It’s no secret that Kaiser Wilhelm II enjoyed travelling. In times of peace the head of state was rarely to be found in Potsdam or Berlin; more often he resided in one of the German spa towns or ventured out on extended journeys within Europe. In 1898, during his second journey to the Orient, which wasn’t without its critics within the Empire, Wilhelm also stopped off in Baalbek.
The Lebanon Railway was the Emperor’s first choice of transportation within the country. It was a new service that had only commenced three years previously, connecting Beirut to Damascus on narrow tracks and running on a rack rail in some places. In a departure from the official travel plan, the royal yacht MS Hohenzollern and the three ships escorting it had first anchored on the morning of 5 November in the Port of Beirut. The Kaiser’s official travel chronicle painted the following picture:
“The overcrowded harbour, the troops parading on the long piers with resounding music ringing out, the droves of locals cheering in the square between the town and the sea, and the children assembled school by school waving flags presented a colourful and delightful image. The landing place on the beach decked with flagpoles and leafy garlands was beautifully arranged. In front of a magnificent tent, representatives of the authorities had gathered in their state uniforms for the reception of the imperial couple.”
(Das Deutsche Kaiserpaar im Heiligen Lande [The German Imperial Couple in the Holy Land], p. 341)
Image courtesy of Wolf Dieter Lemke
Camp of tents in Baalbek
Fouad Debbas/Universtität Balamand
Copy from: Wolf Dieter Lemke: The Kaiser in Lebanon: a Collage in BTS-Band Nr. 69, page 70 (Baalbek.Image and Monument, 1998)
Copy from: Wolf Dieter Lemke: The Kaiser in Lebanon: a Collage in BTS-Band Nr. 69, page 58 (Baalbek.Image and Monument, 1998)
Emperor William II in Baalbek
Copy from: Wolf Dieter Lemke: The Kaiser in Lebanon: a Collage in BTS-Band Nr. 69, page 51 (Baalbek.Image and Monument, 1998)
Post card on the occasion of the Imperial couple visiting Beirut in 1898
Wilhelm and Augusta Viktoria and their entourage also spent the following day in Beirut. Although Lebanon was under French influence, Wilhelm was received with great enthusiasm by the population and notables – at least if the sources are to be believed. On 7 November, the imperial couple and their entourage were accompanied to the station of the Lebanon Railway in a triumphant procession. The first destination was Aley. The official travel chronicle recounts:
“Thousands of people in colourful garb were standing in front of the villages and on rock ledges. Most of them are Maronite Christians; hence, many women gathered there too. They waved with palm leaves and long poles they had adorned with flowers, all the while cheering with enthusiasm. The strong, healthy appearance of the inhabitants in their beautiful and clean costumes is commensurate with their industrious nature and the wealth of their country.”
(Das Deutsche Kaiserpaar im Heiligen Lande [The German Imperial Couple in the Holy Land], p. 346f.)
From Aley, the journey continued to the Beqaa Valley and onwards on the Lebanon Railway through Muallaqa near Zahle all the way to Damascus, where Wilhelm not only paid respect to Saladin’s grave and endowed it with a new sarcophagus, but also proclaimed himself a friend to Muslims. On 10 November their imperial majesties started their return journey on the chartered train. In Muallaqa, Wilhelm was greeted by ladies of honour dressed in white and wearing sashes in the imperial colours. The onward journey to Baalbek had to be undertaken by horse and carriage and this was done “en grande pompe”, as the French-language newspaper Hadikat-el-Akhbar
reported on 17 November 1898. The travel party arrived in Baalbek in the early evening.
After a short night at a campsite set up in the middle of the ancient city, the monarch visited the impressive remains of the temples in the early morning. At the same time he inaugurated two marble panels that now, due to the pile of rubble that lay there at the time, hang a few metres above ground level on a side wall of the temple of Bacchus.
The imperial couple then continued their journey to Beirut by train from Muallaqa. Back in Beirut, a triumphant reception once again awaited the travel party:
“In brightly-lit Beirut, which the Emperor passed through on horseback, with the Empress in the carriage at slow step, surrounded by their entourage and the Turkish generals, officers and horsemen, the cheers, the joy and the grateful farewells exceeded the limits of imagination. The illumination in the narrow carpenters’ alley was especially touching. The good people had ignited large woodpiles in front of their workshops, where they stood with their families and friends.”
(Das Deutsche Kaiserpaar im Heiligen Lande [The German Imperial Couple in the Holy Land], p. 378)
Even though this was to remain the last visit to the Levant by the imperial couple, it certainly had practical consequences: just a few weeks after his return home, Wilhelm dispatched the first German archaeologists to Baalbek, who already began removing rubble and making their first digs by the end of 1898.
In his article, Thomas Scheffler writes that a song that emerged during the Kaiser’s visit remained popular with Beirut’s harbour workers for many years after. The words to the song were as follows:
Tray, tray, tray – malik almani – tray, tray, tray – nizil al-mina – tray, tray, tray – zammarit zummeira.”
(Thomas Scheffler: Vor hundert Jahren: Wilhelm II. im Libanon – Stationen und Zitate [A Hundred Years Ago: Wilhelm II in Lebanon – Stops and Quotes], p. 155)
Guests at the Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek may be surprised to find that the Kaiser’s visit is commemorated to the present day, even featuring a statue of the monarch.