Hamams or Turkish bathhouses are a common feature in Middle Eastern cities, many dating back to the Mamluk era. Sidon is no exception. While exploring the old city, I chanced upon two bathhouses, both lovingly restored.
This is Hamam El-Ward, an 18th century hamam that still functions today, just like it had been in the olden days. Restored in 1993 by the Hariri Foundation, the hamam is built in the Maan style, which is combination of Turkish and Italian styles of the time.
Built in 1592 by Sheikh Ali bin Mohammad bin Qtaysh, it is one of the oldest mosques in Sidon. From outside, it looks like it has gone through painstaking restoration. It is surrounded by an aromatic lemon garden where its builder is buried.
I didn't get the chance to visit inside, which is said to have two lovely Roman granite columns and a sculpted marble mihrab (niche pointing to the direction of Mecca).
Another blast from past is the Emir Fakhreddine II Palace, or rather what is left of it. Although situated in a very scenic seaside location, the palace's ruined state does not match the greatness of the man who built it.
Fakhreddine II was the first prince of Lebanon under the Ottoman Empire. He came from a local Druze family, and his reign was characterized by economic and cultural prosperity. He called for independence from the Ottoman rule, for which he paid the ultimate sacrifice. He is considered as Lebanon's first true nationalist.
The other hamam that I saw was the Hamam El-Sheikh, still functional and also lovingly restored. I got a chance to see the interiors - at least the lounge area - and I was impressed by the 3-storey high dome ceiling. From the outside, the building looks like any other building (boringly brown, I must say) but getting in and seeing for yourself just a fabulous architecture is so inspiring - and this is for a bathhouse.
Although parts of it had been dolled up, courtesy of the Hariri Foundation, the souk in Sidon is one of Middle East's great souk in terms of authenticity of experience. The trades are mainly for locals, with hardly any tourist souvenir shops (in fact, I haven't seen any). This gives the visitor the chance to peek into local ways - and most of all, connect with the locals, many speaking English.
I did get the chance to do this - peek into a local furniture shop, and chat with locals in a barbershop (pictures 1 and 2). In between, the best way to explore the souk is to get lost in the labyrinthine alleys and just soak in the local vibe.
Besides the souk and the old city, the Sea Castle is Sidon's centerpiece attraction, partly because of its grand location - on a small island across Sidon's waterfront promenade. The island has a special significance to the early Phoenicians - a temple dedicated to their local god Melkart, Hercules' Phoenician counterpart - was built on the same site.
Another "legacy" of the Crusaders, the castle was built in 1228, was destroyed by the Mamluks when they took over the city. Fakhreddine ordered its restoration in the 17th century.
The ruins are worth at least an hour of exploration, but I specifically liked the roof which affords grand views of the city and the harbor. Don't be shy about exploring seemingly hidden nooks and crannies, you might get some nice surprise - or embarrassment (read: a couple making out!). Another tip: arrive early so that you can have the place to yourself - that is if you don't mind sharing it with some couples - before the busloads of day trip tourists from Beirut arrive.
This was originally an edifice built by the Knights Hospitallers during the Crusades, but was converted to a mosque after they were driven out by the Arabs, who did quite a good job in doing so - the mosque is considered one of the finest examples of 13th century Islamic architecture.
One of the distinctive features of the mosque are the two mihrabs - niches pointing to the direction of Mecca - in the main prayer hall, which used to be the Church of St John of the Hospitallers. Most moques only have one mihrab.
Damaged heavily during the civil war, the mosque has been painstakingly restored and is open to all, non-Muslims included (please dress appropriately). It is such a peaceful place to visit, which is quite a welcome relief from the hustle and bustle of the souk outside.
The Latin Church - Roman Catholic Church to you and me - is located inside the old city, just across the Khan Al-Franj. It was built in the mid-19th century, fairly recent by Sidon standards, by the Franciscan friars when they were housed at the Khan Al-Franj. It remains a fully functional church, named after the Lady of Annunciation, and has an adjunct school. The school year was in full swing at the time of my visit, and it was interesting to see a different side of the Middle East - a functioning Roman Catholic school - just another reminder of the diversity of Lebanon's population.
