Until the end of the 19th century Aley was just another small mountain village, but when the railroad linking Beirut with Damascus Was built in 1892-95 it took on a new life. The train (no longer operating) made it easy for residents of Beirut to summer here. Some of the ottoman governors of Mount Lebanon also chose Aley as their summer residences and the train station was often crowded with elegant passengers and their retinues. With time, Aley became one of the most celebrated summer villages in Lebanon.
Nearby Bhamdoun also benefited from the railroad as it developed into a large popular resort. Sofar at an elevation of 1,280 meters was another stop on the Beirut-Damascus railroad and, in fact, is said to have earned its name from the train's whistle (Saufar in Arabic). Sofar is known for its lovely tree shaded "corniche" overlooking in Metn river valley and Mount Kneiseh. There is also the war-ruined but still impressive Grand hotel and many beautiful old houses to admire.
From Sofar, before the turnoff to Dahr el-Baidar, a road to the right takes you to the large town of Ain Dar (in the caza of Aley) then to Nabaa es-Safa, known for its springs, waterfalls and open-air restaurants. Further on is Ain Zhalta, with its thermal springs and pine forests. The same road goes to Barouk, a pleasant summer town with abundant springs.
The Cedars of Barouk, reached from either Moukhtara or Barouk village, is smaller and younger than those of Bsharreh, but extremely beautiful and well cared for. Above the grove at the summit of the mountain there is a panoramic view overlooking the Bekaa valley. Another Cedar grove can be found on Mount Maaser above the picturesque village of Maaser Esh-Shouf, reached via Deir el Qamar, Bhamdoun or Moukhtara. Maaser, which means "presses" in Arabic, is known for its arak, an anise flavored grape alcohol. The mountain top here also has a spectacular view that extends over much of the Beqaa.
Together, the forests of Barouk, Maaser esh-Shouf and Ain Zhalta form a reserve of over two million cedar trees. More than 112 species of birds, 16 species of other trees and 24 species of wild mammals are also protected in this area, which accounts for five percent of Lebanon's territory.
Beiteddine Palace, begun in 1812, is the best example of Lebanon's feudal architecture and an important stop on every visitor's itinerary. The former seat of the Lebanese Emirs, the palace was built by Emir Bechir Chehab II and remained his residence until he was forced into exile in 1840.
Ottoman authorities later used it as a government residence, and under the French Mandate it became an administrative building. Beiteddine was declared a historic monument in 1934 and in 1943 it was completely restored by the General Directorate of Antiquities as a summer residence for Lebanon's president. The first president to reside here, Beshara El-Khoury, had the remains of Emir Bechir II returned from Istambul, where he died in 1850.
To appreciate the size of the Beiteddine complex, look at it first from the outside. For a more detailed inspection go to the second floor just above the entrance, where there is a model of the buildings and gardens. The palace is divided into three main sections. The first part includes the large c ourtyard, or midan, and a twostory wing originally used for receiving guests. An internal staircase leads to the upper floor where the archeological and ethnographic museum is located. In the middle section of the palace you'll find the apartments of the Hamadeh Sheikhs of the Shouf, who were responsible for palace security. The reception wing, made up of a waiting room and a hall, is by far the most ornate in the palace, with mosaic floors and walls covered with carved marble, sculptures and inscriptions.
The third part is the Dar el Harim or private apartments, which have a large and richly decorated façade. This section includes the Upper Harem, the Reception room, the Lower Harem and the Kitchens. The bath, one of the most beautiful in the Arab world, is located here as well. In the handsome restored stables you'll find a display of mosaics, the largest of which come from a Byzantine church in jiyeh, south of Beirut. Some mosaics are also laid in the beautiful gardens near the stables. Not far from the mosaic museum is the hermitage, or Khalwa, a place of religious seclusion for the Druzes. Much older than the rest of the palace, this room has been restored. Qualified guides are available for your tour through this monument, which is open daily. A visit to Beiteddine is ideally combined with nearby Deir El Qamar.
Beiteddine town is also worth exploring. Here Emir Bechir built palaces for each of his three sons, Qassim, Khalil and Amine. A few traces of Emir Qassim's palace can be seen on a hill facing the grand palace. While Khalil's palace is now the Serail of Beiteddine. The Mir Amin Palace, however, is both a hotel and a tourist attraction. Restored by the Ministry of Tourism, the 24-rom hotel is set in a terraced garden overlooking valleys and mountains.
Several restaurants and a craft shop can be found in the area of the Beiteddine Palace, which is also the venue of a major summer cultural festival.
