Monday, February 7, 2011

A Gardener's Travelogue: Part II



Baalbek  (Lebanon)
As you have noticed, what we did not see — there in the desert — were gardens, often days without a tree save one of those dusty old date palms…nary a squirting cucumber or any horticultural  marvel at all.  I couldn’t wait to get to Lebanon to finally see what I hoped-would-be the obvious forests of Cedars of Lebanon gracefully towering, bowing and swaying the way I had come to expect from unforgettable ones at Sezincote in the English Cotswolds

After all — this was Lebanon
arrival in Beirut

But there wasn’t one – not a single Cedar of Lebanon to be had….  They say they’re in the mountains, but we were on our way to the Bekaa Valley to the ancient Roman city Heliopolis (city of the Sun),  the marvelous monumental  Baalbek…..so named for the worship of Baal (Jupiter) and his godmates Venus and Bacchus.  Grandeur galore…fantastical temples…the scale is unbelievably impressive – as in ancient wonder – how, let us ponder, did they get those marble columns at least 10 foot in diameter and 30 feet high from Egypt? 



  
It is clear that the Romans had lots of money to spend, loved beautiful things and liked to have a good time worshipping in their extravagant shrines…



They say this is Cleopatra.  She was defeated in 31 B.C., that is more
than 2000 years ago and the details are fresher than
anything I have seen in a long time, if ever…




There were lots of nut-bearing pignoli pines which have a
certain charm in their standard growing way


And finally high in the mountains (still no Cedars of Lebanon though)
in the hill town of Zahle (where we ate seriously Lebanese mezze)
there were signs of a gardener at work.




But the most predominant aspect of horticulture to emerge in the
ancient world is certainly the absolute veneration of the Acanthus
leaf……  Why it is so beloved by the Greeks,  Romans,  Venetians,
the English from the Elizabethans to the Art Nouveau movement
and William Morris is anybody’s guess.  Well, because it is so esteemed,
also because it is very handsome and in flower it is divine…I have tried to
grow it …I have ordered it from countless nurseries and bought many
plants…I should have used all that money to go find a good stone representation somewhere…







 Palmyra  (Syria)

Citrus trees in stiff garden box-pots in fancy conservatories look great when they are fruiting, it’s true; but vast  fields of citrus trees bearing colossal amounts of oranges and  lemons in a place where you expected to find a
desert is sensational.  Syria —would you ever think of Syria as agricultural;
but in fact it is the Number One source of revenue  (In Egypt it is the
Suez Canal – tourism second and in Lebanon, it is banking, of all things).  Anyway, Syria is loaded with farms and fruit trees and is Very Green so it
made traveling throughout very uplifting


On the way to a stupendous medieval fortress castle called Krak de
Chevaliers we passed through the city of Homs which could have fit
right in on Long Island or Singapore.  In green Syria bushes manage to
grow out of the old rocks

 

 

But this ox drawn cart wending its way in front of the castle stronghold is not a reproduction of an old postcard…I took this picture just last month..so the old ways cohabit with the new ways in a country that surprised us at every turn.   We were highly psyched to visit the ancient city of Palmyra where the powerful and wily Queen Zenobia reigned in the second century A.D.  These ruins sit in an oasis and further illustrated that each set of old stones has  a completely different timbre, mood, color, proportion and style.




Palmyra is pinker than Baalbek…all of one hue where Baalbek was carved
out of many surfaces and kinds of stone and was mainly temples — Palmyra
is sprawlingly huge, a city that covers 58 hectares.  See the Acanthus repeating themselves on the fabulous blue ceiling
  





The kids of Palmyra have developed their own look, especially useful for  postcard and scarf selling…the motorcycle d├ęcor is highly exotic and
the Syrian men are very cute


So were our young scholars

You can see that these ancient sites are hardly connected
by superhighways,
 


so this extraordinary ancient world is still largely uncommercialized
and still being discovered by archaeologists



 digging all over these sites of early civilization.  On the way out of
town we passed the tombs…much later and completely different than
the Egyptians…this type of reclining odalisque was only seen in  tombs or on  top of sarcophagi…nice way to be remembered when you die if you ask me…


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