Issue 1: Lebanon Travelogue

Hello, archaeo-enthusiasts!

Welcome to Issue 1 of my fieldwork and outreach newsletter. Before you proceed, I encourage you to read the introductory issues (posted here previously) for some background on my project.

This issue of The Interactive Dissertation is a summary of the first trip I took on my first travel fellowship, the Mellon Mediterranean Regional Research Fellowship from the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC). I was awarded four months of travel on this fellowship, which I’ll use to visit the sites of Egyptian rock-cut stelae in Lebanon, Sudan, and Egypt beginning in December. At the end of the summer I decided to use some of my CAORC funding to conduct a week-long “recon” mission to Lebanon, in order to make contacts in the Beirut area and get a handle on what sort of permissions I will need in order to do my fieldwork later on in the year.


There are two sites of ancient Egyptian rock-cut stelae in Lebanon: Nahr el-Kalb, which is well-known to scholars of the Near East but not so much to Egyptologists, and Adloun, the site of one stela that no one seems to know much about (due to recent development work on the coast, there is actually a good chance that it no longer exists). Each of the stelae was commissioned by Ramesses II (ca. 1290-1224 BCE), who took his army up and down the Mediterranean coast on several occasions as he campaigned against the Hittites in the early years of his reign. This winter I plan to take photographs and GPS points of these monuments, which I will then input into ArcGIS to make digital models of how they relate to their landscapes. More on that in a future post about my methodology.


One month ago I was feeling uneasy about my trip to Beirut. It would be my first time in Lebanon and I would be going alone. The day before I left I became so nervous that I began googling what turned out to be truly frightening travel warnings from the Department of State. Looking back on that night, when I had a stress-dream about being detained at the airport, I have to laugh, because nothing was as I expected.

A posh alleyway in Beirut

On my long layover in Frankfurt I sent an email to my contact at the Association pour la protection des sites et anciennes demeures au Liban (APSAD), a Lebanese heritage preservation group, whom I was supposed to meet at some point during my trip. To my surprise she answered right away, and we arranged a meeting the following evening at her home in Ras Beirut.

I arrived in the city in the wee hours on a Tuesday, and after a much-needed nap I ventured out to explore the neighborhood of Mar Mikhael ahead of my meeting. This meant, at first, getting a handle on my local iced coffee options:

First mission: find an iced coffee.
Second mission: work on PowerPoint for meeting!

…after which point I realized that I should probably put a PowerPoint together to show my contact that evening. So I parked it in the Papercup Cafe and began fiddling with slides from previous presentations about my research. At this point I’ve presented on my dissertation topic at three major conferences (last year’s American Research Center in Egypt and American Schools of Oriental Research annual meetings, and a Theoretical Archaeology Group conference), so I have a standard set of points and images to work with. A few hours later, I was wandering around the neighborhood with my camera in hand.

Beirut is, without a doubt, one of the most chic and art-forward places I have ever visited. Take a look at some of the street art, and the delicate balance between old and new that gives the city a jarring yet indisputably cool vibe:


There also seems to be something about colorful steps in this town:

…and leafy buildings:


Well. Suffice it to say that I had a great afternoon. Later in the day I worked on my dissertation database, and racked my jetlagged brain about how to further prepare for the meeting I was about to have.

Having never been to Ras Beirut (or Beirut) before, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to find my contact’s house, which had no house number. I was also unsure about what one brings to her host on such an occasion. So I emailed another contact at the Factum Foundation—they do preservation work with digital technologies—who calmed my nerves and graciously drew me a map in what I can only guess was Microsoft Paint (we’re a very technical bunch). Actually, it was this contact who had put me in touch with APSAD in the first place; with their support, Factum is currentlyscanning some of the stelae at Nahr el-Kalb, and they have also agreed to make scans of the Egyptian stelae there for my dissertation research.

And then I was on my way. I felt like the Fresh Prince of Bel Air when I pulled up to my contact’s house, which turned out to be an exquisite late-19th-century villa, and my taxi driver was equally amused. I wish I had taken some pictures, but that would have been impolite.

Not the house where I met my contact.
There is some truly fabulous architecture in Beirut!

