Amchit and all the blue in the world
Visiting Amchit feels like immersing yourself in a painting by Monet. Some 40 km from the hustle and bustle of Beirut, its winding alleyways of white stones form a dizzying labyrinth before stopping to reveal the deep blue sea that merges in the distance with the sky. Palm trees line the horizon, offering between their fronds a glimpse of Amchit’s grand mansions, architectural jewels that are scattered throughout the village.
The rich history of Amchit dates back to when it was a major strategic trading crossroads located between Byblos and Batroun. "The cedars of the village of Jaj were sent over the bridge between Amchit and Byblos and then towards Palestine to build King Solomon’s palace," says Antoine Issa, the town’s mayor for the past 21 years.
Amchit is full of displays of the wealth accumulated by its great traders during the 18th century. Whether silk or agricultural products, business flourished for inhabitants of Amchit who, unlike other Lebanese regions at the time, did not live under a feudal system. "Between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century, the families of the village decided to build grand mansions to show off their wealth," says Bassam Lahoud, an architect and professor at the Lebanese American University.
Today, these mansions are the pride of the village, which is also the home of former president Michel Sleiman, and are at the heart of its architectural reputation. The imposing homes each have their own characteristics. Still occupied, one must knock on doors and hope the owners are around in order to visit these quarters.
A peaceful, idyllic haven, the village is best experienced on foot for a half-day excursion. Nestled in the Saint-Élisée district and surrounded by a jungle of trees from around the world, Zakhia House first impresses with the size of its enclosed inner courtyard. The visitor’s gaze is then drawn to the ceiling with its beautiful wooden beams and multicolored stained glass windows that give a sacred appearance to the building. "We can also notice the mandalouns, twin windows of Venetian and Byzantine inspiration," says Lahoud.
French author and philosopher Ernest Renan stayed in this house in 1860 with his wife Cornelia and sister Henriette. In a small living room adjacent to the inner courtyard, the Zakhia family exhibits letters attesting to the sojourn of the famous author. Henriette Renan, who died of malaria in 1861, was buried further afield, in the vault of Mikhael Tobia, at the request of her brother.
A few blocks away, the Wehbe residence also reveals unexpected treasures. After climbing the steps to the first floor, the visitor will discover masterful frescoes painted on the ceiling of the main room that blend Baroque and Ottoman styles. Gilded decorations and cloud motifs intertwine lined below portraits of Wehbe family figures, and the antique furniture has been well preserved. In the following rooms, the visitor will be struck by an impressive explosion of colors from floor to ceiling and the precision of floral and animal frescoes. Unfortunately, the frescoes deserve to be restored, but there is no funding. Behind the house, the palm trees evoke the passage of travelers from Arabia and Iraq some eight centuries earlier. "Amchit was nicknamed the Basra of Lebanon," says Lahoud.
A mix of communities
The Church of Sayde neighborhood is no exception. Here, three houses built by the Lahoud family also offer surprising treasures. A little toward the back, at the end of a tree-lined alley, the residence of former general Fares Lahoud resembles a small palace. It was, in fact, built based on Ottoman plans for one of the famed villas at Yildiz Palace, distinguished by its eight corner pillars. Further along, there is the sublime residence of former ambassador Nazih Lahoud, an extremely well preserved building that is vibrant with freshness and elegance. On the left, there are several buildings featuring grey stone and blue shutters that belong to Lahoud and are sure to catch the visitor’s eye.
Nevertheless, you have to walk along the wrought iron gates and then descend a small staircase to arrive at the heart of Amchit's history. Against all odds, an incredible underground basement brings together the remains of a 3rd century Christian crypt, a synagogue and a Jewish cemetery dating from the 8th century and stables belonging to Shiites from the 16th century. "I restored the whole crypt, but I had to stop my explorations because the floor of the house above was at risk [of collapse]," says Lahoud.
The marvel is a relic of a Jewish community from Iran and Iraq that settled in the village between 760 and 970 AD, before the arrival of the large families that make up the village today. The origin of the name of Amchit may also go back to that time. According to different accounts, the name of the village could mean "the original people" in Hebrew, or "the people of Chit" in Aramaic, in reference to the Phoenician god.
Amchit is also renowned for its clear blue waters and the glittering waves that caress the shore throughout the year. A long corniche suitable for walking or cycling allows visitors to enjoy the scenery while Beirut’s skyline can be seen in the distance.
A series of restaurants on the coast offer guests the opportunity to enjoy local culinary delicacies and to swim. A little further up, nestled at the end of a maze of small streets, is the famous campsite Camping Les Colombes, leaning against a cliff. Founded in the 1960s by Malik Lahoud, the name was inspired by the town of Colombes in Île-de-France, the hometown of Mr. Lahoud’s wife, who he met while she was visiting Saint-Charbel.
Camping Les Colombes continues to welcome guests and you can sleep in a tent or in a cottage on the property after a day spent lounging by the pool.
Mayor: Antoine Issa.
Prominent figures from the village: former President of the Republic Michel Sleiman; singer and composer Marcel Khalife; singer and composer Marwan Khoury; author and journalist Afifa Karam; actress and singer Salwa Katrib; composer Romeo Lahoud.
Accommodation options : Camping Les Colombes (09-622401), Salt House (81-812394), La Rochelle (09-790641). Consult Airbnb to find several seaside cottages offered by the locals.
Restaurants: Babel Bahr (09-620888), Cape Town (03-961136), Mhanna sur Mer (09-621777), Chez Zakhia (03-846222), Samket Amchit (09-622767 or 76-622767), Furn el Sabaya (03-112880).
Culinary specialties: mouwakara, a puff pastry filled with nuts and crushed almonds, an old recipe preserved by Furn el-Sabaya; Mankoushe with eggs.
Activities: cultural and religious tourism, swimming in the sea, cycling, running.
Altitude: 222 meters.
Climate: Mild. Sunny in summer; cool in winter.
Not to be missed :
* Visiting the grand mansions.
* Walking in the alleyways of the village.
* Walking or cycling along the coast.
* Spending a day or a night Camping Les Colombes.
* Amchit’s, public beaches of Becchache and Meqaaili.
How to reach it?
Take the highway heading north from Beirut; the exit to Amchit is located shortly after Byblos.