Lebanon is a country in the Middle East located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Its soil saw the birth of great civilizations, such as the Phoenician. At the same time, its strategic position favored other powerful peoples such as the Greeks or the Romans to settle there.
As cultural diversity always adds up, the territory that is now Lebanon acquired an important level of development. This can be seen reflected in the Phoenician sanctuaries or Roman temples. Nevertheless, its splendor did not end with the fall of Rome, and proof of this are the ruins of the city of Anjar.
Anjar is a city located 62 kilometers from Beirut. Its foundation dates back to the Umayyad period and its impressive ruins were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984.
Who were the Umayyads?
Before we explore the ruins of Anjar, let’s learn who founded the city. As we mentioned earlier, Anjar was founded during the Umayyad Caliphate. This was an Arab lineage that exercised the power of caliph; was the second of the four main Islamic caliphates established after the death of the prophet Mohammed.
The base of their power was in the region of Syria, with its capital in Damascus. The Umayyads were the ones who spread Islam to the West and came to settle in the Iberian Peninsula, a territory known as Al-Andalus. Its capital, Córdoba, became the capital of the western Umayyad Caliphate..
The Umayyads also expanded to the East and occupied much of Central Asia. Such expansion made the Umayyad caliphate one of the largest empires that he had seen the world up to that moment; it was 15 million square kilometers.
It was in this context that they founded the city of Anjar. There are certain discrepancies about who was its founder and about the function that it had to fulfill. Experts believe that the builder could have been the Umayyad caliph Walid ibn ‘Abd al-Malik (705-715 AD) or his son al-‘Abbas.
Likewise, there are also discussions about whether Anjar was built as a palatine city or as a military camp. Let’s leave these discussions to the experts and take a walk through its ruins.
Anjar, a proper Umayyad city
anjar, or Haouch Moussa in Arabic, it is located in the Beca valley or Beca plain. Just 30 kilometers from Beirut, this plain is surrounded by the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. The ruins are located in the vicinity of a fountain with an abundant flow of water.
Water is a precious commodity in areas with dry climates and, therefore, since Roman times, the fountain was a place of Roman settlement. In addition, Anjar was on the route that linked Baalbek and Damascus, a road that still existed at the time of the Arab conquest and where they built an important city, whose ruins we can admire today.
The discovery of the ruins
In 1952, the director of the Lebanese Antiquities Service began an excavation at the site that lasted about 25 years until it was completely paralyzed due to the civil war in the 1970s. These excavation works brought to light practically all of the ruins, whose extension reached up to 114,000 square meters.
With this work, the person in charge of the excavation wanted to restore and preserve the archaeological complex to present it as one of the most important monuments in Lebanon. This, which may seem like a noble task, in reality the only thing he did was decontextualize most of the buildings.
Nowadays, archaeologists have difficulty interpreting the city, since they lack photographs and scientific documentation of the excavation. Despite this, lovers of archaeological sites will find a true paradise in Anjar, with typical Umayyad architecture, a bridge between Byzantine and Arab art.
Walking through the ruins of Anjar
Anjar was a fortified city surrounded by a great wall that measured between 2 meters thick and 7 meters high. As if this defensive structure were not enough, the enclosure was also flanked by 40 defensive towers.
Its design was rectangular, following the planning of Roman constructions and with an area of 360 by 380 meters. It was a beautiful city, since the vast majority of its buildings were made with masonry, in the Byzantine style.
The city was divided into 4 quadrants structured through the 2 main avenues —thistle Y decumanus—. These roads intersected under a tetrapyle whose plinths, shafts and capitals were made from the remains of reused Roman structures. Access to the city was through 4 gates, one at each of the cardinal points, all of them flanked by towers.
The two main streets were porticoed with arcades where small shops were opened. The construction material was stone and brick. The alternation of these two materials gave the buildings greater resistance to seismic movements. Also, as you can imagine, the city had an extensive sewage network.
Smaller streets ran parallel to the large avenues, subdividing the different quadrants. Specialists highlight two different parts of the city: the easternmost half, the stately part made up of sumptuous palatial buildings; and the western one, occupied by groups of private houses.
Some of the most outstanding monuments
The buildings that have best resisted the passage of time are the large constructions, which were mainly located in the eastern half of the city. Among them we highlight the ruins of the Great Palace, a 59 by 60 structure that was partially rebuilt.
The Great Palace is preceded by a series of arcades and has a magnificent central courtyard, which is surrounded by a peristyle. Some of its columns come from a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The Small Palace is another of Anjar’s must-sees. This is a reproduction of the Great Palace but on a smaller scale: 46 by 49 meters. In this stand out its numerous ornamental fragments and the central entrance, ostentatiously decorated.
To the north of the Great Palace we find the mosque, a complex that measures 57 meters wide by 29 meters long. The mosque stands out for being located on a platform, so its access is via stairs. This mosque is part of the so-called «mpatio mosques”, whose haraam It is located around a central courtyard.
Last but not least, we find the thermal baths. These are located to the north of the enclosure and are made up of a set of sumptuous buildings inspired by the Roman model and decorated with beautiful mosaics that can still be appreciated.
Do not hesitate to go visit the ruins of Anjar!
It is true that the conflicts that unfortunately take place in the Middle East threaten tourism in the area. Many people who want to see the ruins of Anjar and other outstanding sites fear that a pleasure trip could turn into a real nightmare when they suddenly find themselves immersed in a war conflict.
However, it is also true that if you are a history lover and passionate about visiting archaeological sites, you may wish to visit the ruins of Anjar while it is still possible. Remembering what has happened in the Syrian city of Palmyra is an incentive to do so.