Akkar, the spectacular and yet forgotten part of Lebanon
QOBAYAT--It has history, ancient ruins and natural wealth, including cedar and pine reserves, but few Lebanese have been there or are aware of the attractions of Akkar, Lebanon’s northernmost region and one of the most disadvantaged.
Surrounded by lush forests that reach 2,000 metres above sea level, Qobayat, one of Akkar’s largest villages, is ideal for hikers and nature lovers, said Antoine Daher, a medical doctor and member of Qobayat’s Environment Council that has set up a watch tower to monitor arson and tree cutting.
“Akkar has the largest green space in Lebanon that is void of any construction and although it is rich in heritage and history with vestiges from different periods from the megalithic phase to the Roman, Greek, the Crusades, all the way to the Ottomans, we do not really exist on Lebanon’s tourism map,” Daher said.
“They say Akkar is a disadvantaged and deprived area and it is very true in that sense. Many Lebanese from other regions have never been to Akkar or do not really know about it. We can say it is a new area that the Lebanese are discovering now. Lots of sites need to be excavated and protected but there is a total absence of government interest. It is a forgotten part of Lebanon.”
Private local initiatives are helping promote the region as a destination for ecotourism and religious tourism, in view of its many old churches and monasteries.
“You can stay 30 days in Qobayat and walk a different trail every day. They are of different levels of difficulty and length and go from 500 [metres] up to 900 metres [above sea level],” Daher said.
Tour packages can be checked and booked online and through smart phone applications. Specially trained guides can be hired to lead hikers and explain the area’s geography, ecology and history.
Daher said Qobayat’s Environment Council has been organising the Rif Festival to highlight the countryside and rural areas. “For four days, we seek to raise awareness about the importance of protecting and sustaining rural life, heritage and environment through film screenings, hikes and debates,” he said.
Qobayat, voted among the most charming three villages in Lebanon, boasts unique places of worship, such as the Church of Saydet el Ghessaleh, as well as shrines, including Mar Elias, the Convent of Mar Doumit and the Church of Mar Challita.
The Scientific Permanent Museum for Animals, Birds and Butterflies in Mar Doumit Convent displays a collection of 161 bird and 23 animal species from Lebanon and neighbouring countries. It is the only museum for butterflies in Lebanon with a 4,000-strong butterfly collection of species from all over the world, including one type that can only live in the vicinity of cedar forests, said Roman Catholic priest Ayyoub Yaacoub.
“The convent was built in the first half of the 19th century. The first school in the region was born here, just under this tree,” Yaacoub said pointing at a big 200-year-old oak tree.
The Church of Mar Challita, or Saint Artemius, in Qobayat was built in the fourth century on the ruins of a pagan Roman temple. It was destroyed in an earthquake and remained a pile of stones until Laurice Kodeih, 75, vowed to rebuild it.
“My son was between life and death after falling from the fifth floor so I made a vow to rebuild the church if he survived. People volunteered to help me in the digging and the removal of the huge stones, which I used in the reconstruction,” Kodeih said.
It took Kodeih 30 years to rebuild the church. Her son, who survived for 10 years, is buried in the churchyard. “I rebuilt it stone by stone for him,” she said. The place is now a pilgrimage place for both Christians and Muslims.
An hour’s drive from Qobayat is Akkar el Atiqa Fortress, a remnant of the Crusaders’ period. Sitting atop a hill between the two dramatically deep valleys of Akkar and the two Ostwan creeks, the fort is only accessible on foot. Following attacks by Prince Fakhreddine in the 17th century, the fortress was destroyed and only a few passages, arcades, rooms, canals and rock-engraved graveyards remain.
The valley and plain of Ouyoun el Samak, on the border of Akkar Mountain, is another attractive spot. This barely known place of beauty is abundant in water with numerous small lakes, a dam and the River Nahr Moussa. A cascade of water from the mountain gushes plentifully into the valley with the melting of the snows. Restaurants and cafes have been set up in the area, where Lebanese cuisine can be enjoyed looking out on one of the most enviable views in the country.
To take full advantage of all that Akkar has to offer — be it from its religious heritage or its rich and well-preserved natural environment — one can choose among facilities in Qobayat, including cottages for rent, as well as an ecolodge.