Friday, July 17, 2009

Baalbek (City of the Sun)

We have just returned from a day in Baalbek. Internet access is down, so I am writing this to debrief myself. I have always wanted to go to Baalbek as it is an iconic place in Lebanon. I didn't know much about what was there, except for the fact that I would find a well preserved Roman temple. It was a very Lebanese experience! The army had come in and shut down the whole place in preparation for a visit to the Baalbek festival by the President, the Prime Minister and several other dignitaries. We found ourselves pleading our case with those in charge. We then gained the concession of being allowed to join a group of French tourists who were being looked after by a well-connected guide. The guide was very knowledgeable. He conducted the tour entirely in French.

The temples
I learned that the first temple was built by the Phoenecians. It was dedicated to Baal. Bek came from the name of the location, the Bekaa valley. The Romans then transformed it into the largest temple dedicated to Jupiter and also built a temple to Bachus and another to Venus. The huge boulders had to be brought in by sea from Egypt. From there, Elephants and slaves dragged them up the mountains and down to the valley. Several generations of slaves died in the process. I am sure that many animals were harmed in the making of that temple! The Byzantines then transformed part of the area into a Church. The Mamaliks (sp?) cleared the Church and fortified the walls, turning the temple site into a citadel against the Crusaders. I will not go into much detail, but here are some interesting facts:
  1. The temple of Jupiter is 300 metres long.
  2. The diameter of the pillars is 2.20 metres. That's greater than the height of a human being.
  3. There are three styles of decorations found on the top of Roman pillars. Only at Baalbek will you find all three in the one place.
  4. Only in Baalbek will you find areas with intact roofs. No one knows how they have withstood the passage of time and the occurrence of earthquakes.

I remember one Biblical scholar once saying: "If you want to know what ancient texts mean by the word 'glory', you must visit the temple of Jupiter in Baalbek.

The festival
At night, we stayed for the festival of Baalbek. My sister had bought us tickets to see the Caracalla dance company. Again, it was a very Lebanese experience. The place had been sold out, but some locals were allowed in at the last minute. Chairs had to be found for them, resulting in event organisers walking in front of us for a good part of the spectacle! A woman was asked to stop filming, but a high-ranking officer who was sitting nearby asked her to ignore the instruction. Despite all these imperfections, the experience was simply amazing. Just imagine a raised platform with historic columns as the background.
The story was mediocre at best. The dancing was, of course, very good and the costumes were unbelievably beautiful. The atmosphere was altogether magical. The star singer was Assi Al-Hallani, a local boy. The crowd adored him, as they did the founder, choreographer and principal dancer of the company - all locals. At one stage, I thought I was the antithesis of Dr Hibbert from the Simpsons. You see, he laughs at inappropriate moments. I had to hold back my tears at the most joyful moments. At the conclusion, the president went up to personally congratulate the cast. With everyone around the president, some of the songs were replayed and individual dancers started their own dance, while the rest of us clapped and danced in the stands. I was all choked up and couldn't even speak to thank my sister and brother-in-law. I simply embraced each of them and gave them a kiss.

I suppose you can take the boy out of Lebanon but you cannot take Lebanon out of the boy.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Reflections on the Victorian Bush Fires

You may be aware that the state of Victoria, in South East Australia, is experiencing its deadliest bushfire season on record. More than 200 lives have been lost and many communities have been left desolate. The following are comments I wrote to share with my colleagues during the daily staff briefing:

Events like the bush fires of what is now known as Black Saturday raise questions about the suffering of innocent people, and God's role in the same. While much of this must remain a mystery, we can say a few words by observing the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. In Christ, we observe a compassionate and humble God who, for our sake, would become a servant and endure a most painful and shameful death.

In Christ, God did not eliminate evil. To do so would imply an elimination of human freedom. Instead, Christ shared in our suffering and faced the final enemy of humanity - death. Far from death overcoming, Christ descended into death and broke its bonds. An ancient Christian writer said the following about death: “It received a body, and encountered God. It received earth, and confronted heaven.” After Christ's resurrection, death ceased to be terminal . It became akin to a bridge into eternal life with God.

As Christians, we cannot always provide satisfactory explanations of human suffering. We can, however, declare an all-loving God who suffered and died voluntarily. We can shout: “Christ is risen ... Truly He's risen.”
I pray that, in our current state of mourning, we may allow the Light of Christ's resurrection to reach us. Amen.