I had brought a box of German chocolates with me as a gift, but in true Lebanese style I was offered to eat onemyself first, and then plied with more sweets and Turkish coffee. My contact and another APSAD representative, G.*, who will probably join me when I visit my research sites in the winter, offered me some invaluable practical advice about how to plan for non-invasive fieldwork in Lebanon. When our meeting was over they invited me to join a tour the next morning of a place whose name I didn’t recognize. I figured that it didn’t matter where I was going, as long as I was meeting people and getting to know the country a bit better. When I returned to my AirBnB I googled the location:Machghara, a small town in the Beqaa Valley.

I had no idea whether this would be more of a hiking trip or a sightseeing trip, but I knew one thing for sure: this was an excellent time to take my awesome travel solar panel for a walk. You know, just in case I needed to recharge the phone that no one was calling because I hadn’t given anyone my Lebanese mobile number. I didn’t get a chance to use it at all during this trip, but I was very excited to show it off to everyone.

Just before I went to bed I got an email from my colleague in Sudan, who told me that my fieldwork proposal for that portion of my research had been approved on the first try. Small victories, step by step.

…..

By Wednesday morning I had only been in the country for one day, yet there I was, more or less awake and standing outside the APSAD office with a smile on my face at 6:15. A small group of us exchanged greetings and had some coffee before venturing outside, where a large group had gathered. I quickly realized that this tour was for nearly fifty people, and that it would be given in Arabic. I don’t know why I hadn’t considered that before. Whoops!

Steps and a floral doorway in the town of Machghara

I can’t possibly do justice to the tour in writing, so if you know me “in real life,” you’ll have to ask me to tell you more about it (or you can ask me further questions on social media). Some highlights for your pleasure:

  • When we got on the bus, G., who was leading the tour, immediately turned on some music through the bus speakers and began to dance down the aisle. He’s easily the most animated and joyful person I met on this trip. The dancing really set the mood!
  • No more than thirty minutes into the two-hour ride there, we stopped to eat. That was when I learned the phraselebni, jibni, a summary of the “cheese and more cheese” on offer at this lovely roadstop. The food was delicious.
  • On the way to Machghara we passed Lake Qaraoun, which offered some stunning views. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll notice that the photo I’ve embedded below is also the background for my Instagram advertisement for this very newsletter. I felt that I needed a good landscape photo for this purpose.

Lake Qaraoun, Beqaa Valley
  • APSAD recently renovated the childhood home of the Lebanese composer Zaki Nassif and turned it into a music school. I learned the national dance of Lebanon on the roof of this school, and performed it with a large group of people who have far better coordination than I do. Everyone was very nice to me about my two left feet.
  • Machghara was once (not so long ago) known for its tanneries. I took some haunting photos of their abandoned interiors. If you’d like to see more of them, drop me a line.
Scenes from an abandoned tannery
  • I befriended a group of French-Lebanese twentysomethings on the tour. They were in Lebanon to reconnect with their heritage. I told their organizer, P., all about Nahr el-Kalb and invited him to visit the site with me later on in the week. I’m hoping that I’ll also be able to offer a complimentary tour to APSAD members when I return in the winter.
  • Hundreds of streams run through the town of Machghara. In the late afternoon the twentysomethings and I ate at a restaurant inside a cave, where our table straddled one of these streams. More eating.

The streams and waterfalls of Machghara
  • On the way home we stopped again for lebni, jibni. More eating.
  • We got stuck in traffic for over an hour, so we decided that more bus-dancing was in order to pass the time.

By the time I got home I was beaming but exhausted. And I was thrilled that, for the first time in days, I didn’t have to get up at the crack of dawn.

…..

On Thursday I finally made it to the American University of Beirut (AUB). Earlier in the summer I had secured an affiliation with the Department of History and Archaeology so that I could use the library and make more contacts. I met with the department chair in the morning, and we immediately launched into a discussion about my research. For a while we stood in front of a 3D map of Lebanon and discussed the routes Egyptian armies took on various trips to the region. At some point I explained that I had been fruitlessly emailing the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA) for months to inquire about permits, and he gave me some phone numbers to try.

Try I did, over a quiet lunch in the AUB garden. As it turns out, the head of the DGA answers his own phone sometimes. It was 2:00 in the afternoon, and he asked me to come to his office at 8:30 the next morning. I really could not believe how accommodating he was. Next time I need something, I’ll be asking via phone rather than email.

AUB has two things that I love: old books that I cannot
get ahold of in the U.S., and happy cats everywhere.

