Ancient empires, wooden names and Christmas in Lebanon

Since October 10th 2013: 143 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country. 

The cup of knowledge is never half full 

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Another week has passed and here we are again. Another Friday Blog has magically made its way before your eyes. From my mind, to my fingers, across the world, to your eyes and into your mind. How extraordinary these times they are.

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The Temple of Jupiter is said to be the largest temple in the world.

Baalbek is an ancient Phoenician city located in the Beqaa Valley. Archaeologists have found that the site has been inhabited as early as 9000 BCE. That is back to when the woolly mammoths went extinct to put things into perspective. Baalbek grew into an important site in the ancient world for the worship of the sky-God Baal and his wife Astarte. The sands of time have made use of this original temple in many ways and for many religions depending on who conquered the region over the following years. What I’m currently drawn into is the cornerstones of the earlier temple which have been found to weigh over 100 tons!! The retaining wall monoliths weigh 300 tons (each). WHAT!? How did they do that?? How did they carve those stones and manipulate them into place? How would you or I ever solve that if we could travel 11,000 years back in time with all the knowledge we hold today? We would probably be useless.

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This is only a tiny part of the Temple of Jupiter. I would certainly believe that it is the largest in the world!

What is our true value today? We think that we are smart. Certainly much smarter than those who lived before us and did not know much of the planet we live on, the solar system, bacteria, continents across the ocean etc. However take away electricity and let's see how smart we really are? Without electricity all our hard discs would be useless, all our digital photos would be gone, the borders of countries wouldn’t exists, we wouldn’t know any current international affairs, your music collection would be gone, no more cat videos and farewell Game of Thrones. We are not smart? Most of us can barely find north or make a fire. I couldn’t assemble a television set if I was locked into a room with all the parts in front of me. I surely know how to operate a television set and I can change a password on a computer. However could I hunt food, generate heat, create a sufficient shelter? How much smarter am I really than people who lived 11,000 years ago? Is it just a question of different knowledge?

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This monolith is one of the largest stones ever cut by man and weighs 1,000 ton! It was cut for the Temple of Jupiter 2000 years ago.

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The Temple of Bacchus is the best preserved in Baalbek and stands next to the Temple of Jupiter.

Well, let's get back to the archaeological site again. Later on the Romans used these early stones as their foundations for their own temples. Alexander the Great conquered Baalbek in 334 BCE and renamed it Heliopolis (City of the Sun). That name was still in use in 64 BCE when Pompey the Great annexed the region of Phoenicia for Rome. The history of this geographical region is simply mind-boggling. I love my home country in the cold north but surely back then, those people were still occupied with working out which mushrooms were nutritious and which would kill you :)

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The Temple of Bacchus isn't small either...

Visiting Baalbek was a part of a tour I had been offered which also took me to Anjar which is another interesting site. It was established by the Umayyad caliph al-Walid I in the beginning of the 8th century as a palace city and trade centre for caravans. Today the region is almost entirely inhabited by Armenians. Anjar which is also located within the Beqaa Valley was not that interesting to me. The most interesting thing about it was that it was only 4 km (2.5 mi) from the Syrian border. So close but no cigar. Still holding out for that elusive visa. The same tour took us to the Ksara winery which has been in existence since 1857. It has an interesting story and I enjoyed both seeing the underground tunnels and tasting the wine. Ksara is both the oldest and most visited winery in Lebanon. Visiting the winery obviously took my thoughts back to the Cricova winery which I visited 100 days before in Moldova with my fiancée.

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Touring the caves of Ksara Winery.

The following day was December 24th which is the day we celebrate Christmas in Denmark. I had been booked on another tour to go and see the Kahlil Gibran museum, which is dedicated to the world famous Lebanese writer, poet and visual artist. If you’ve never heard of him then don’t worry. There is so much to see and learn in this world of ours. Kahlil Gibran is however highly celebrated in Lebanon and wrote a book of wisdom, ‘The Prophet’, which has been translated and sold in more than 50 languages. Perhaps like I you will know this famous quote from Gibran: “If you love somebody, let them go, for if they return, they were always yours. And if they don’t, they never were”. December 24th was a wet and rainy day. There were eight of us in the minibus which raced high up into the mountains where we also saw the famed cedar trees. Those trees were an absolute highlight for me!! My first name is Torbjørn which translates directly into Thor and bear, which is why I call myself Thor. My middle name is however Cederlöf which would translate into cedar leaf. How about that? The cedar trees grow slowly and can easily reach 2,000 years of age. The dense wood has been desired by various empires for several millennia including the ancient Egyptians. Today the cedar tree is found on the Lebanese flag as a symbol of holiness, eternity and peace. Suddenly I feel so much prouder and connected to Lebanon ;)

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The majestic cedars!! :)

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The warden of the cedar park wasn't thrilled about the weather.

