President Higgins begins official visit to Lebanon

President Michael D Higgins to meet senior Lebanese politicians and Irish aid agencies

President Michael D Higgins signs a visitors book at the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul on the final day of his visit to Istanbul and Gallipoli. President Higgins begins an official visit to Lebanon today. Photograph: Chris Bellew

President Michael D Higgins signs a visitors book at the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul on the final day of his visit to Istanbul and Gallipoli. President Higgins begins an official visit to Lebanon today. Photograph: Chris Bellew

 

President Michael D Higgins and Sabina Higgins have begun their official visit to Lebanon where at lunchtime today, they are meeting the President of the Lebanese Council of Ministers, Tammam Salam and his wife, Lama Badreddine Salam.

Later today, President Higgins, who is accompanied by the Minister of State at the Department of Defence, Paul Keogh, and the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Lt-Gen Conor O’Boyle, will meet Irish non-governmental aid organisations working here and helping, in particular, with refugees from the civil war in Syria.

Earlier this morning, the visiting party went to Byblos, a coastal town whose name means the City of Books and which is some 40 kilometers north of Beirut. It is a Unesco World Heritage Site and the seat of 19 civilisations, dating from 6,000 BC and spread over a six acre promontory by a natural harbour.

Much of what is visible today dates from Phoenician times (1200 to 333 BC), when Byblos was a key trading centre for produce from Anatolia, Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt. Much of what is visible today dates from the medieval period of the 12th century.

The president and Mrs Higgins were treated to a guide by the expert Yazid Mahfouz, a local teacher and enthusiast on the history of the castle at the centre of what remains a thriving and pretty, butter-coloured sandstone tourist centre.

“Egyptians, Arabs, Crusaders. . . I stop here Mr President,” enthused Mr Mahfouz enumerating the civilisations and epocs whose accumulated impact had created the city. “The Ottomans,” he continued nonetheless, “they stayed only 100 years. And from 1943 to here, I prefer to shut my mouth,” he said to laughter.

They were shown the Phoenician alphabet and Mr Mahfouz wrote both the president’s and Mrs Higgins’ names in Phoenician, presenting them with the result. President Higgins responded by writing his name in Irish for Mr Mahfouz.

“There you are Sabina,” said President Higgins as his wife was presented with her Phoenician name, “you will have your homework to do tonight.”

A local trader, Pierre Abi Saad, presented the president with a fossilised fish, a 100 million year old specimen quarried from nearby shale 100 meters above sea level. The presentation, in a cafe where the visitors were refreshed with lemon and mint slushies, prompted the president to head to Mr Abi Saad’s shop after doing the castle.

“That’s very special,” President Higgins said of his fossil, as an official of the community also handed him a coffee table-style book of the Phoenician era. “This is much more contemporaneous,” remarked the president.

Tomorrow, the president will travel by helicopter to south Lebanon where he will meet Irish soldiers of the 47th Infantry Group serving with Unifil. He is expected to visit a UN observation post and to pay tribute also to the Irish soldiers who have died there in service of the United Nations.