While I was on campus I also visited the AUB library, where it took less than five minutes to view and obtain permissions to use photos of Nahr el-Kalb from the Manoug Archive. I used the stacks as well, and the librarians let me put books on hold overnight even though I was only visiting. When I was in Oxford the week before my trip, one of my former advisers suggested that I bring small boxes of chocolate to give as thank-you gifts to anyone who helped me get things done. I’m so glad that I took her advice, because I found that I really needed a way, even a small way, to show my gratitude to so many people at AUB.

By Thursday afternoon I was beginning to settle into my language environment, which always takes some time when I travel for fieldwork, so I thought that my cab ride home would be an excellent time for me to flex my Arabic skills. I started to give the driver directions, and he swung his head around fast:

“You speak like an Egyptian!”

No more verbal directions for me (although friends later told me that my Egyptian accent was probably construed as endearing albeit shocking). It’s probably worth mentioning that my French—the second language of Lebanon—isn’t stellar either; luckily everyone uses rideshare apps in this city anyway. Merci, Amun-Re, pour la commodité des taxis Uber à Beyrouth!

…..

On Friday morning I made my best effort to look professional. I packed some thank-you chocolates in my bag and brought my PowerPoint presentation on my laptop. The DGA offices are located at the National Museum of Beirut, which is housed in an imposing Egyptian Revival building. As I walked up the steps I had a vague recollection of the lead-up to my internship interview at the Met when I was an undergraduate: dressed for success, dwarfed by the architecture and everything inside of it.

The National Museum of Beirut (image from Beirut.com)

The DGA secretary was quite confused about why my name wasn’t on the agenda, and she seemed skeptical that I had actually scheduled a meeting with the Director himself (I wouldn’t have believed it either). But we started to chat and everything warmed up nicely. She gives me coffee, I give her chocolates, we talk about her kids, she asks whether I have any kids, then she asks why I don’t have kids… and then, I go into the meeting.

The view from my PowerPoint

I stated my business, gave the Director the names of some of my more recognizable contacts, and showed him some slides from my presentation. In less than ten minutes he told me that I should be able to do at least some of the work I proposed for the winter, and that he doesn’t know where the elusive Adloun Stela is, either—but that he would try to get me more information. He asked me to write him a letter outlining my proposed work, offered me some chocolates (which I now understood to be the official currency of friendly business), and shook my hand. I considered this meeting a success, and went straight to the AUB library to compose that letter.

The Director had asked me for some scholarly sources on the Adloun Stela, and this prompted me to research the site more closely than I had before. In the process, thanks to AUB’s collection of very old books, I came across the only two drawings I have ever seen of it. One of them is from a 19th-century publication about—of all things—my otherresearch site, Nahr el-Kalb:

Drawing of the Adloun Stela (De Bertou 1854: Pl. II, No. 3)
Another drawing of the Adloun Stela (Ronzevalle 1909: Fig. 9)

I also found what may very well be the only photographs ever taken of the stela (note the people for scale and a fantastic hat):

Photographs of the Adloun Stela (Ronzevalle 1909: Pl. XI)

These images clearly show a figure of Ramesses smiting enemies before a god, who is identified as Amun in the scholarly literature. If you happen to know of additional drawings or photos of this monument, I would love to hear from you. Reply to this newsletter directly via email, or contact me on social media.

I finished my DGA letter just in time to be kicked out of the library at closing time. But that evening I had plans for dinner with some of the researchers from AUB and the Orient Institut at one of their homes, so it was probably for the best. At dinner we sat on the balcony and watched the planes come in over the coast, and I tried “white coffee” for the first time. I also discovered that, because it’s such a small world, one of the other guests would be on my flight back to Frankfurt. When I returned home I collapsed, blissfully and without setting an alarm.

…..

The entire time I’d been in Beirut thus far, I hadn’t really spoken to my AirBnB host. We were finally home at the same time on Saturday morning, so we chatted and had breakfast together. She invited me to a barbecue at her friend’s house on Sunday before I headed off to the National Museum (this time for a visit, rather than a meeting).

