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Lebanon : Batroun offers tourists free tours to promote historic ruins

Port town proudly displays its Phoenician and Roman heritage

"There is nothing better than a fresh glass of lemonade," said Remond Helou sighing with relief as he gazed at the seaport overshadowed by a myriad of traditional houses and old churches.

Helou was with a small group of tourists exploring Batroun, "one of the most attractive and preserved towns in Northern Lebanon." His group was among several others, guided through the historic parts of Batroun by local trained volunteers last Sunday.

"Batroun is renowned for its dazzling night life, but the city also has much to offer during the day," said Georges Attiyeh, an organizing committee member of Batroun's summer festival.

This year, the committee decided, for the first time, with the support of the municipality, to arrange free tours around the city "to shed light over its many Phoenician and Roman vestiges as well as its numerous churches."

Beginning the tour at the Roman amphitheater, Pierette Sfeir, one of the guides, explained about the origins of the name of the town.

"According to one theory, the name Batrouna referred to its nature, rich with rocks, and was first mentioned in the tablets of Tell al-Amarna, a series of diplomatic letters addressed by Phoenician kings to the Pharaoh of Egypt around 1400 BC," she said.

"The name Batroun also alludes to the city's reputable grapes and wine during Greek and Roman times," she added.

While most of the Roman constructions are buried under the modern city, the theater's 11 tiers are still well preserved. Today, a picturesque garden replaces the ancient stage where public games and contests were held.

"Batroun became very prosperous during Roman times especially after the Roman Emperor Julius Cesar granted its inhabitants the right to become Roman citizens," explained Pierrette.

The tour continued along the alleys of the 19th-century souk where remains of the Crusade castle are incorporated into the walls of the old houses and stores. The souk, which was restored last year by the municipality, includes many shops selling traditional handmade crafts, like wooden furniture, fishing nets and tarboushes (traditional red hats worn by Arab men).

Next, Pierette led the group to the largest church in Batroun, the cathedral of Saint-Etienne, which was designed in a blend of gothic and Byzantine styles by the Italian architect Giuseppe Maggiore.

"The church is a popular location for the city's weddings and ceremonies, and offers a unique view of Batroun's cozy fishermen's harbor," said Pierette as she pointed at two giant pelicans parading in front of a group of amused children.

On a boat tour along the maritime facade of the city, Pierette described some of Batroun's traditions, still celebrated today, to the group, and going into particular detail about "a religious ritual celebrated in the water to honor all the fishermen who died at sea."

The tour then made a stop to allow the visitors to savor the town's most famous produce, lemonade.

The trip continued on to the 19th-century Orthodox Church of Saint-Georges characterized by its perfectly symmetrical dome and its icons of the saints.

Pointing to an old staircase, Pierette said: "In old times, women were not allowed to attend the Mass with men; they had to sit in the mezzanine of the church to listen to religious ceremonies."

The tour continued through the numerous alleys of Batroun revealing the city's historic arcades.

"What I love about Batroun is that it offers the coziness and warmth of a village while providing all the services of a big city," said Stephanie Mardini, one of the visitors.

The group then reached the site where the remains of the Phoenician citadel are thought to be buried underground.

"The houses on this location were recently evacuated in preparation for an important excavation that will hopefully reveal valuable information about Batroun's Phoenician history," Pierette said.

The tour ended with a spectacular experience along the impressive maritime Phoenician wall. The visitors were invited "to witness Batroun's sunset" while lying on a stage specially built for the occasion.

"I feel enchanted," said Mardini sipping a typical Batroun wine and listening to classical music as the sun was setting.

Encouraged by the success of the tour, Batroun's committee have now decided to hold guided tours of their old town on a regularly basis.

"We have started advertising for the tour in travel agencies. Next week, we will receive a group of 300 Japanese tourists," said Attieh.

For more information on the guided tours of Batroun, call 03-105700.

Beirut,08 22 2005
Raed el Rafei
The Daily Star
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