Byblos is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and Alice Eddé is the unlikely American making sure no one forgets about its extraordinary past.
There are few places in the world left to discover – no new lands or unmapped continents to stir the imagination, no months’ long expeditions in search of new waterways or great new shores to settle on. As a result, it’s more of a rediscover world we live in, one where we revisit the vestiges of the past and take them forward, making them fresh and relevant again for modern consumption. One thing however hasn’t changed: it still takes a certain type of pioneer to raise a historical place from the dust and lift it back to – if not beyond – its former glory. As a potential project, the city of Byblos, a pretty fishing town on the Mediterranean coast about 40 kilometres north of Beirut, has a lot going for it. It is reputedly the oldest continuously inhabited port city in the world, having been lived in since Neolithic times (that’s about 8,000 years ago) when fishermen came ashore and settled on a pristine cliff of sandstone. They built themselves tiny huts with limestone floors, carving tools and weapons from local stones and lived off the bountiful sea. Since then, it has been altered and built according to the requirements of its subsequent inhabitants. You’ll find remnants of structures from the Bronze Age, Persian fortifications, the Roman road, Byzantine churches, the Crusade citadel and the Medieval and Ottoman town. Indeed, a visit to Byblos is a one of a kind, very experiential window onto history. One journalist likens it to “stepping onto the set of a Hollywood historical epic”. Oddly (or maybe not that oddly), it took an American woman and her Lebanese husband, a lawyer-turned politician-turned property tycoon (that last title is from a CNN report in 2014) to return some of Byblos’s former magic to the area. “I’m from a young country, so I appreciate history and tradition. People here don’t know that if you don’t use it, you lose it,” reflects Alice Eddé, who calls the charming outdoor café where we meet “home”. Home, because since moving back to Byblos in 1999, Alice and Roger Eddé have taken it upon themselves to help preserve and capitalise on the charms of the area by investing in it. The old souks area, which they’ve largely acquired and dubbed Eddéyard, is brimming with life on one hot Thursday evening. There is a live jazz show and the cafes and restaurants are full to the brim. Alice has personally taken over the local spice shop, bookshop, and runs her namesake fashion, garden and home shop. It’s where you’ll find a ceramic ring in which you can grow grass, like the one we noticed on Alice’s own hand the fist time we met her. “Years ago, I was at one of the fashion shows in Paris with designer Rabih Kayrouz and there was a Canadian buyer who asked ‘what does that lady do?’ and he looked at me, confused. He was the one who suggested I’d better do something that looks like me,” she explains, of her shop’s eccentric assortment of local specialty items. She also recently launched a farmer’s market in Byblos, where local produce is sold and vendors from the old souk are encouraged to take turns manning a booth. Likewise, she organises workshops, such as a recent hat-making tutorial. There are some less commercial efforts, too. On a recent press tour, a group of journalists that included us, was taken to the tiny 13th century Saint Theodore chapel in the nearby village of Behdidat. Eddé provided logistical support tothe team of international experts who completed the meticulous work of restoring its frescoes. She then led us to the lush nature reserve in Bentael (though heavy thunderstorms put paid that plan). “We want to create a sense of community, or else things can just dissolve,” she says. It’s a wise observation from a woman whose own spectacular garden serves as proof she can pretty much grow anything.