The river Nahr al-Kalb (called Lykos in ancient times) originates near the town of Jeita and flows for only 31 kilometers before emptying into the Mediterranean about 30 kilometers north of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon.

It is not a particularly long river, and in summer, it is often nearly dry. However, the valley it forms and its mouth are of special interest to archaeology and history.

From the 14th century B.C. to the contemporary era, generals, conquerors, and kings have erected commemorative stelae there with dedications and reliefs, forming an impressive collection of 20 stelae known as the Nahr al-Kalb Commemorative Stelae.

The first to report on this marvel was the 17th-century traveler Henry Maundrell in his 1703 book Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem at Easter A.D. 1697:

To accommodate the passage, there is a path over two meters wide cut along its side, at a great height above the water; the work of the Emperor Antoninus… The memory of the good work is perpetuated with an inscription, engraved on a table carved into the side of the natural rock, not far from the entrance to the path… Passing in this way, we observed, on the rocks above us, several tables of carved figures; which seemed to promise some antiquity… as if the old road had gone through that region before Antoninus cut the other more convenient passage a little lower down. In various places around here, we saw strange ancient figures of men, carved in the natural rock, and life-size. Near each figure, there was a large tablet, carved into the side of the rock, and surrounded by moldings. Both the effigies and the tablets seemed to have been inscribed everywhere: but the characters are now so defaced that only their traces were visible; there was only one of the figures that had its features and inscriptions intact.

Franz Heinrich Weissbach, who studied the inscriptions in 1922, identified three Egyptian stelae with hieroglyphics, six Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions, various Greek, Roman, and Arabic inscriptions, as well as more modern French and English ones.

The three Egyptian inscriptions bear the name of Ramesses II. It is believed that at least one of them was placed during the pharaoh’s first campaign in the Levant, establishing the Lykos River as the border between the Egyptian province of Canaan and the territory of the Hittites.

However, the inscription is so worn that only the name of Ramesses II and the year 4 can be read. Some researchers associate these inscriptions with the pharaoh Senusret, as recounted by Herodotus:

Returning to the pillars that King Senusret was raising in various regions, although many no longer seem to exist, I myself saw some still existing in Syria Palestine, on which I read the aforementioned inscription and noticed the members of a woman engraved.

Herodotus, Histories II-106

Of the six Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions, one recounts the capture of Memphis by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon in 671 B.C. Although it is very damaged, references to the cities of Ascalon, Tyre, and Taharqa, as well as 22 vassal kings, can be read.

Another of the inscriptions is attributed to Nebuchadnezzar II, who was king of Babylon between 604 and 562 B.C., famous for building the Hanging Gardens and conquering Judah and Jerusalem.

Among the Greek and Roman inscriptions, the one attributed to the Legio III Gallica of Emperor Caracalla (originally recruited by Julius Caesar in 49 B.C. and whose last recorded activity dates back to the early 4th century in the Middle East) stands out, referring to a road they built there.

It is precisely this inscription that includes the words “Lyco flumen” that allowed researchers to identify the Nahr al-Kalb with the ancient Lykos River.

Another inscription, in Greek, commemorates an engineering work carried out by Proclus, the Byzantine governor of Phoenicia, in 382 A.D. during the reign of Theodosius I.

The oldest Muslim inscription is dedicated to the first sultan of the Burji dynasty, who ruled Egypt from 1382 to 1517 during the Mamluk Sultanate. Another, dedicated to Emir Fakhr-al-Din II of Lebanon, was no longer legible in the 19th century due to wear.

The tradition of erecting stelae and dedications in the place continued even in modern times. The first of the colonial inscriptions is dedicated to Napoleon III’s intervention in Lebanon between 1860 and 1861 to restore order during the civil war that had begun with the rebellion of the Maronite Christians.

Another from 1919 commemorates the capture of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo in October of the previous year by the Allied forces, at the end of World War I.

From the 1920s is the one left by the French troops of General Gouraud, who took Damascus in July 1920 in the Battle of Maysalun. In 1942, the Allied forces carved another inscription commemorating the liberation of Syria and Lebanon from the Vichy regime.

Finally, in 1946, a monument was erected celebrating the independence of Lebanon three years earlier. And in 2000, another commemorating the withdrawal of Israeli troops from the country.

All stelae and inscriptions are now numbered, except those dating after 1920.

The only one on the right bank of the river is that of Nebuchadnezzar II.

On the left bank, the others are arranged in an order that mixes eras and styles, sometimes overlapping, like the 1942 obelisk that is placed just above Caracalla’s Roman inscription.

The reason so many kings, emperors, and generals have left a record of their passage through Nahr al-Kalb is that the river formed a deep gorge that could only be crossed near its mouth.

Therefore, it was a strategically important passage for conquering armies.

The Egyptians were the first to open paths in the rock, expanded by the Assyrians, to facilitate the crossing. The Romans, in the time of Marcus Aurelius around 180 A.D., excavated a road on the steep slope that ran about 30 meters above sea level.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on July 5, 2019. Puedes leer la versión en español en El asombroso lugar del Líbano con estelas, inscripciones y dedicatorias egipcias, asirias, babilonias, islámicas y coloniales


UNESCO Memory of the World | Lebanon Tourism | John Wilson, The lands of the Bible: visited and described in an extensive journey undertaken with special reference to the promotion of Biblical research and the advancement of the cause of philanthropy | Factum Foundation | Come to Lebanon | Wikipedia

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