While there is evidence of human settlement into the distant past, by the 8th century BC, the small Phoenician village had grown with the arrival of traders from Sidon, Tyre, and Tartus (Syria). Each community settled within its own set of walls, thus giving the name Tripolis, three cities (Trablous in Arabic). A massive earthquake leveled the buildings in 543 AD and from then on, through history it was invaded and conquered by various ethnic groups. Five hundred years later, it became a centre of learning, with the school known as Dar-al-Ilm (Abode of Knowledge), containing over 100,000 books.
The agricultural wealth of the region was a glittering prize that attracted the attention of the Crusaders. After a siege of lasting four years, the city fell to the Christians and the massive library went up in flames. Less than 200 years later, the city fell to the Muslims. Once again, the economy flourished and the monuments that tourists visit today were built during this period. The souqs, the mosques and the madrassas (Islamic schools) all lie within what is now referred to as the ‘Old City’, with the Crusader castle towering high above on a huge outcropping of rock.
The city suffered a great deal of damage during the 1975-91 civil war, continuing the tradition of violence and suffering that has been the history of this strategic city. However, the end of the civil war did not see the end of fighting. As recently as May 2007, battles between Palestinian militants and the Lebanese police brought gloom to the city yet again. There were rumours that a link existed between the militants and Al-Qaeda, and this brought tourism to a grinding halt.
Tripoli is struggling to encourage visitors to return, and although we didn’t plan to stay overnight in the city, I didn’t want to miss seeing the souq, as it is hard to find any these days that have not been turned into Disneyland-style entertainment centers. Today, Tripoli is a sprawling city of concrete high rises; many looking the worse for wear. We crawled through the dense traffic into the heart of the Old City and eventually made our way up a steep incline and arrived at the Citadel. We were surprised to see it surrounded by army personnel and a tank or two. We were growing used to seeing police armed with machine guns, but this was a little over the top.
We decided to skip entering the Citadel but parked our car a short distance away from the fortress thinking that no one would attempt to break into it with all the guards around. I knew that we had been observed as we drove by and that the guards would realize that we were foreigners and intervene if any local person attempted to drive away with our vehicle. It was only later that I realized that if there were an attack on the Citadel, our rental car would have surely been one of the first casualties.
We headed down a steep flight of stairs into the labyrinth that is the Tripoli bazaar. I was over the moon to find the most authentic Islamic market that I have seen since my travels in the early 1970s. The Grand Bazaar in Istanbul had been a disappointment indeed when I realized that it caters almost completely to the tourist industry. It’s hard to get excited there when you see so much of the bazaar dedicated to blue jeans, running shoes and tourist kitsch. Here in Tripoli, we were able to walk through a functioning market, existing almost exclusively for the purpose of supplying the local residents with the items needed for daily life and for traditional celebrations.
We spent a wonderful couple of hours walking through the narrow lanes and then focusing on two specific khans. One is the newly-restored Khan Al-Khayyatin (Tailor’s Market) and the other Khan as-Saboun (Soap Market). The soap market began life as an army barracks in the 16th century and after being abandoned for many years, it was taken over by the olive farmers as a place to sell their produce and the soap they made from olive oil. The building looks as if it has not changed from its earliest days.
By the 18th century, the soap-making business really took hold and Tripoli became famous for its fine quality soaps, scented with oils from the neighbouring perfume market. The soaps were highly prized throughout Europe and rumours abounded that soap was invented here, but there is evidence that the Egyptians used soaps in ancient times. Mass-market production almost killed Tripoli’s industry by the 1950s, but the resurgence of interest in natural, boutique and handmade soaps has brought new life to this traditional craft.
We were invited to climb a set of dark stairs to the gallery of the khan and watch the Hassoun family as they went about their daily routine making blocks of soap. It is still done in the traditional way, and though we rarely buy anything on our travels, we couldn’t walk out without a bar of jasmine soap. It’s something we will use up before long, and it shouldn’t weigh us down for the couple of months we have left before it’s time to head to Canada again. I’ve given Adia and Vy the sachets of lavender I bought in Provence, so for the time being, the soap can perfume the clothes in my suitcase.