Just outside Beiteddine is the fantasy known as Moussa's Castle where you can see animated scenes illustrating Lebanon's traditional way of life and moments in history. The roadside near the Castle is usually crowded with children enjoying pony rides and other amusements.
Deir el Qamar is unique in Lebanon, a town restored and maintained in a style many centuries old. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Deir El Qamar not only preserves its grand feudal architecture, but its old stepped streets, walled gardens and picturesque corners as well.
Shortly after Emir Fakhreddine II came to power in 1590, a chronic water shortage in Baaqline forced him to move his capital to Deir el Qamar. There he ruled until his death in 1635. The town remained the residence of the governors of Lebanon until the 18th century, when Emir Bechir II Chehab moved the capital to Beiteddine. Historic buildings surround the huge public square or midan, which was originally used for jousts and other equestrian contests. The larger water fountain was added in the 19th century. In the square itself is Fakhreddine Mosque, constructed in 1493 and restored in the 16th century by Emir Fakhreddine I Maan for his Muslim mercenary soldiers. Behind the mosque is a 19th century Leather-workers Souk or market, which today houses modern shops.
Beyond the souk is the Palace of Emir Younes Maan. Emir Younes, the brother of Emir Fakhreddine II, was army commander during Fakhreddine's voluntary exile to Italy in 1613. Later, Emir Yousef Chehab (1770-1789) demolished the third story and used the stones to build his own residence, now the Serail or Municipal Palace. The Silk Khan or Qaissariyyeh, located north of the Emir Yousef Chehab Serail, was built in 1595 during the reign of Fakhreddine II. It was designed in the classical Khan or caravansary style, and originally used as a public market place for jewelry and for silk. Today the Khan makes a unique setting for cultural activities. Nearby is the synagogue, which was built in the 17th century to serve the local Jewish population, some of whom were parts of the immediate entourage of Emir Fakhreddine II. The Kharj Barracks is a massive structure built by Fakhreddine II in 1616 as munitions warehouse and barracks. It was remodeled under Bechir III Chehab (1840-1842) and became a food storehouse, mainly for soldiers. Now restored, this monument is the stunning setting of the French Cultural Center.
The Palace of Emir Ahmad Chehab (George Baz Palace), located east of the midan, was built by the Emir for his wife in 1755. After Emir Ahmad's death, his widow sold it to George Baz, an important political figure of the time. The architecture of this two-story structure is the Khan type, featuring a central courtyard and basin. Around the courtyard are bedrooms, apartments and baths. The impressive portal is made of alternating stones of different colors. The Serail of Emir Fakhreddine II Maan (now the Emile Baz Palace) located behind the souks, was built with a central courtyard that opens onto rooms, apartments and kitchens. The palace is also the site of the Marie Baz Wax Museum featuring effigies of men and women who played a part in Lebanon's history.
Behind the Emile Baz Palace, is the Residence of Nicolas Turq (1763-1828), court poet of Emir Bechir II. Built in 1805 in the Khan style, it was restored in 1955-62. Galleries of three arcades links the two sections of the building and on the south façade are three arched windows.
The Hall of the Column gets its name from the massive column in its center although the vaulted construction is also supported by a number of pillars. A part of the Palace of Melhem Chehab (1729-1754), it later served as a residence of Emir Bechir II Chehab. The Serail of Emir Yousef Chehab, which today houses the town's mayoral offices, was built for Emir Fakhreddine I. Later enlarged by Emir Melhem Chehab (1729-1754), it was then occupied by Emir Yousef Chehab. Finally, Emir Bechir II Chehab stayed there before the palace at Beiteddine was completed. The entrance is through a magnificent door decorated with two lions, symbol of the Chehab dynasty.
Two other sites are a short distance from the midan. The Mausoleum el-Kobbeh is the resting place of Emirs Ahmad Maan (1662-1697) and Haidar Chehab (1706-1732). Saydet et-Talleh, or the church of Our Lady of the Hill, has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, although the structure we see today dates to Bechir II Chehab. The church has an old door decorated with a half-moon under a cross-a reference to the name "Deir el Qamar" (Monastery of the Moon). On the first Sunday of August the Feast of the Virgin is celebrated here.
In the area of Deir el Qamar not far from Kfarhim, a sign marks the right turn to Jahiliyeh. Once in the village a path leads to the riverside, where water flows down the mountain in a series of cold pools and waterfalls, specially refreshing in the hot summer months.
A few kilometers past the village of Joun is a Greek Catholic monastery known as Deir el-Moukhalles (Monastery of the holy savior), which overlooks fragrant orchards and wooded hills. Founded in 1711, its stands on an even older site. The monastery possesses a beautiful old church and a collection of icons, manuscripts and religious objects.