west and south-west quadrants.
Like Lebanon’s tourist sites, Anjar was adversely affected by the war in Syria. At the entrance of the ancient city a number of guides wait for visitors, who have become rare after the closure of the inland road through Syria that Arab Gulf tourists used to travel to Lebanon by car.
“Anjar was on the itinerary of organised package tours for foreign tourists, which also comprised Syria and Jordan. Syria was not only a connecting place between Lebanon and Jordan but a favourite destination. When it was no longer available because of the war, Lebanon also lost this category of tourists,” said one of the guides who identified himself as Peter.
“On top of that, we lost Arab visitors, including the Syrians, Jordanians and the Gulf families who preferred the less costly travel by road via Syria. Unstable security in Lebanon also deprived us of the visitors who could afford air travel,” the guide added.
There is no official figure about the number of visitors to Anjar but the ruins are popular among the Lebanese, including students on school excursions.
Anjar’s newly elected municipal council is devising plans to attract more visitors and improve the economy in the city of 2,500, almost exclusively from the Armenian community.
“We have plans to revive the International Festivals of Anjar with high-standard programmes to attract the largest possible audience,” Anjar Mayor Vartax Khochian said.
The festivals have been postponed for two years due to insecurity because of the conflict in Syria and the influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees who have settled in random camps across the Bekaa valley.
“The municipality is still recovering from the losses incurred by the failure of previous festivals, which was mainly caused by instability in the country,” Khochian noted.
In addition to its archaeological site, the modern city of Anjar, which was designed by French colonialists in the shape of an eagle with its wings spread, is famous for its fruit groves and sweet water ponds where trout are farmed.
Tourist complexes and restaurants spread along the Anjar river, a tributary of the Litani river, city’s river are famous for special dishes blending Lebanese and Armenian cuisines. Despite the drop in foreign and Arab visitors, the city is active, especially on weekends, attracting large numbers of people from across Lebanon.
Many people come to Anjar specifically to dine at the restaurants. An estimated 5,000-6,000 vehicles enter the city over the weekend, according to Khochian.
“Once, while flying back to Lebanon, I started chatting with the passenger sitting next to me. When I told him I am from Anjar, it did not ring a bell until I mentioned the name of one of the famous restaurants, he then recognised the place,” Khochian said.
The new municipal council will be building on the reputation of the city’s restaurants to attract visitors, the mayor said.
“We have been having regular consultation meetings with the owners of touristic facilities and restaurants to check on their needs, as part of the plan to improve access, including rehabilitation of roads,” he said. “It is a priority for the municipality, not only to beautify the city, but also to create job opportunities for the youth and the families of Anjar.”
The municipality plans to set up a special food market to support agriculture.
“In addition to being famous for its ruins, Anjar is rich with agricultural products, notably organic fruit and vegetables irrigated with clear, unpolluted water. It has become a food shopping centre for the whole Bekaa region,” Khochian said.