Anjar, the Umayyad city in the heart of Lebanon

Sunday 19/06/2016
Farmers walk back home from their fields through Anjar’s historic Umayyad ruins, dating back to the eighth century, in the Bekaa Valley, 60kms east of Beirut.

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.