As the minibus raced around up in the rainy mountain weather we passed houses with skis outside and open fields with snowmobiles waiting for the annual snowfall. The Lebanese will tell you that they have eternal snow. Eternal seems like a long time though but who’s to argue with that? The highest mountains certainly have snow year long and one of the mountains boasts not one but six ski resorts! If the Syrian embassy doesn’t come through with that Syrian visa then I might just get to try them. The final event on the guided tour was a visit to the monastery of Qozhaya (Kozhaya). It’s considered to be one of the oldest monasteries of the Qadisha valley which I’m sure would have been lovely if it wasn’t raining so much. It was rather cold and we quickly got back into the minibus.

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The Qadisha valley in the cold winter rain.

I do not regard myself as a tourist. You can call me a traveller without offending me but this was most definitely a tourist trip into the depths of Lebanon. I wouldn't ordinarily venture into such package deals for several reasons. The foremost reason would be the cost! However John Farrah who's been following the Saga for a long while reached out to Raymond and offered to pay for two trips on my behalf. I have a friend named Henrik who’s a friend of John who’s a friend of Raymond. Raymond has been a friend since I arrived to Lebanon so now I just need to meet John who lives in the UK. It might be a while :)

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My Christmas dinner was devoured while watching the Count of Monte Cristo.

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What an honor!!! Thank you!!

I finally had my chance to meet the Lebanese Red Cross Society (LRCS). I’ve been asking around for a while wherever I’ve been and it has been clear for a while that the LRCS is beloved within Lebanon. It’s really no surprise when you wrap your mind around what they have accomplished and what they are still accomplishing today. Their Secretary General Georges Kettaneh got involved in the midst of the civil war. I’ve been looking into that war, which is fairly complicated, comprising at least 25 belligerents and around 27 commanders and leaders. The Red Cross is a neutral and independent humanitarian organisation which does not take sides. The movement is in place for everyone no matter politics, skin-color, religious belief, ethnicity or anything else which would differentiate two human beings. Back then the LRCS gained an enormous respect which lives on in the LRCS spirit, passion and contribution to humanity today. Visiting the LRCS was one of those ‘it’s too good to be true’ experiences. However it is true. They are THAT good. They are THAT efficient! Georges has his contacts intact from his long career and it helps the entire National Society do what nobody else can. Georges also has eight mobile telephones which he carries around with him and one of them is constantly ringing. I guess the connections you create during a long lasting civil war are for life. The LRCS were the only ones Al-Nusra Front (aka Al-Qaeda) were willing to deal with during what turned out to be a successful exchange of hostages. The risk and stress on those LRCS staff members and volunteers that executed the exchange must have been immense! However someone had to do it and only the LRCS could. It gives me chills.

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The operations room for the Emergency Medical Service. It will soon be expanded and move into larger facilities.

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Georges told me something which made me rethink how my upcoming RC meetings in the Middle East will be. Georges told me that in this part of the word 80% of disasters are manmade and only 20% are from nature. It would be easy to think that the problems were only caused by those who live here but the truth is far from it. Someone else told me that the Middle East is the playground for foreign powers. Someone completely different told me that she had given up on trying to understanding the complexity of the region and that she had reached the conclusion that it’s too complex for anyone to understand. Perhaps they are all right? Perhaps none of them are… Life is simple – we make it complicated.

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Inside the bloodbank of the LRCS.

On the same day I had the opportunity to visit the LRCS blood bank which is the largest in Lebanon, dealing with around 15-20% of all blood donations. I was also invited to visit the Disaster Management team and the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) which are the heart of the LRCS. The EMS was where Georges started in the early 80s and today it manages 80% of all emergency responses across Lebanon. Can you even imagine that?? The LRCS EMS is constantly upgrading and upscaling its efforts and I’m not kidding when I tell you that one of them told me that the LRCS comes first to him and his family comes second. He even told his family and they understood. Once you’ve seen someone run as fast as they possibly can towards the aid of a complete stranger…then you might understand it too. The RC is really time consuming for me within the Saga. The RC is to be found in 191 countries around the world and with an average of two days spent with each that would add up to 380 days in a project which is already beginning to look like 6 years. However how can I do less when so many do so much more? My hat comes off to the LRCS. Bravo!

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Half shaved...

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Fully shaved...

Alright now, let us bring this entry to an end with some great news. Because it has been 100 days since I last shaved, which means that it has been 100 days since I last saw my fiancée. 100 days ago was when I was traveling through Moldova (the other winery). She recently flew in from Copenhagen and arrived a few days ago to a newly shaved face. Her arrival to Lebanon makes it our 15th reunion since I left home and we actually hoped to get married here in Lebanon. Unfortunately it proved too difficult so it will be somewhere else some other time. Now we are touring Beirut, eating good food, taking long walks, talking about the future and sleeping in as much as possible.

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This is your last blog for 2017. It has been quite a year and let’s hope that 2018 gets easier for all of us. The Saga reached 41 countries in 2017 of which 26 were new and 15 were revisits. Since 2013 my tired old body has travelled further than going halfway between earth and the moon. Naturally all without flying or going home. What kind of craziness is this project ;)


Best regards
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - ready for 2018 ;)
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"

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Once Upon A Saga

Once Upon a Saga
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