Baby photos

We live in an era where everyone has a camera at their fingertips in the form of a mobile phone. Every burp and fart is photographed and uploaded to social media to be admired by all and sundry. It was not always so. It is not all that long ago that photography required a bulky object called a camera that needed to be loaded with film. Once taken the photo had to be processed and printed which took time and cost money. There are not a lot of photos from when I was a baby but one that has always stood out for me has me in my mother’s arms at age 6 months with a sign that says “Bahrain” behind her. We were en route to Australia accepted as refugees after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. My parents fled with almost nothing, it has only occurred to me now to wonder how come dad actually had a camera and film in those days.

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As an older child I looked up Bahrain in our atlas (remember those also) and it all seemed so exotic. Well here I am 62 years later as a day tripper to have a quick look around this tiny island nation. For a variety of logistic reasons I organise a day trip with a tour company to get me around to see all of Bahrain as I am only here for 20 hours. Imagine my surprise when an empty bus rolls up to pick me up. Today there is only one booking, me! Bahrain turns out to be a surprise packet. In antiquity this was a verdant fertile land abundant with animals. The locals here were not nomadic Bedouins and actually settled and established cities with sophisticated infrastructure for its time. There are archaeological sites here that go back 5000 years. Mixed in there is a bit of Portuguese occupation, pearling and since the 1930s “black gold”, oil

Al Fateh Grand mosque

Al Fateh Grand mosque

Bahrain national library

Bahrain national library

Arabian Sea

Arabian Sea

Archaelogical dig, 2000 years old

Archaelogical dig, 2000 years old

Qalat al Bahrain, 16th century Portuguese fort

Qalat al Bahrain, 16th century Portuguese fort

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Manama Souq

Manama Souq

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Camel Farm

Camel Farm

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Grand Prix venue

Grand Prix venue

Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Oil field

Oil field

Dilmun Royal Tomb, about 3000 years old

Dilmun Royal Tomb, about 3000 years old

Petra

About 5 years ago Suzanne and I had booked and paid for a couple of weeks holiday in the Middle East including 3 days in Petra. Her mother’s unexpected illness and protracted time in ICU resulted in cancellation of that trip. Now that I have been here it’s a blessing in disguise. Due partly to foot problems Suzanne is not actually able to walk any distance without significant pain. This is a venue for keen, moderately fit walkers and the distances and steepness of the terrain are a surprise. Had we have come here together with me wanting to walk everywhere it may have resulted in divorce proceedings.

Around 300 BC an obscure Arab tribe called the Nabateans controlled most of what is now southern Jordan. This was a prominent trading route and they grew wealthy catering too and taxing the caravans that passed through. They carved the magnificent buildings here out of the mountain faces and it is every bit as impressive as the pictures portray. The approach is in through a narrow impressive canyon named Al Siq.  The mountains soar above you on either side for a kilometre and then suddenly it is there! Named the Treasury for legends of hidden wealth it is actually a royal tomb carved 50 metres high into the solid rock and there is no treasure. The columns are ornately decorated and it defies comprehension that this could be achieved with the rudimentary technology of over 2 millenia ago.

The best time to visit is at opening which is 6:30 am before the rays of the sun actually hit the façade. It glows a soft pastel pink rose colour, which becomes sandstone yellow later in the day. Coming early also means that you almost have the place to yourself. It is peaceful as well as magnificent. Later in the day when buses have disgorged literally thousands of people it loses its magic. The whole area becomes a veritable zoo, noisy crowded and people posing outlandishly for photos.

From the Treasury the rest of what was a major trading city stretches 8 km with temples, theatres and tombs. Beyond that it’s another steep and arduous 90 minutes out to the similarly impressive but built later Byzantine monastery. That is the bare minimum here and that is only one way. There are multiple other walks, inevitably all steep and uphill that are worth doing. Suddenly it is 4pm and I have walked solidly for around 9 hours with a break for lunch. Exhausted but happy I head back up the hill to my hotel.

 

Siq

Siq

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Treasury at dawn

Treasury at dawn

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Nice pussy!

Nice pussy!

