Tripoli: Lebanon's neglected archaeological treasure trove

Tripoli: Lebanon's neglected archaeological treasure trove

5 min read
20 July, 2015
Feature: While most local people seem surprised to see tourists following a guide around, Karim Traboulsi joined in to experience the treasures of his own home town.

Tripoli's Mansuri mosque was converted from a Crusader church [Karim Traboulsi]

The taxi driver under the late 19th century Ottoman clock tower shouts, half joking, at our group and our tour guide: "Go away - you're driving customers away."

One of us quips back: "We're here to honour your city; you should be happy."

The man is unimpressed by the rebuff and mutters to himself as he disappears behind a row of cars.

We had gathered in that spot, where taxis bound for other parts of Lebanon and Syria stop, to take a walking tour of the old city of Tripoli, a major port and the capital of Lebanon's North Governorate.

The tour group comprised many domestic Lebanese visitors from elsewhere in the country - and a number of expatriates living in Beirut. The locals, especially shopkeepers and children in the old city, often engaged us in friendly banter.

Most seemed surprised to see tourists walking around their streets.

     The city has long been neglected by the government in Beirut, which has done little to promote it as a tourist destination

Negative press

It is hard to blame them. As many Tripolitanians - including myself - will tell you, the city has long been neglected by the government in Beirut, which has done little to promote it as a tourist destination, despite it being the second-most archaeologically significant Mamluk city in the world after Cairo.

The Mamluks were the Muslim power that dislodged the 200-year Crusader presence from the city and ruled it for centuries thereafter, until they in turn were replaced by the Ottoman Empire.

Press coverage of the city is often negative, even in international media - plenty of focus on political violence, very little on its rich culture, cuisine and history. One reason may be the feeling that Tripoli's history is so closely linked with Syria's that it seems to have less in common with the rest of Lebanon.

Mira Minkara, a freelance tour guide, is one of the Tripolitanians who have decided to do something to promote their home town.

She told al-Araby al-Jadeed that, after clashes in Tripoli in 2014, she became worried about the old Mamluk city and its monuments. In April of that year, the Lebanese government implemented a tough security plan that disarmed local militias and deployed large number of police and soldiers on the streets.

The plan has been largely successful.

So, with security restored to the streets, Minkara decided to launch the Old Tripoli Walking Tour, which takes place two or three times a month, using Facebook for promotion. She charges between $13 and $30 for the tours.

In July 2014, she quit her job and decided to work full-time on her tours.

Minkara has a separate tour for Tripoli's modern landmarks, including the international fair designed by renowned Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Minkara's tours can be booked via
her Facebook page [Karim Traboulsi]

A city of landmarks

It was difficult to cover all Tripoli's historic landmarks in the hot and humid weather this time of the year, but the guide gave us a good tour of some of the most important sites.

The Mamluks had razed Crusader Tripoli, which stood where the port is now, and rebuilt their city inland by the Abu Ali river, in what was the Crusaders' "Valley of the Churches".

The heart of the Mamluk city is the Grand Mansuri Mosque, built on the site of the Crusaders' Saint Mary Church. The mosque incorporated a relic gate and, for a minaret, the church's square-plan bell tower - both of which survive to the present day.

The Mamluks built their souks, as lively and functional today as they were more than 700 years ago, spreading out from the mosque in the direction of the river.

     The souks' narrow, labyrinthine layout... spared the Mamluks the need to build a defensive wall

As Minkara explained to us during the tour, their narrow, labyrinthine layout was meant to serve as the city's main line of defence, and spared the Mamluks the need to build a defensive wall.

The Old City and its souks are interspersed with centuries-old baths, mosques, fountains and madrasas. Our tour included three baths, of which one had been abandoned, one retrofitted and one restored as an archaeological site, the Hammam Izz al-Din.

Those baths were places of meditation and relaxation. They have beautifully ornamented interior sections, including domes that let light in through star shaped openings covered by stained glass.

Minkara explained how the Mamluks located their baths far from the noisy souks, especially the copperware stalls, and closer to the river to aid in the relaxation of their patrons.

Another major landmark in the city is the Crusader-era castle of Raymond De Saint-Gilles, which towers above the old city from a strategic hill near the river. The castle was subsequently captured and expanded by the Mamluks and then the Ottomans.

Minkara says she has had no bad experiences during her tours since they started in 2014. She emails tourists who sign up to general guidelines including a safety brochure, which stresses that Tripoli is no more dangerous than anywhere in Lebanon, and counsels that they ask locals about the situation instead of making judgements based on rumour and sensational press coverage.

Founded by the Phoenicians and ruled by Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Crusaders before the Mamluks and the Ottomans, Tripoli is a veritable open-air museum.

The city is also known for its more modern attractions, from a restored waterfront to the beach resorts that straddle its southern coastline - not to mention its cuisine and famed Arabic sweets.