The Umayyad dynasty sparkles. Perhaps that is because so little is left of their legacy in their Levantine heartland. The early Islamic ruins of the Umayyad city of Anjar are among the largest and best-preserved remains there of their civilization.
The Umayyads were only the second dynasty to rule the Islamic world (from 661 to 750 AD), after the death of the prophet Mohammed. From the Umayyad capital of Damascus (today in Syria), their empire stretched as far as Morocco and Spain. In fact, the late Umayyad monuments in Sevilla, Cordoba and Jaen in Andalusia are among the best-known structures of their culture, and they are indeed spectacular. In the centre of Islamic culture in the Orient, however, most Islamic monuments date from the following Abbasid caliphate from 750 onwards. That is because the following rulers tried to erase the memory of their predecessors.
Before the war in Syria we spent a month in Damascus to learn Arabic and during that time we also visited the wonderful Umayyad mosque in Damascus. Travelling in Lebanon we are now keen to explore the Umayyad city of Anjar, a very well-preserved trading town.
Anjar – an important trading town
The Umayyad city of Anjar was commissioned by Caliph Walid I (Walid ibn Abd al-Malik) during the early 8th century. It was an inland commercial hub, situated at the crossroads of two important trading routes. Today the Syrian border is only two kilometres away. Since there was no border during the 8th century, the Umayyad capital of Damascus was quite near. The town’s name was originally Ayn Al-Jaar. This means “water from the rock” and refers to the nearby Anti Lebanon mountains. Today it is shortened to “Anjar”.
After Walid’s death his son Ibrahim could not secure his rule over the Islamic world. After his defeat in 744, the barely finished city of Anjar was partially destroyed and later abandoned. It was only at the end of the 1940s that archaeologists discovered the ruins again.
The layout of the Umayyad city of Anjar
Since then, excavations revealed a fortified city surrounded by walls and flanked by forty towers. Anjar was not a very big city, measuring only 385 x 350 m along the city walls. Interestingly, the Muslims more or less maintained a Roman city plan, which we have often seen during our travels.
We enter the archaeological site by the former North gate and find ourselves on the main North-South axis. In a Roman city plan this would have been the Cardo Maximus. After walking along the Cardo Maximus for about 150 m we reach the crossroads with the East-West street, the Decumanus Maximus. This was once the business centre of the town with bustling shops. Both main streets were flanked with rows of porticoes under which more shops found place. Parts of the porticoes are still standing.
At the crossing of the two streets there is a large tetrapylon still in place. The tetrapylon (=four gates) was a largely symbolic gate construction consisting mostly of pillars. We saw similar ones in Palmyra in Syria and in Jerash in Jordan.
All the public and private buildings in Anjar are also laid out according to a strict blueprint. The Great Palace for Caliph Walid I and the mosque are at the highest part of the town in the South-East. The smaller palace or harem, where the women lived, as well as the public baths are located in the North-East. This was the lower part of town and thus facilitated the drainage of waste waters. Living quarters made up the Western part of town.
From the central crossing, we first walk to the Great Palace of Walid I on the left side of the Cardo Maximus. It is one of the best-preserved ruins of Anjar and the first structure the archaeologists excavated. The rooms are arranged around an impressive 40 square meter courtyard. Some parts of the walls and arcades are very impressive after skilful restoration work.
And some of the pillar capitals that are remaining in place feature delicate vine tendrils and other botanical ornaments. Some went missing, but others are now in museums in Turkey, Jordan, and other places. We read that the archaeologists even found some with animals and naked women.
The Harem and the Public baths of the Umayyad city of Anjar
With some curiosity we look for the remains of the harem buildings. There is not much left, except some walls. But like other Muslim rulers, Walid I secluded his wives and concubines within a special quarter in his town. Years ago we have visited some desert castles of a descendant of Walid I in Jordan. They also included a harem that was a bit better preserved – so we imagine that this one looked similar. Nearby there are also the public baths, were some stunning mosaics remain in situ. Perhaps they were once as lively as the public baths in the Middle East can still be. We fondly remember a visit to a hamam in Aleppo – before the Syrian war – with a raucous party of young Syrian women.
What else to do in the modern town of Anjar
After our visit of the Umayyad city of Anjar, we walk back to the modern town. Modern Anjar is well-known for the number of Armenians that live there. Our guidebook promised shops with handicraft and home-made jam, but today, or perhaps due to the dwindling tourist numbers in Lebanon, all the shops are closed. There is no open café or restaurant. So, after a quick look into the Armenian Church we take a bus back to Zahle.
Is the Umayyad city of Anjar worth a visit?
If you have an interest in archaeology and/or Muslim history, Anjar is for sure worth a visit. It is not as big and as impressive as nearby Baalbek. But you can quite clearly see the Roman and Byzantine influences on the Muslim architecture – comparable to some buildings in Thessaloniki, for instance (also a great travel destination!). Therefore, Anjar became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984. Try to read up before you go or come with a guide, as there is very little information on-site. We spent around two hours at the Umayyad city of Anjar, which was probably quite long. But you would at least need one hour for a proper visit.
How to get to Anjar (from Zahle) by public transport
We went to Anjar by public transport as a daytrip from the nearby town of Zahle. This was easy enough to arrange. We took a minibus from the city centre in Zahle to Chtoura, where we had to change to another minibus to Anjar. The archaeological site of Anjar is walkable from the bus station in the centre of the new town, but we agreed to pay a small surcharge for a direct transport to the ticket office. After our visit we walked back to the bus station in the centre.
We used the Bradt Guide Lebanon that has tons of useful practical information as well as maps and well-researched details about the sights.
NB: Our visit to Anjar and Lebanon was not sponsored in any way. We paid all expenses ourselves.
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