Beirut is experiencing something of a museum renaissance right now, so there is a lot on offer, but the National Museum is a must-visit. I took so many photos, but this one is arguably the most relevant:

The upper portion of Ramesses II’s Stela from Tyre, National Museum of Beirut

Note that the enemy-smiting posture of the king in this monument is the same as in the one from Adloun above. Ramesses’s freestanding stela from Tyre, as well as his stela from Byblos, demonstrate that the Egyptians had access to the craft apparatus for making such monuments in the Levant. And yet, in certain circumstances, they chose to carve their messages into local rock faces anyway. For me this says a lot about the degree of intention behind the choice of living rock as a medium. It may also reveal key differences between Egyptian monument-making strategies in urban areas versus rural ones.

Many of my other photos from the museum, including those of the famed Thrones of Astarte and mosaics, will soon be available through Oxford’s Manar Al-Athar (“Guide to Archaeology”) image database.

Later that afternoon I explored downtown Beirut for a couple of hours. In the evening I had an impromptu dinner with my hostess; we talked at length about stereotypes, social justice in the Middle East, and politics in Lebanon today. Afterwards we walked along the boardwalk amid men fishing in the Mediterranean, friends meeting for picnics, and children whizzing by on bicycles.

…..

The next day five of us took a ladies’ road trip into the mountains for the barbecue. I made fried cauliflower croquettes, which may soon appear on my food blog. We caught a beautiful sunset on the way home:

Sunset over the Mediterranean

Afterwards I had a late-night coffee with a new friend with whom I’d been connected by another Brown University student. She has a lot of family in Egypt, and we promised to make an effort to see each other again in both countries in the coming year.

The next morning I did my best francophone impression and delivered a thank-you note to the staff at APSAD, along with some chocolates (of course). It was the least I could do for all of the help they gave me in navigating this new place.


I then returned to the library, finished taking some notes on the stelae, and headed back to Mar Mikhael.

…..

On Tuesday morning, during my last few hours in Beirut, I finally made it to Nahr el-Kalb. Four years ago my professor, Ömür Harmanşah, introduced me to this site in his graduate seminar. I had no idea that the kings of Egypt made rock-cut stelae, and I certainly didn’t expect any of them to be found in modern-day Lebanon. My interest in the monuments at Nahr el-Kalb is what led me to study Egyptian rock-cut stelae more broadly for my dissertation. This visit was an important moment for me as a researcher: I’ve written about this site dozens of times, but I hadn’t yet experienced it for myself.

There are twenty-two monuments at Nahr el-Kalb; Livius has a basic list of them for anyone looking for a quick overview. The first three stelae were commissioned by Ramesses II, and for 3200 years thereafter rulers such as Nebuchadnezzar, the Roman emperor Caracalla, Napoleon III, and the leaders of the modern state of Lebanon carved their own monuments into the same limestone promontory overlooking the Mediterranean. One inscription attracted another, leading to the creation of a cross-cultural place of memory.

A rock monument at Nahr el-Kalb commemorating
French intervention in Arabian Syria in 1920

P., Leader of the Twentysomethings, joined me on my trip. The site is only about 15 minutes outside of the city center and we were surprised to find that, upon exiting the highway, some of the monuments are right there on the side of the road! Nahr el-Kalb is a UNESCO Memory of the World site and open to the public, but it doesn’t seem to attract much attention. We found some of the stelae surrounded by overgrowth and litter, although many of the younger ones were in excellent condition. I won’t reveal too much about this site just yet, since I’ll have lots to say when I return in December.

Ramesses’s stelae were carved in Years 4, 8, and 10 of his reign. Each of them contains images of the king with enemies from this region in his grasp, standing opposite an Egyptian god. They are spaced out along the curve of the promontory.

A Google Earth image of Nahr el-Kalb, with the
approximate locations of the Egyptian stelae indicated in red

The Year 4 and Year 10 stelae face west, out to sea. Their texts are no longer legible but they were presumably meant to symbolically announce something about Egyptian achievements in the region to the wider Mediterranean world. In both cases a later Assyrian stela was inscribed right next to the Egyptian monument. The Year 8 stela faced north, probably as a symbolic response to uprisings in the northern Levant that were quelled by Ramesses in the same year, but unfortunately it is now covered by a later monument of Napoleon III.