Tombs

Tombs

Theatre

Theatre

Street of Facades

Street of Facades

Colonnaded street

Colonnaded street

Gate

Gate

Qasr al Bint

Qasr al Bint

Mountains

Mountains

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Ad Deir monastery

Ad Deir monastery

Main track of Petra

Main track of Petra

Theatre

Theatre

Treasury from Al Kubtha trail

Treasury from Al Kubtha trail

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Royal tombs

Royal tombs

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Street of Facades

Street of Facades

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Treasury late afternoon

Treasury late afternoon

Switzerland of the Middle East

My hurried exit from Lebanon stands in stark contrast to the almost western modernity of Jordan. This small country is almost completely landlocked and a haven of political stability in a veritable sea of chaos. I have rented a car here and while the traffic is a bit disorganised it is nothing compared to the rest of this region and Lebanon is a prime example. As I drive north of Jordan the situation is underlined by road signs. Two in succession point to exits and say “Iraq border” and Saudi border”” respectively. Further north a sign says “Syria border”. No doubt tomorrow when I am driving south there will be signs “Israel border”.

I have an all too short 4 days here and my prime objective is of course one of the 7 wonders of the world, Petra. I have dreamed about seeing Petra since I first started travelling some 40 years ago. More recently the rest of the world “discovered” Petra after Indiana  Jones holy grail movie and now it receives thousands of tourists every day.

First, though I drive 1 hour north of the capitol of Amman to Jerash. Jerash is one of the best preserved complete Roman cities in the world. It is a huge site that was, under the emperor Hadrian, for a short time the capitol of the Roman empire. Apart from the amazing state of preservation what strikes me most about this site is that as you walk along the long main colonnaded street, the cardo, you actually feel as though you are walking through a town. There are gateways, cobble stoned roads with grooves made by chariot wheels still evident, the hippodrome for chariot races, 2 theatres for arts, central water fountains to supply the town’s needs.

Hadrian's Arch

Hadrian’s Arch

Hippodrome

Hippodrome

Hippodrome

Hippodrome

Hippodrome

Hippodrome

Jerash at sunset

Jerash at sunset

Mosaic tiles

Mosaic tiles

South gate

South gate

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Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

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South theatre

South theatre

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Main street - Cardo

Main street – Cardo

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Nymphaneum, water fountain

Nymphaneum, water fountain

Temple of Aphrodite

Temple of Aphrodite

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North theatre

North theatre

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North Tetrapylon

North Tetrapylon

 

Jordan is, of course, not without its share of biblical sites bordering down south with Israel and Palestine. As this has been effectively a war zone for most of the 20th century there has been little done in the way of exploration here. In 1996 along the Jordan River archaeologists identified the site where John the Baptist baptised Jesus. The discovery has since been ratified by historians and church authorities and the area which is militarily sensitive as the Jordan River is the border  between Jordan and Palestine has been opened up to tourism. Arriving at the site I am unimpressed by the Jordan which looks more like a swampy, muddy puddle but deeply moved by the history of the actual baptism site. This has become a “pilgrimage” site for Christian tourists who come in groups, dress in white robes and immerse themselves in the unappealing muddy water singing hymns.

Site where Elijah ascended into heaven

Site where Elijah ascended into heaven

Jordan River

Jordan River

Jesus baptism site

Jesus baptism site

Pilgrims being baptised

Pilgrims being baptised

 

From there it is a long but beautiful drive along the Dead Sea which, at 430 metres below sea level is the lowest point on earth. It is warmer and more stifling down here but the sea is beautiful and there is not another car on the road. It is a popular pastime to do into the water and float in this super salty water where buoyancy is maximised but I have no time for that. I complete the day with a steep walk up a hill to see the cave where the old testament’s Lot sheltered after fleeing Sodom and Gomorrah. The history here is truly mind blowing!

Dead Sea

Dead Sea

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Mountains on way to Petra

Mountains on way to Petra

Fleeing the revolution

I am sitting in one of the few open restaurants for lunch sipping on a magnificent Lebanese red. This is my last day in Lebanon and I fly out at lunch time tomorrow. The What’s App flashes me a message from my driver for the 3 days sightseeing. “There are some rumours about closing the airport road from all sides with huge sand and rock hills”. Today the protests have turned ugly and I trust Mohammed implicitly. He has nothing to gain by warning me. A flurry of interchanges ensues and I scoff the rest of the wine and go back to pack up. I am packed and ready in 20 minutes. Mohammed drives the backways trying to avoid both the protesters and the army roadblocks. We pass by the outskirts of town and look down at heaving mass of humanity, 1000s of protesters filling city streets. The friendly protesters at road blocks from yesterday have turned nasty and I see them threaten and intimidate drivers along the way. We are spared. Mohammed has organised the closest hotel to the airport some 3 km away and should be just beyond any attempted blockade. I could easily walk that with my pack in the morning if need be. May Allah bless Mohammed!

