Making our way back to the hostel after the ruins, we were on the hunt for food. Of course, the hostel owner conveniently forgot how to speak English when we reminded him that he promised us breakfast was included, but once he realized we were not going to give us so easily he went off to get us some man’oushe. A simple, delicious, and typical breakfast food in Lebanon, man’oushe is just a round dough with toppings, toasted and folded in half. Each of us enjoyed a man’oushe with the typical toppings of za’tar (a very Middle Eastern spice consisting of thyme with a mix of oregano, sesame seeds, sumac, salt, and olive oil) and cheese. We also got fresh fruit smoothies to go with the meal. My kiwi and pear was quite fulfilling.
After settling our bill we headed out to find the bus that would take us to Hermel, our quest for the rest of the day. Hermel is a small town just a few kilometers north of Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley, about 10 km south of Syria. After a bit of navigating through the city and some helpful directions, we found a single minibus driver willing to take us to Hermel, but not before driving his friends around in circles in the middle of town first and filling up the rest of the bus. Approaching Hermel, we were getting more and more excited once we first spotted the obelisk/pyramid we were hunting for. I had read in my research that it was used in ancient times as a lighthouse of sorts because you could spot it from over 40 kilometers away, but I didn’t realize how true that was until I saw it with my own eyes.
You can see the pyramid wayyyy off in the distance there.
When we finally arrived in Hermel a little over half an hour later, we were the only ones left in the bus and managed to knock out a deal with the driver for him to take us to the sights we wanted to see and then all the way back to Baalbek, round trip for only $15 each. This is where knowing Arabic really comes in useful and thankfully Scott and Olga both had enough skill between them to get us a pretty good deal. In Beirut, it’s easy to get by with just English but it’s definitely more of a challenge once you leave the capital and major cities, motivating me to start learning spoken Arabic to use while I’m here to get around. Like any other place in the world, prices drop and people get friendlier if you can speak to them in their language.
The first thing that came to my mind when we finally reached the pyramid was anger at whoever thought it was okay to deface the sides of such a monument. I bet most of the idiots who wrote the initials of their boyfriend or girlfriend on the sides of the obelisk with spray paint have failed relationships anyways.
Now, back to the pyramid. It has many names, The Pyramid of Hermel, The Needle of Hermel, The Pyramid of God, The House of El, The Pyramid of Amor, or in Arabic, the Qamoua Al Hermel. It is believed to be a tomb for a Syrian prince who loved hunting, which explains the hunting scenes depicted on the sides, though no one knows for sure. From the hill that the pyramid is situated on, you have an amazing view of the Bekaa, Hermel, the Orontis River that runs north to Hermel, and even as far as Syria.
Looking south-east into the Beqaa Valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains.
You can see the hunting scene on the east side of the pyramid, two dogs and spears attacking a boar.
Our next stop was the monastary of Mar Maroun (Saint Maroun), a collection of caves carved into the side of the cliff above the Orontis River, or Nahr Al Aasi. There are three levels to the caves, though we could only access the first two by through the pitch-black caves up small staircases and around dark corners. It was pretty fun to climb all around the caves, though I probably shouldn’t have worn a skirt that day… Oh well.
The entrance to the Mar Maroun monastary.
The Orontis River, leading to the town or Hermel.
Climbing around the caves with our minibus driver and his friends.
We tried looking for a castle I had heard about and ended up driving around and bumping into a camera crew that was probably filming a documentary for the second time that day. We found more caves on the other side of the river, though these ones looked lived in, with a mattress, robe, and other random things. Probably an overnight stop for a shepherd bringing his flock through the valley.
Finally happy with what we had seen in Hermel, we boarded the minibus for the journey back to Baalbek ahead of schedule. This gave us enough time to grab a good late lunch and look for another mysterious rock before boarding the last bus back to Beirut. If you thought 800 tons was big (the “Trilithon” forming the base of the Temple of Jupiter), think again. The Stone of the South, or Hadjar El Gouble, lies in a quarry across the street from the beautiful Iranian-style mosque and weighs between 1000 and 2000 tons. No one can even get close to moving this stone, even using all the modern technology we have today, so it was deemed the “Biggest Stone in the World.” And it really was quite large.
With this final item checked off our list, we were ready to find our bus home. We boarded bright yellow minibus, and about 20 minutes into the journey realized that nothing good could come from riding a bright yellow minibus. Or, that the stereotype that Baalbek drivers are absolutely horrible is absolutely true. Either way, setting food in a random intersection (not the Cola or Dora bus stations) was a huge relief. The adventure was over and I already can’t wait for the next one. Thanks to the military conflicts in Baalbek right now, it looks like I’ll have to wait for a while to return. But the next time I do I have a couple more things to find: the Great Umayyad Mosque (Al Oummawi Al Kabir) outside the Arab gates of the Baalbek ruins (no idea where that is) and the Temple of Mercury. In the meanwhile, I’ll be jumping around to the other sites in Lebanon and even some time in Cyprus!