The Year 4 stela of Ramesses II (on the right), and an adjacent Assyrian stela

Here we see two different strategies for usurping the place and message of the Egyptian monuments and what they represented: the Assyrian stelae do not cover the Egyptian ones, but instead stand beside them, in order to visually demonstrate that power has been transferred from once-mighty Egypt to a mightier Assyria; in contrast, Napoleon’s stela usurps Ramesses’s monument and message by standing in its place—despite the fact that most people would not know what was once carved there, or that anything had been usurped at all. I personally find the former strategy far more compelling!

P. was very impressed with the site and couldn’t believe that he hadn’t heard of it before. We visited the Year 4 stela and took some photos, and I shot a short video of the view from the top of the promontory, where one can easily see what this location had to offer for a king on a message-making mission.

View from the top of the promontory at Nahr el-Kalb, looking north

Our luck was comparatively not so good with the Year 10 stela. Let me preface this by saying that I am not afraid of snakes, normally. I am normally not afraid of snakes.

As I came down the narrow path towards the Year 10 stela, with P. a few meters behind me, a snake whose body was as thick as my arm shot out from under the monument and began slithering in my direction. I was startled to say the least, and I shouted up to P. that he needed to RUN. We booked it—definitely the fastest I have ever run from anything wild—straight back to the top of the cliff. I tried to explain how enormous and frightening this thing looked, and that no, it wasn’t one of those tiny lizards, but I’m not so sure that P. was convinced. Nevertheless we decided not to venture back down to the stela for a photo, since I am planning to return in a few short months. I almost regret not returning to take a picture. Almost.

File this under, “Things I Text My Husband from the Field”

That was certainly an eventful day, and a surprising way to cap off my trip. I was still laughing about it later on at the airport, when I told the story to that friend-of-a-friend who was on my flight.

…..

This seems like a good place to sum things up.

Scenes from around Beirut

Now that I think about it, this was the first time that I had ever really traveled alone: I’m always meeting an archaeological team, or a friend, or someone else familiar to me on the other side. In just one week I met with everyone on my contacts list, perused an incredible photo archive, toured parts of the country I didn’t expect to see, visited Nahr el-Kalb for the first time, and had a chance to talk frankly about the current social and political climate in Lebanon with people who are experiencing it first-hand.

Lessons Learned:
1. Many parts of Lebanon are safe for tourists. You should go there. Traveling alone may get you lots of questions, but it can be very liberating!
2. Beirut is the most hipster city on earth. It’s like Brooklyn, but with a bit more sun.
3. Some of the Lebanese people I spoke to were very surprised to learn that there was ancient Egyptian material culture lurking in their midst.
4. If you are an archaeologist and you plan to conduct fieldwork in a country you’ve never visited before, it is so important to make local contacts ahead of time, and to meet as many folks in the heritage sector as you can once you arrive. If email fails, cold-call. And if calling fails, show up in person.
5. Google Maps does not do any justice to the landscapes that surround rock monuments. I am so thrilled that I was able to see and experience them for myself in preparation my fieldwork—now I know what to expect in terms of footing, wind, and other environmental concerns that might affect my data-collection methods in the winter (and I know to expect some incredible views!).
6. Egyptian Arabic: “cute” or “weird”? The verdict is still out.
7. Food is both culture and currency. You have to hand out a lot of chocolates to write a dissertation.

From both a personal and professional perspective this trip was a true pleasure, and I cannot wait to return to Lebanon in December to begin my fieldwork.

Until next time,

Image Sources & Mini Bibliography
  1. De Bertou, C. 1854. Lettre à M. de Saulcy sur les monuments égyptiens de Nahr-el-Kelb. Extrait de la Revue Archéologique, XIe année. Paris: A. Leleux.
  2. Maïla-Afeiche, A.-M. (ed.). 2009. Le Site de Nahr el-Kalb. BAAL Hors-Série V. Beirut: Minstère de la culture, Direction Générale des Antiquités. (See the chapter by Henri-Charles Loffet for a detailed analysis of the Egyptian stelae.)
  3. Ronzevalle, S. 1909. “Notes et Etudes d’Archéologie Orientale.” Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph 3: 753-804.
  4. Wimmer, S.J. 2002. “A New Stela of Ramesses II in Jordan in the Context of Egyptian Royal Stelae in the Levant.” Third International Congress on the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, Paris, 18 April 2002. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/12174504.pdf.
* I have used general terms (“my contact”) and initials (“G.”) in order to respect the privacy of the people who made this trip such a wild success.

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