The morning started uneventfully enough. There were more cars on streets and more shops open. The billows of smoke from the fires on the roads yesterday were also gone so I assumed that things had settled. I planned to revisit our Lady of Lebanon about half an hour away to light a candle for Nana, Suzanne’s mum. She was always one for lighting candles in churches as a prayer for anyone who was sick. The Uber driver spoke almost no English but as we are detoured off the motorway by an army blockade he drops a bombshell that all roads into and out of Beirut would be closed by the army in half an hour leaving me stranded out of town. I am out on the streets in a shot and hightail it into town. Today absolutely everything is closed there are more soldiers with riot gear and a large protest group marches past me. I take a couple of pictures downtown and Uber back to my accommodation.

This is all new to me. In 40 years of travel, I have come close to being bombed in Peru, I have been interrogated by twitchy Zambian police but never watched a possible revolution unfold in front of me. While it makes for a ripping yarn I will be glad to be leaving tomorrow for the safety of neighbouring Jordan!

My only 2 images taken in downtown Beirut on the last day.

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The tour of the world’s hotspots takes an unexpected turn

I hit the road at 9:30 at the normally chaotic street is eerily deserted. Almost all the shops of this busy shopping and night club strip are shuttered up. I am off to try and get a recharge on my SIM but the shop up the road is also closed. It’s Friday and this is a predominantly Muslim country so that must be it. I figure the city mall 3km away will be open for business and catch an Uber. We are a few minutes along on a main road and cars up ahead are all stopped. My driver curses and I suspect a traffic accident has blocked things but no the road is barricaded by protesters have lit fires in the road to prevent traffic from passing. The driver who had little English says protests and we weave madly through little alleys dodging repeated closures. Our 5 minute trip took 15 minutes.

The mall is also like a ghost town and there is almost nothing open. No recharge for my SIM. I opt for the city centre store where I bought the card from and had another crazy Uber ride but that driver was very reassuring that the protesters are antigovernment, protesting corruption and mean no ordinary civilians any harm. Once again shop closed so I decide to go for a wander. A block up and a protest march with hundreds of people waving flags and chanting curves in front of me.

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Just then I see a smashed in phone box and another one.

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I follow at a distance for a few blocks but decide to part company with these guys when riot police in jeeps and small APCs (tanks) turn up.

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Neither side cares about a casual bystander like me but I don’t want to be around if the army and police get twitchy and start shooting.

At this stage I am well into the southern suburbs of Beirut and I locate the famous green line are which demarcated Beirut into Christian and Muslim warring neighbourhoods in the 1970s. If you look for it lots of buildings are still scarred and pockmarked from machine gun fire.

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The most enduring remnant of that futile conflict is the shell of the Holiday Inn.

The large white building is the concrete shell of the Holiday Inn

The large white building is the concrete shell of the Holiday Inn

Sitting partway up a hill and stretching many stories up this became a strategic point from which, on the top floors militiamen could shoot down at their enemies. This was also in a prime position with other luxury hotels all around. For almost 2 years this Battle of the Hotels raged in the neighbourhood. All that is left now is the concrete shell of this high rise, a ghostly repository of a bloody past.

I turn onto the Corniche and walk along the upmarket seaside promenade for an hour.

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I am heading for the Raouche Rocks which is a miniature of our Twelve Apostles.

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On the way is another road block with tyres burning and a barrier of tied together Lebanese flags. As I approach police sirens come up behind me and 4 massive vans come to the barrier. Police jump out and disperse as much as they can, I cautiously hold back. When they have passed through the fires and barriers are replaced. As I approach one of the protesters smiles and pulls the barrier up to let me pass.

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I get to the rocks and have lunch there just metres from the flaming barrier. My Uber driver back to my apartment was a lot more anxious than the rest. I jumped in, he insisted on the front seat for security reasons. What followed was an insanely dangerous high speed hike through the streets of Beirut ignoring red lights, weaving and cutting in front of what little traffic there was around. He found the tiniest gaps between bins of fire and weaved around all obstacles. I was relieved to get out in one piece. All for the princely Uber fee of $7 sure beats going to theme parks to get an adrenaline rush!

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Sidon and Tyre

The final day with my driver neatly encapsulates the variety that is Lebanon. A casual glance through my picures on this post and you could be in Italy, England, Greece, Spain or the Middle East. There is Christian and Muslim. This troubled country really is a melting pot. It’s another sunny 30 degree day as we follow the coastal highway south. The beautiful azure Mediterranean Sea is to my right and mountains to the left.

