Byblos, Lebanon’s ancient port, is reborn

 It was a peaceful Sunday evening in September, and the sun was casting a reddish glow on the nearby ramparts and ruins perched above the Mediterranean. Below, a yacht filled with bikini-clad women sped into Byblos’ famed harbour while the skipper, outfitted in gold aviator sunglasses, squawked the horn for no apparent reason.

“Everyone wants to show off their multimillion-dollar boat,” said Ziad Baz, the owner of the harborside fish restaurant Bab El Mina, as he puffed on a Cuban cigar and shook his head at the glitzy display of wealth.

But the couple at the next table, nibbling plates of hummus and calamari, barely seemed to notice. The arrival of a spiffy new yacht hardly elicits a yawn here these days.

Such a casual response to wealth and glamour may be the most telling sign that Byblos, Lebanon’s pre-war jewel of the Mediterranean, is back. The city lost some of its lustre during the 1980s and ’90s, when civil war scared off Lebanon’s rich and famous. But with an uneasy peace holding, with tourism up for the first 10 months of 2009 by nearly half over the same period for 2008, and with locals seeking a refuge from the frenzied pace and skyrocketing prices of Beirut, Byblos is witnessing a rebirth of sorts.

At least a half-dozen open-air bars and restaurants have opened in the past year alone, and a flurry of new luxury resorts and condos under construction just south of town is gobbling up its rocky coastline. “Our generation used to leave Byblos to go out,” said Shadi Kaddoum, 28, the owner of Mother, a French-style, farm-to-table bistro that opened last summer. “But this new generation is staying closer to home. By next year, we will be booming.”

If Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East, as the cliché goes, then Byblos, some 35 kilometres up the coastline, is its Cannes: an ancient port framed by pre-Roman ruins, white sandy beaches and cedar-topped mountains. The city is famous for its fish restaurants, which serve up fresh red snapper and sea bass to an international clientele. Party yachts cruise into its spectacular harbour at sundown, the way Brando and Sinatra did during Byblos’ pre-war heyday, docking next to old dinghies and wooden fishing boats with names like “Taxi Joe.” Arab starlets and their hangers-on shimmy all day at nearby beach resorts like Edde Sands, studded with palm trees, shimmering pools and Lebanese glitterati.

The city’s revived night life is adding a new dimension to the already powerful lure of its 7,000-year-old history and ruins. For years, Byblos’ main draws were its Crusader citadel, Phoenician ramparts and Bronze Age ruins of L-shaped temples scattered along a seaside bluff like oversize Lego blocks. Byblos lays claim to being one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world, dating its origins to 5000 B.C., as well as the birthplace of the modern alphabet (“byblos” is the Greek word for papyrus).

It was a major commercial port for ancient Egyptian seafarers buying cedar. Though many of its best-preserved sarcophagi and hieroglyphic vases are now in Beirut’s National Museum, visitors can wander through the endless maze of ruins and marvel at one of the world’s earliest examples of sophisticated urban planning.

“I come to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere,” said Mouna Bassili Sehnaoui, a painter from Beirut with a shock of silvery hair. “The stones almost seem to want to talk about what happened here many millennia ago.”

Surrounding the citadel is a compact warren of cobbled streets, sandstone villas with orange-gabled roofs, and lavish gardens studded with pink oleander trees, where wedding couples pose for photographs. A large stone church peers out over a blue-domed mosque. By day, the crypt like stalls and boutique shops of Byblos’ beautifully restored souk, or market, draw a mostly touristy and slightly older crowd. The sounds of Farsi mingle with French as visitors browse for ceramic vases and Phoenician-themed knickknacks.

 Byblos has emerged as a trendy destination not just for wealthy Lebanese expatriates but also for night owls seeking an alternative to the overcrowded clubs and strict door policies of Beirut. Farther up the coast, at Pierre & Friends, a tiki-style bar of thatched bamboo nestled beneath a steep embankment, waves crash against a narrow stretch of rocky sand as a 30-something crowd snaps photos and sips bottles of Almaza, a Lebanese beer. A few surfers brave the rough waters.

“We try to keep it simple here,” said Pierre Tannous, the bar’s namesake, who looks every bit the part of the beach denizen, with his bronzed skin and seashell necklace. “No one dresses up. Nothing is expensive.”

That relaxed ethos is not shared by the developers who are busy transforming the stretch of coast just south of Byblos into a gated playground for Lebanon’s nouveaux riches. A sprawling complex of luxurious villas, apartments and spas called the Byblos Sud Village is expected to open this summer. Across the street, two new hotels (one with a full-service spa) opened in 2009, and the scaffold-covered Byblos-Sur-Mer Hotel by the harbour is getting a needed makeover. A slate of new boutique hotels is in the early stages of development.

“Our business is up threefold from last year,” said Baz, the owner of Bab El Mina. “The town has changed a lot. It feels more like the Lebanon of the ’70s, before the war.”