I came to Lebanon for Baalbek.
Numbered among the Roman Decapolis, Baalbek with its templed expanse was renowned across the ancient world, its image stamped on coins of nearly every emperor from Nerva to Gallienus. For me, like all of Lebanon, it was little more than a foreign sound, the city's historical weight not mentioned during the art historical studies I long-ago undertook on the ancient world. Yet this sound called—Baal-bek—when it flashed on a web search for ruins, and I repeated it like a mantra against all who told me not to visit Lebanon, a place Americans are told not to go, so we do not know. It was to finally know that I went. Know something. Anything. Like how Palestinian and Syrian children in Beirut's infamous Shatila displacement camp build their own puppets, with which they tell stories in an artist-run theatre troop (see the portfolio "One-Hand Puppet"). Or come to know a stranger who would become a brother and then a caregiver as he helped me navigate travel with a chronic illness. And then this: the thrilling weight of gravity when standing at the unencumbered edge of Baalbek's Jupiter Temple, its columns so many times thicker than the column of my body.
Contemporary Baalbek, close to the Syrian border, is a stronghold of Hezbollah—another name resounding with import—so I entered Lebanon not knowing—again with "unknowing"—if I could get there. I could. It took finding someone to take me—the stranger-turned-brother. He took me to other ruins besides. Byblos, Tyre, Tripoli. Mythic names. Lebanon's roots recede far, far back, Baalbek's besting by 2,000 years even this often-given boast: "We have 7,000 years of civilization in Lebanon." There is much to discovery in this land. And I mean more than history.
In riding toward history, I encountered a land in the mess of shaping itself—a chaos of identity creation, infrastructure necessities, economic stratification, ossification and gentrification. There are so many layers to Lebanon—7,000 of them; 9,000 of them—that it is impossible to see what they will unfold into. And yet, there is something clear to see: the monumentality of everyday living. The monumentality, too, of arcing toward one's place in the international hippodrome, particularly when shunted repeatedly to the caverns beneath the seats. I came to Lebanon to find the grandeur of ancient form; I instead discovered the grandeur of that which is in formation.
On the Route to Ruins is the outcome of this awareness. Lebanon was the first country explored with this perspective in a four-month winter/spring 2018 journey from the Middle East to Central Asia.