Sidon is 1 hour south of downtown Beirut and the feature here is yet another 11t h century crusader castle. This one is the most photogenic of them all situated on a small island just offshore which is now linnked by a causeway. So strategically effective was it that when the Muslims drove the crusaders out of here they destroyed as much of it as possible to prevent them from reoccupying the site.

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Souks of Sidon

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A further hour south is Tyre which is the last major city here before the disputed border with Israel. This remains a Hezbollah stronghold but you wouldn’t know it walking the streets. The star attraction here is the Roman hippodrome dating back to the 2nd century AD. Its dimensions are 90 metres wide and 480 metres long this vast stadium could seat 40,000 people. Primarily a stadium for chariot races other sporting contests are likely to have occurred here too. It is surreal sitting atop a marble Roman grandstand imagining what it must have been like. I guess Boxing Day at the MCG will never be quite the same for me!

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A wander through the harbour and the Christian quarter is vaguely evocative of the Greek islands. All around are brightly painted apartments and it is a pleasure to wander through the narrow alleyways down to the Al Mina Roman ruins. Built in the 3rd century AD these evocative columns are perched down by the seaside. They lead down to a now submerged harbour. Wandering around there is some superb mosaic tiling on the ground. Amazingly and disappointingly these almost 2 millenia relics are not cordoned off and ignorant tourists trample on them.

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On the way home Mohammed takes us back up over the hills behind Beirut. The mountains were always a Christian stronghold and there is once again a homely, comfortable European feel to the towns here. The hillsides are heavily forested with pine trees and there weather is decidedly cooler. We arrive at Beit Eddine  Palace. Completed in 1840, one could be in southern Spain wandering around this beautiful structure. In the summer it hosts a festival to showcase the best of Lebanese arts.

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Psalms 92:12

Day 2 with my driver Mohammed turns out to be my favourite. We are heading inland into the mountains through the Bekaa Valley. My first stop is a morning wine tasting at Chateau Ksara. The winery is modern and efficient and the wines are smart and very cheap by western standards.

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The centre piece of the day and arguably in Lebanon is Baalbek home to the best preserved Roman temples in the world. Our visit there starts with the modern built Muslim sacred site the mausoleum shrine of Sayyida Khawala, the great granddaughter of the prophet Mahomed. She is buried here and legend has it that a dead stick was placed in the ground beside her tomb. That has come to life and is a massive tree that the building wraps around. The actual mausoleum is garishly decorated but pretty in a kitsch way.

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What disturbed me were the mortar shells all around refashioned with a slot to become a donation box for the terrorist group Hezbollah. A large room behind the mausoleum is similarly appointed to look like a religious shrine but it is packed with artillery, machine guns missile launchers and a big yellow Hezbollah flag. The middle of the room has a pretty little fountain which runs with red coloured water to symbolise the blood of those fighters who have lost their life in war against Israelis. The military propaganda in a supposedly holy place grates with me and, dare I say it it’s a stark complex to the serene peaceful environment around Our Lady of Lebanon statue yesterday.

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Hezbollah flag

Hezbollah flag

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The Roman ruins here surpass all expectations. They are a massive complex of a number of different temples . They date back to the first century AD and are astonishing in how much remains intact. Enjoy the pictures.

Temple of Jupiter

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Temple of Bacchus

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Temple of Venus

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The afternoon concludes with a drive deep in the eastern Lebanese mountains to see Lebanon’s national symbol. So what does the title of this entry refer to? Have a look.

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Phoenicia

The ancients knew modern day Lebanon by the seductive name, Phoenicia. The Phoenicians were a great ancient trading nation combining seafaring ability with great natural produce predominantly purple dye, cloth, cedar wood and wine. Of these the oldest continually inhabited city of Byblos which was first settled in 7000 BC is one of the most important.

I arrive there early morning. The first stop today is a visit to the Jeita Grottos which has to count as one of the most spectacular caves I have ever visited. Sadly and inexplicably there is no photography allowed therein. The Byblos harbour, renowned in history is more like a tiny marina. I try to imagine in my mind’s eye the Phoenician ships moored here rather than the modern day fishing vessels.

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The Byblos castle dates from the 12th century AD and is what remains one of the many Crusader Castles here. Entering one is transported to the big chunky Anglo Saxon castles dotted around England. All around the footings of the castle are Roman ruins with a particularly beautiful column set on site. A wander through the old town and the local souk completes the visit.

