Square to Souq: A weekend in Tarabulus

Like most people, I arrived in Tarabulus, Lebanon, via the coastal highway on public transport. Mediterranean on the left; the hollowed out remains of Tarabulus industry on the right. The city’s urban sprawl accumulated at the base of the hills. Mina’s distinctive headland spread into the sea.

Then, the bus dumped me in a dusty side road at Al-Nour Square (Sahet Al-Nour).

Stuck with 50 litres of luggage, breathing in the dust and dodging traffic, I began my seven-month stay in Tarabulus as-Sham, or as it’s known in English, Tripoli.

Al-Nour Square

I took a while to figure out where I was. Tarabulus has a multitude of side streets. Cars are parked haphazardly and motorcyclists weave in and out from corners. When I asked in faltering Arabic where my guesthouse was, people were considerate enough to point me in the right direction themselves.
After depositing my stuff at the modest Haddad Pension, I went forth to get my bearings.

Though both cities are by the coast, Tarabulus is not Beirut. It does not have the glassy shopping malls or whitewashed pavements with trees. Instead, Tarabulus has an old-world charm: souks, traditional merchants and an old city centre dotted with 13th Century Mamluk architecture. If Beirut were Singapore, then Tarabulus reminded me of Kota Bahru, circa 2015.

Al Mansouri Mosque
Al Mansouri Mosque, one of oldest buildings in Tarabulus

I learnt to navigate Tarabulus by its two squares. The first, Al-Nour Square, is where all roads in the city lead to. It’s the transport hub where the big coaches to Beirut depart from (add note). Al-Nour Square is also the spiritual centre of the city, where protests and demonstrations take place. Because of the huge ‘Allah’ (God) sign in the centre of the roundabout, it’s also called Sahet Allah.


Al-Tal Square

Yet the commercial beating heart of the city is Al-Tal Square (Sahet Al-Tal, or simply, Tal). It’s an open area surrounded by street food hawkers and shops. Old Mercedes taxis use this square as their terminus. Beside it lies Al-Manshieh Park, where many a sandwich would be consumed in following months in the company of its cats. Beyond the park, is the gateway to the old city.

Al Tal
Al Tal with the Sultan Abdulhamid II clock tower

The key landmark at Al-Tal is the Sultan Abdulhamid II clock tower. Rising over the green of the park, the clocktower was erected in the city to celebrate Ottoman Sultan’s 30th year on the throne, in 1906.
In my first foray out on the mean streets of Tarabulus, the clocktower became my wayfinding beacon. My guesthouse was located on a side alley perpendicular to Al-Tal, so whenever I saw the clocktower, I knew I was almost home.

I attempted to walk from Al-Tal to the abandoned Rachid Karami International Square (locally called, the Al-Maraad; المعرض, ‘The Exhibition’) once he afternoon sun wore off. But I misjudged the distance and decided to detour into the nearby neighbourhood of the same name.

Much of the neighbourhoods here consisted of beige high-rises. I walked until I hit a street lined with boutiques for womenswear. Little did I know then, but the Maraad neighbourhood is one of Tarabulus’ richer districts.

Al Maraad
Wandering the Maraad neighbourhood

I had dinner at a crowded Shawarma place (Singaporean instinct told me that more people = good food). In the waning light of day, I returned to Al-Tal and walked down one of the side streets before I rounded off my day with some knafeh (kunerfe) for dessert.


Sunday in the Souks

I woke to the sound of car horns and children playing in the alleys.

My first priority on this Sunday morning was to find a church. Lebanon in 2019 was disorienting to say the least, so I felt a attending a familiar place of worship would help me adjust. So after a quick kaake breakfast, I went to look for an evangelical church.

Sunday morning in Al-Tal; Kaake in hand

The nearest one I was directed to, the National Evangelical Church of Tripoli, wasn’t open yet. So I spent the next hour wandering the souks.

The souks in the old city is defined by what the merchants sold. The street where the National Evangelical Church is fully of stationery and book shops. Further on is a second-hand clothes street. I walked until I hit a huge mosque (Al Mansouri Mosque, which holds a relic containing a hair from the Prophet Muhammad). Beyond, the fresh food market began.

The atmosphere in the souk in Tarabulus was and is amazing. There’s nowhere else in Lebanon that feels like it. The alleys are small, bricked up, with strange archways that either lead to cisterns or to another part of the souks. Every time I walked through these narrow streets, I got the sense that my surroundings were old. Very old.

Souq at Tarabulus
Sunday morning near the souqs
Old Souq Tarabulus
Old Souq at Tarabulus

Getting lost in old souqsGetting lost was inevitable. Prices were a third of what I could get back home. No one paid me a second glance.

Near the section that sold meat and vegetables, I reached a road leading to the citadel. I decided to retrace my steps and return to church.

At church, I was warmly welcome by Pastor Rola Sleiman and her congregation. The sermon was in Arabic, but afterwards I could talk with her and the churchgoers over coffee and tea in their church basement.


Last light of the weekend

The rest of my Sunday was spent preparing for the start of my school term at the Levantine Institute of Tripoli (LEVIT) the following day. I checked out from Haddad, moved in to student accommodation and took stock of my new surroundings.

Later, I learnt that the landlord that owned where I stayed also rents out to short-term visitors to Tarabulus. It’s a wise decision given the lack of accommodation in the city.

With my new housemates, we walked back to Al-Tal as Sunday evening cam upon us. We ate at Al Soufi, which serves decent shawarma right by where the minbuses to Beirut depart. In the last light of the weekend, we went down to Al-Nour Square to see the lighted ‘Allah’ sign and to hunt for dessert.

Al-Nour Square at night
Al-Nour Square at night


Getting to Tarabulus:

Public Transport – The cheapest way to get to Lebanon’s second-largest city Trablous (or Tripoli, in its Anglicised form) is by public bus from Beirut. Most travellers take the Connexion buses at Charles Helou or Martyr’s Square (as of 2021). These are air-conditioned coaches with ticketed seats and luggage storage.

Alternatively, minibuses leave from Cola and Dawrah junctions in Beirut. They’re packed like sardines though, which may not be ideal in a time of Covid-19, but I loved taking them to talk to Lebanese.

Cola and Dawrah are also good places to get a taxi or servees to Tarabulus.

Leave a Reply