The salty sea slaps against the beach, seeming so endless as wave after wave crashes onto a sandy shore and explore a land carved into the palm trees. There is more than just the sight, the sounds of water splashing, and birds squawking, there is the way the sand feels as it presses against your feet and the cool touch of the water caressing your bare skin as fish rush past you, briefly brushing against your leg. The breeze fights off the heat on the beach and then as the sun starts to set, all that is left is the gentle sound of the waves and the fleeting light waving goodbye with beautiful colors decorating the sky and as all the creatures start to sleep on shore there is a whole other world below.
Six nautical miles north west of Tripoli lies the Palm Islands Reserve, which consists of three islands and covers a rough area of 5 sq km of land and sea. Declared a protected site by Unesco in 1992 and dedicated as a nature reserve in 1993, the islands are a haven for endangered loggerhead turtles, rabbits, rare monk seals and over 300 species of migratory birds that stop here to rest and nest. Of these, seven are considered threatened worldwide, while 11 are rare in Europe.
The fine white sand on the beaches is made of eroded limestone, which, in addition to creating a pristine shoreline, is believed by local fishermen to have healing properties for rheumatism and arthritis.
The largest of the three islands is Palm Island (Jazeerat an-Nakheel) also known as Rabbits Island (Jazeerat al-Araneb). The name ‘Araneb’ (rabbits) comes from the great numbers of rabbits that were grown on the island during the time of the French mandate early in the 20th century. They’ve been removed later on for environmental reason due to the treat they were causing to important plants on the island. Palm Island is characterized by its flat terrain and has no obvious reliefs. It has both rocky shores and sandy beaches. The middle of the island contains evidence of past periods of human occupation such as a fresh water well (still used today to irrigate the island’s 2500 palm trees), an old salt evaporation pond and the remains of a Crusader church.
Sanani Island (Jazeerat as-Sanani) south east of Palm Island is mainly rocky with a partially sandy shore.
Ramkine Island (Jazeerat Ramkine) also known as Fanar Island (Jazeerat al-Fanar or lighthouse island) is the smallest of the islands. It is located north west of Palm Island. Ramkine island is mostly rocky. The island contains the remains of a lighthouse in addition to cannon emplacements and underground galleries that were built in the early 20th century.
The islands hosted an important settlement as attested by the presence of numerous ostraca dating to the late Roman and medieval periods as well as several rock-cut cisterns.
The first excavation of Palm Island was undertaken in October 1973 and revealed the foundations of several buildings dating to the Crusades in which earlier architectural elements, such as column drums and fragments of capitals had been re-used.
The Crusaders built a church upon the largest island. It was there that Alice of Champagne, the widow of Hugh I of Cyprus came in 1224 to marry Bohemond V of Antioch. The royal wedding took place in this church which we are told by Arab chroniclers was dedicated to Thomas the Apsotle. Years later the island became the scene of a bloody massacre; when the Mamluks entered Tripoli in 1289 the panic-stricken inhabitants fled to the port and crossed over to the island. Many took refuge in the church where they were put to death when the Mamelukes caught up with them.
In 1984, Israel bombed the islands alleging that Palestinian guerrillas were hiding there. The Lebanese Army spent the next decade cleaning them of unexploded ordnance. The islands suffered again during the 2006 war, when Israel bombed the Jiyeh power plant, triggering an oil spill that washed over the islands’ shores, killing algae and other marine plant life that the delicate ecosystem depends on for survival.
Somehow this country feels like it’s surrounded, swallowed up by deep blue melancholy. So many things are happening. Garbage piles up on our streets and the whiff of it infiltrates every home shaking its resilience to its core. On that little island, sitting on its sandy white shores alone with silhouetted palm trees that seem to touch the sunset, a wave of nostalgia washes over me. I have a little melody that I whisper through my palm trees when the wind comes whistling around. I’m an island… I am an island… I wish I were an island!