The following morning, we packed our bags, well rested from a full day lounging at the hotel and watching the Winter Olympics on the television. We had hired the car for five days and had one full day left, so we decided to drive into the Chouf Mountains south and east of Beirut to visit the magnificent palace complex of Beiteddine (House of Faith). The palace was the seat of the 18th century governor Emir Bashir and spills down the hills along one side of a picturesque valley, whose terraces are planted with poplars and flowering shrubs. The design is a mixture of Arab and Italian baroque, due mainly to the fact that the architects were Italian.
The palace was begun in 1788 and was built over a period of thirty years. During the French mandate the palace was used for administrative purposes, but was declared a national historic monument in 1930. Lebanon’s first president made it his summer residence in 1943. The palace was heavily damaged during the Israeli invasion and 90% of its contents were lost.
The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt declared it to be ‘The Palace of the People’ and set about directing its restoration in 1984. It now holds regular exhibitions and contains several museums filled with artifacts. A festival is held here every July and August and showcases the talents of international and local artists, musicians, singers and dancers.
When we reached the town that carries the same name as the palace, we found ourselves in the clouds with very poor visibility. It was drizzling and cool. I didn’t really mind too much because this would probably keep other visitors away and we wouldn’t have to cope with busloads of tourists. Our guidebook mentioned that many of the doors to rooms in the palace are locked and it might be necessary to hire a guide in order to see the palace fully.
To our surprise, we paid our admission fee but there were no guides around at all. I didn’t mind, but I worried about getting access. My worry was short-lived, as we found several doors ajar and no one prevented us from entering the open rooms. I think the staff at the palace was more than happy to huddle in their offices and leave us on our own. This couldn’t have been more perfect.
It was hard to take good photos of some of the fabulous interiors because the outside light was low and not all the rooms had electric lights turned on. After walking through to the second courtyard, we stumbled upon the hammam (baths) and it was exquisite. I took tons of photos there and didn’t really want to leave. It must have been a fabulous place when it was in use, there would have been hot steamy rooms as well as cool rooms to relax after bathing, where tea and sweets would have been served.
We read that the stables built below the palace complex, as it spilled down the hillside, at one time housed over 500 horses and 600 soldiers of the emir’s guard. The stables have been completely restored and are now used as a gallery to display some of the most incredible mosaics found from around the country. We were completely alone as we wandered through the gallery and soaked in the beauty of the mosaics on display. Just as we were finishing up, the skies open and there was a torrential downpour. We were happy to be safe and snug inside and watched in awe as the water streamed off the walls of the palace and drained away into the gardens.