Deir el Qamar, the capital of Lebanon’s emirs
Deir el Qamar - It is known as the capital of the emirs who ruled Mount Lebanon for centuries under the Ottomans. Situated in Lebanon’s historical heartland of the Chouf Mountains, Deir el Qamar — the “Monastery of the Moon” — is one of the most famous towns in Lebanon because of its well-preserved features and the important role it played in the country’s history.
Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, Deir el Qamar not only preserves its grand feudal architecture, it maintains its old stepped streets, walled gardens, ancient winding cobbled alleyways and picturesque corners.
“It was the first capital of Lebanon and its main political and economic centre for hundreds of years. It also had the first municipality to be established in the region, back in 1864,” municipal council member Elie Rinno said.
Deir el Qamar owes its unusual name to a massive rock discovered during the construction of its main church, Saïdet el Talle — the Church of Our Lady of the Hill — which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times.
“While digging to set the church pillars, a rock decorated with a half-moon under a cross was discovered on the site. The rock is now part of the structure of the church’s old door and a reference to the name Deir el Qamar,” Rinno said.
Two dynasties of emirs — the Maans and the Chehabs — ruled Lebanon from Deir el Qamar from 1590 to the early 19th century when Emir Bachir Chehab II moved the capital to the nearby town of Beiteddine. It was also the hometown of Camille Chamoun, Lebanon’s second post-independence president (1952-58).
Among the most famous sites in Deir el Qamar is Emir Fakhreddine’s mosque, the first in Mount Lebanon, constructed in 1493 and restored by Fakhreddine 1st Maan for his Muslim mercenaries. The square mosque with its octagonal minaret is in the middle of a large square, or Midane, that was originally used for jousts and other equestrian contests.
The town also counts several palaces, including that of Emir Fakhreddine II, which today houses the Marie Baz wax museum featuring effigies of men and women who played a part in Lebanon’s history, a restored silk souk where rows of arched alcoves once sheltered merchants, an old barracks known as the Kharj, an open market place called the Kaisariyyeh and many homes with two arched windows typical of the region.
“The Kaisariyyeh is the old version of a stock market,” Rinno said. “The prices of silk, olive oil, wheat, gold, etc., were fixed there. A price list for all commodities was then issued before it was distributed to markets across the country.”
Merchants used the public market to sell their silk, which was a flourishing trade at the time. With its open courtyard, its central fountain and shaded areas beneath the surrounding arches, the building was built in the classic “Khan” or caravansary style of the Mamelouk and Ottoman eras. Nowadays, cultural events are organised within its walls.
Lebanon’s old capital also reflected the country’s cultural and religious diversity. In addition to the mosque, the town has several old churches belonging to different sects of Christianity — Maronite, Catholic and Greek Orthodox — and a synagogue.
The synagogue was built in the 17th century to serve the local Jewish population, some of whom were part of the immediate entourage of Fakhreddine II. The building has been closed to the public due to security considerations. While it was being restored, all religious symbols were removed and the synagogue has been entrusted to the French cultural centre, which uses it as a library.
“During the Israeli occupation in 1982, an Israeli soldier celebrated his wedding in this synagogue,” said Antoinette Eter, who lives nearby. “Even (former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon attended the wedding. His helicopter landed just here on the roof of this building.”
A totally Christian town in a mainly Druze stronghold, Deir el Qamar had its share of violence when it was besieged for three months and its residents displaced in 1983, at the height of Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war. While post-war reconciliation between the Christian and Druze communities brought back some life to Deir el Qamar, only 1,000 of its original population of more than 15,000 have returned permanently, Rinno noted.
“Many have resettled in Beirut or emigrated. However, in summer it gets busy and the population climbs to 4,000 as some families spend the school holiday here,” he said.
For many years, the municipality has organised summer festivities to attract visitors, including “la journée des sentiers” or the “alleyways day” when the town’s old paths turn into an open partying space with food stalls, music and dance.
Deir el Qamar is famous for its embroidery products, a traditional craft mastered by local women associations.
“The history and tradition of feudal Lebanon is accumulated here,” Rinno said. “Deir el Qamar is like a bank where Lebanese history is deposited.”