There are few obvious reasons to go to Tripoli, Lebanon’s second-largest city.
Coming from the motorway in the south, one only sees scanty housing blocks. During the war in Syria, supporters and opponents of Bashar al-Assad clashed in the city’s east. Besides, one wonders, isn’t Beirut actually the symbol of Lebanese lust for life?
But then there is the old town with its lively souks, hundreds of years of history, the port quarter and the crazy utopias of a world-famous architect.
Another reason to visit is Mira Minkara, probably Tripoli’s only female tour guide. The cosmopolitan and welcoming 41-year-old Mira guides friends, acquaintances and tourists through her home town. “It is my passion, I love it, but it is not easy in a country like ours, ” she says.
At our meeting at the Mansouri mosque she stands out with her colourful scarf, bright yellow jacket and sunglasses, and open hair. The concierge lets us into the mosque’s courtyard, built by the Mamluk in the 13th century.
“Tripoli is one of the oldest medieval cities and rich in history, ” Mira says. According to her, the city has been underestimated and has a lot of potential. “And the food is cheaper and much better than in Beirut.”
The Lebanese capital is much younger than Tripoli.
The Phoenicians built a first trade outpost on the coast, today’s location of Tripoli’s neighbouring city and port, al-Mina. Tradespeople from Sidon, Tyre and the city-island of Arwad in today’s Syria settled there, resulting in the name Tripolis, which means three cities.
During the Fatimid Caliphate under Banu Ammar, Tripoli blossomed into a hub for science, with renowned intellectuals, judges and a library. The manufacturing of silk and soap brought wealth.
“A golden age, ” Mira says. It lasted until the crusaders stormed, pillaged and burned the city.
We go for a walk through the old town. Mira guides me to the derelict hammam Al Nuri, a bath house that was built by the Mamluk. There is a vestibule for undressing, a massage room, the ruins of a well under a large dome and marble floors to store heat. Most hammams ceased operating in 1975, when the civil war began.
We also visit Lebanon’s only functioning bath house from Osman times, the hammam al-Abd. Towels are ready, a seating corner is decked out with blankets and there are shisha pipes. Time to talk about Tripoli.
The hammam was a place of social exchange, Mira explains. “Men came to inquire about news, whether the gold or silver price had risen or fallen, which tradespeople were in town. Assassinations were also planned here.”
Time for breakfast. We buy kaakeh, warm bread to go, and meander through the alleys of the market quarter. Mira greets one of Tripoli’s oldest tailors and exchanges a few friendly words. Many of the textiles sold at the souk, however, come from Turkey or China today. In the dim workshop of a copper smith traditional craftsmanship is, however, still at work.
Tripoli is also famous for its soaps, just like Aleppo in Syria.
“We only use olive oil, no chemistry and no animal fats, ” Mira said. Some shops are inside of former caravanserais, where humans and animals used to recover and rest from long journeys.
As soon as you leave the old town, impressions of the old Orient quickly dissipate. Tripoli is poor and hosts thousands of refugees from Syria. The war in the neighbouring country was temporarily fought out here in the city. Alawites in the Jabal Mohsen neighbourhood supported Syria’s al-Assad, while Sunni Muslims in the Bab al-Tabbaneh neighbourhood opposed him. Neighbours were shooting at each other from their balconies. This was only a few years ago.
“Many people say Tripoli is very conservative, ” Mira says, though she finds it funny. “Look at the size of Beirut, there are so many conservative areas, but only two hip neighbourhoods, Hamra and Gemmayzeh, and that’s where all the tourists go.”
But a lot is happening in Tripoli as well. Al-Mina has become a nightlife hub with restaurants and bars, where young and liberal city inhabitants meet. The waterside promenade is perfect for a sunset walk while the last rays of light illuminate Mount Lebanon.
There is another especially unique and peculiar sight to see in the no-man’s land between Tripoli and al-Mina: the Rashid Karami International Fair, a former convention centre built by world-famous architect Oscar Niemeyer during Lebanon’s boom in the 1960s.
Niemeyer, one of the most famous architects of modernity, designed more than a dozen
futurist buildings for the centre, which today seem like mysterious artefacts of an alien civilization, or at least look just as bizarre.
The civil war broke out before the project could be finished, and the works were never completed.
Today you can still see a huge arc spanning a footbridge, which leads up to an open air theatre, with white plastic seats awaiting visitors.
A huge concrete awning offers shade, while a large dome rises up from the ground like a half-sunken globe.
Niemeyer’s utopian project is reminiscent of a time in which Tripoli was facing a glorious future - which seems like it is long gone, or will at least take some time to become reality. – dpa