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From Byblos it is up to Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city. It is a sprawling complex straddling the hills and the sea. It is clearly much poorer than anywhere else in the country and most of it looks like slums. High atop the town is an 11th century crusader castle that is largely intact. Its high strategic position commanding much of the city ensured its survival as it was used by successive rulers of this town over the centuries.

Wall's of Tripoli Castle bear the scars of mortar shelling.

Wall’s of Tripoli Castle bear the scars of mortar shelling.

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Views of Tripoli

Views of Tripoli

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The military is at the castle

The military is at the castle

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Guess what bobs up in Tripoli? Its the Orient express again. The Orient Express used to go beyond Istanbul down to the Syrian city of Homs. In the 1920s through to the second world war a single track line connected Homs with Tripoli. Heavily damaged during the civil war of the 1970s the station terminus and a couple of ancient German locomotives sit in ruins in an unmarked paddock. Ever so slowly the metal is being reclaimed by nature.

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Sunset was at Jounieh up the gondola with magnificent views down the coast to Beirut. At the top there is a further climb to the statue of Our Lady of Lebanon. Think Christ the Redeemer in Rio but on a smaller scale. Unlike Rio this is set up with chapel, spiritual music and has a spiritual vibe to it. The sunset is ordinary and the mood here is so enticing I decide that I will come back again before I leave.

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Beirut

I am one of the first onto the Emirates flight from Dubai to Beirut. Lebanon is the replacement for the cancelled Iraqi trip and if one reads any of the official government foreign affairs websites, this is a highly dangerous place, a no go area. Sitting down and watching the passing parade of passengers I expect that the demographic on this flight will be swarthy, terrorist look alike males and heavily veil concealed Muslim females. Nothing could be further from the truth. A couple of grey haired elderly western women sit behind me. A 20 something woman in a revealing black outfit flits between empty seats. All around are the same varied demographic that would appear on any flights. Arriving in Beirut the immigration and customs formalities are just that and in the blink of an eye I am having to negotiate the rapacious third world taxi drivers demanding extortionate fares. I guess some things are universal. First impressions here are positive. This is  green leafy cosmopolitan city with an abundance of attractions going back before the time of Christ. The people are the same as would stroll down central Sydney or Melbourne. Veiled women are outnumbered by western women wearing low cut dresses  by a factor of 4:1. My initial perambulations here show no signs of conflict nor anything out of the ordinary. Then suddenly I am confronted by a barrier across the street I want to walk up. A young soldier carrying an AK 47 mans this barrier. Respectfully I ask permission to cross and he smiles broadly and motions me through. Further along there are more barriers and entire lengths of footpath covered with rolls of barbed wire. I get to a point where I am blasé and just wander through. No one seems to care. As a kid I grew up in the late 60s and 70s to ongoing news broadcasts about an interminable civil war in Lebanon. I challenge any of my other readers who grew up in those times to define the ongoing battles between the colourfully named Druze and Phalangist militias. I sure as hell had no idea what they represented but I was aware that modern day Lebanon, in biblical times the Phoenicians, had a celebrated role in civilisation. Having researched the history of this country since, I can’t help feeling sorry for these people. There is an all too familiar history of Christian Lebanese jostling for control with what initially was a Muslim minority. As the Muslim numbers grew colonial meddling by France to maintain a Christian ruling class fails spectacularly as does every other French adventures. Remember any one of a number of cot case West African nations. If not how about Indochina and in particular Vietnam! In the last 40 years the main destabilisation has come from over 100,000 displaced Palestinians who have set up bases in southern Lebanon and have rebadged themselves as Hamas and Hezbollah. Add in some Israeli retaliation and Syrian meddling and the DFAT warnings are placed in perspective.

Muhammed Amin mosque, Beirut

Muhammed Amin mosque, Beirut

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Martyrs Square

Martyrs Square

St George's Cathedral and Roman ruins

St George’s Cathedral and Roman ruins

Clock tower

Clock tower

Notice of tour cancellation: Southern Iraq

“Unfortunately, today we are having to take the measure to cancel our Southern Iraq tour. As you might have followed on the news,  the situation in Iraq is increasingly serious. The protests started suddenly following the sacking of a General and were unpredictable two or three weeks ago (although the conflict has been brewing for years), it seems we are very unlucky with our dates this time.”

This is the email I received just over a week ago. On the way over here I was reading about demonstrations, riots and 66 dead in Iraq. The governments of Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain had issued alerts for all of their citizens to leave Iraq due to deteriorating security. While I was shocked it wasn’t really a surprise.

After due deliberation I have decided on Lebanon as the alternative destination.