On a Bridge over Troubled Water
Updated: May 4
On re-reading Orwell's Homage to Catalonia, I came across this sentence:
"We were near the front line now, near enough to smell the characteristic smell of war - in my experience a smell of excrement and decaying food." Orwell's simple honesty with no regard to niceties is part of what made him so powerful a writer. Smells, pleasant and perhaps particularly, unpleasant, are potent keys to memory, and this sentence took me back four decades to a very hot and humid summer. By chance, I had recently been going through some old photographs and found a couple that I had taken in the early days of June 1982. I was in reserve duty at the time, during the Israel-Lebanese War. After several days moving up the coast in a convoy, our unit set up a small encampment on the southern bank of the Damour River, about 30 kilometres south of Beirut. We remained there for some time while the fighting moved up to Beirut, and on a couple of occasions we drove across a stone bridge over the river into the almost empty village. There we encountered in the heavy summer heat, that all-pervading smell of war that Orwell's comment had so sharply brought back to me, emanating from abandoned concrete buildings that had collapsed like stacks of cards, piles of rotting garbage, and the horribly bloated bodies that still occupied shot-up jeeps.
The attractive stone, double-arched bridge that we had crossed had been built sometime after 1923 during the period of the French Mandate in Lebanon. Today there are two other bridges across the river closer to the shore; a modern concrete one and an adjacent iron girder bridge. Next to the latter are the stone foundations of a much earlier, double-arched bridge that has been the subject of a recent study.* When the Mamluks took Sidon and Beirut from the crusaders in 1291 they built a bridge here, apparently a makeshift structure as it seems to have been replaced twice in the fourteenth century and may have been destroyed in the winter of 1503-4, due to severe flooding, the Damour River having a tendency to flood as it passes through a narrow ravine for much of its passage. It was in any case still in ruins when in 1697 Henry Maundrell, an English clergyman who served as chaplain to the Levant Company in Syria, arrived:
"Just by this place are the ruins of a stone-bridge, of which one might guess, from the firmness of its remains that it might have been still entire, had not these Villains broke it down in order to their making their advantage of passengers; either conducting them over for a good pay, or else, if they have good opportunity, drowning them for their spoils."**
In 1815 a new bridge was constructed by Emir Pasha further upstream, at a cost of 100,000 piastres, and the bridge that I had photographed was the one that replaced it. This new bridge had an interesting wartime history, and for me, a personal interest. During the Second World War the town of Damour had been the final hurdle for the Allied advance against the Vichy French towards Beirut. The Damour Battle carried out by the 21st brigade of the Second Australian Imperial Force took place between 5-9 July 1941. It ended in a major Australian victory. With the fall of Damour the French forces, aware that they would not be able to hold Beirut sought an armistice. Prior to the battle the bridge over the Damour River had been shelled by the retreating French soldiers in an attempt to slow the advance of the Allied troops. The Australian engineers quickly replaced the destroyed half with a makeshift iron bridge. At that time my father was a gunner in the 2nd/1st Australian Artillery Survey Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery. As the bridge appears on the photographs that he took at the time, both in a destroyed state and also with a makeshift iron reconstruction, he must have been located at the river for some time while it was being repaired, which is indeed what I recall from a conversation with him in 1982 when I showed him a photograph that I had taken of the bridge, by then in a completely restored state. From our conversation it became apparent that forty-one years after he had encamped there in a field just south of the bridge, I too had spent several weeks in a small camp on precisely the same field.
The name Damour River (نهر الدامور, Nahr Al-Damour) from which the town to its north derived its name, appears to have originated in the name of a Phoenician god Tamyrus/Damoros. Strabo referred to the river as Tamyras, Polybius to Damura.*** In the crusader period it had, in so typical a Frankish fashion, received a romantic aura, known then as flumen Amoris or Fleuve D'amour - River of Love, which some modern writers suggest may have been due to the beauty of the place, but perhaps was just another example of the Frankish delight in applying superlative place-names.
*Andrew Petersen, “Roman, Medieval or Ottoman: Historic Bridges of the Lebanon Coast”, in Bridge of Civilizations: The Near East and Europe c. 1100–1300, eds. Peter Edbury, Denys Pringle and Balázs Major, Oxford, 2020, pp. 184-87.
** Henry Maundrell, A Journey from Aleppo to Jerusalem at Easter A.D. 1697, Oxford, 1703, p. 43.
*** Strabo, Geography XVI.2.22, Loeb Classical edition, trans. Horace Leonard Jones, Cambridge, Mass., 1932, Book 16, Ch. 2.22, p. 267; Polybius, The General History of Polybius, trans. James Hampton, 5th edition, Oxford, 1923, Book V, Ch. VI, p. 75.