Translated "Caravanserai of the French," Khan Al-Franj is it is, what it is - a khan for foreign traders given by the French to the 17th century ruler of Sidon, Fakhreddine. Back in its heydays, Khan Al-Franj was the city's focal point for business, also housing the French consul's office (and I thought they've given this to Fakhreddine?). It is the most well-preserved khan in Sidon, providing visitors with a glimpse of a typical khan - with a bit of flair.
A quadrilateral two-storey structure surrounds the central courtyard, with shaded porticoes at the ground floor for stables and storage. This is in keeping with the multi-function of the khans, which is to provide accommodation facilities for foreign traders and their animals, while at the same time doing business within the area itself. Exploring the place, one could only imagine the high-octane trading environment that used to prevail within this place.
The well restored, well maintained Debbanne Palace is a great way to see how Sidon's upper crust lived - in Arab-Ottoman splendor. The palace is opulent and richly decorated with intricate ceilings (photo 5), a three-storey high central hall (photo 1), a fountain in the main living area (photo 2) and beautiful marble mosaics (photo 3).
The palace is open for free and take advantage of the views of the city from the roof terrace. Check out the website below - it gives you the history of the palace and the various interesting architectural features that make the it worth a visit.
The ruins of this Crusader castle has a colorful history. Its French name is after France's Louis IX who built the existing structures in 1253, before which the castle was a Fatimid fortress known as Qala'at al-Muizz, after the Fatimid caliph Al-Muizz il-Din Allah.
When the Arabs retook the city, the castle was restored, but it was largely neglected during the reign of the Mamluks (1250-1517). Add to that years of pilfering and we get what we have today - a collection of ruins sitting atop a grassy hill.
Next to the ruins is an interesting archeological site that seems so easy to get into (photos 3 and 4). I hope the people who find their way into the site are well-meaning tourists and not after the priceless artifacts that litter the whole area.
Located at a lively square deep inside Sidon's old city, this ancient mosque, regarded as the city's oldest dating back to 1201, had clearly been "modernized." It is said that Sidon's largest dome could be found here - but I wasn't able to get inside as midday prayers were ongoing during my visit.
But the scene outside the mosque is lively enough to engage the tourist wishing to connect with the local people, who are very friendly - lots of smiles and welcomes. The kids around the square - just like in the rest of the city - loved being photographed.
Currently under restoration, this tiny cavernous church is the Melkite (or Greek Catholic) half of the ancient Cathedral of Saint Nicholas. It dates from the 8th century but was rebuilt in 1690 AD. When the Melkites split up from the Greek Orthodox church in the 18th century, the cathedral was divided into two sections, one for each community. In 1895, the Melkite church transferred its episcopate to a newly built large cathedral, also dedicated to Saint Nicholas, just outside the old city walls. Thereafter, the Melkite half remained closed, but on my visit to Sidon in Sep 2010, a restoration project was under way (see photos).
This stunning grand mosque is the newest addition to the numerous mosques in the city of Saïda. It was recently built by the Hariri family and dedicated to Bahaa el-Din Harir, father of the former prime minister, Rafic. It is located at the northern end of the city and is easily seen from the motorway as one approaches Sidon from Beirut. The beautiful mosque was built in a similar architectural style to the Hariri mosque in Beirut, a modern interpretation of Ottoman imperial mosque architecture. It deviates however in its central dome, which has a more bulbous shape than the flatter Turco-Byzantine-style dome.
Saïda (Sidon) ranks as Lebanon's third largest city, after Beirut and Tripoli. It has thus expanded substantially beyond the boundary of the old city, which has allowed the old city to preserve its traditional character and way of life. The modern city was constructed with no concern for aesthetics and offers the visitor little other than perhaps hotels, restaurants and transportation centres. The one exception, however, is the stunning grand Bahaa el-Din Mosque built recently by the Hariri family and named after the father of the former prime minister, Rafic Hariri. It is located at the northern end of the new city and is easily seen from the motorway as one approaches the city from Beirut. The beautiful mosque was built in a similar architectural style as the Hariri mosque in Beirut (see separate tip below).