Hasbaya’s neglected but enduring charm in south Lebanon

For centuries, the town was the seat of the feudal Chehab family, which ruled the area until the 19th century.
Sunday 20/01/2019
The Hasbani River in southern Lebanon. (Samar Kadi)
Breathtaking view. The Hasbani River in southern Lebanon. (Samar Kadi)

HASBAYA, Lebanon - Sitting at the foot of the majestic Mount Hermon in the heart of the fertile valley of Wadi al-Taym is the charming town of Hasbaya, a forgotten historical heritage in southern Lebanon.

For centuries, the town was the seat of the feudal Chehab family, which ruled the area until the 19th century. Vestiges remain that testify to a by-gone era of Lebanon’s history.

The centrepiece in the town is the Serail of Hasbaya, also known as the Citadel. Dating to the Crusader period, the citadel was seized by the Chehabi dynasty in 1170 and some of its descendants still live there.

“It is believed that a Roman temple existed on the site where the fort was originally built by the Crusaders,” said Emir Munzer Chehab. “The Chehab family conquered the area in 1170 and rebuilt the fort adding the upper floors.”

The Chehabs transformed the fort into a big palace similar to Italian palaces and citadels of the Renaissance. “At one time, 63 branches of the Chehab family lived in the serail. Today, the ownership of the site is shared by 50 of their descendants but only three families, including myself, still live here permanently,” Emir Munzer said.

The exquisite building consists of three floors above ground and three subterranean levels. Inscribed on either side of the arched main entrance are lions looking down on rabbits, emblematic of the Chehabi family.

“The emblem meant that under the rule of the Chehabs, the strong, represented by the lion, cannot devour the weak, represented by the rabbit.  In other words, their rule is strong but also just and fair,” said the emir, who is also a historian.

Over subsequent historic eras, the fort incorporated various architectural styles. Mediaeval touches from the Crusaders include the vaulted chapel, arrow slit windows and the tower in the south-west corner of what the Chehab family turned into a compound that covers 20,000 sq. metres and includes several mediaeval houses and a mosque from the 13th century.

“During excavations, many skulls were discovered in the underground floors of the fort. The Crusaders used the subterranean levels as dungeons and used to bury their dead in the castle’s curtain wall itself. I believe there are still remains from that time buried underneath,” Emir Munzer said.

On the opposite side of the village stand the ruins of the old Khan, or caravanserai, built in 1350 by Emir Abou Bakr Chehab. Next to the recently restored Khan where traders of the past used to do their commerce, a fruit and vegetable market operates today. Farmers from all over the area converge on the market each Tuesday to sell locally grown and homemade products.

In addition to the Chehabi mosque, Hasbaya boasts six old churches and Khalwat al Bayyada (White Sanctuary), the most sacred sanctuary of the Druze community. In a secluded area with scenic, unobstructed views of Mount Hermon, the Khalwat has been a centre of meditation, prayer and study of the esoteric and gnostic Druze faith for more than 300 years.

At the centre of the sanctuary is the beautiful 150-year-old sitting area with arched windows, high ceilings, carpets and private niches. With its 40 hermitages, the Khalwat provides a sense of solitude and sanctity amid a splendid natural environment. A small porch is used for drying fruit and vegetables as mandatory gifts of food for departing visitors is part of the khalwat’s tradition.

“Hasbaya is probably the oldest and the only village in Lebanon where the main religions and sects making up the Lebanese fabric are represented. There was also a synagogue, which was destroyed at a certain period of time,” Emir Munzer noted.

Watered by the Hasbani River, the area is known for the olive groves covering the terraced hills and the valley. Hasbaya has kept its traditions alive and its restaurants overlooking the river offer culinary treats such as the famous Lebanese mezze and its workshops produce traditional clothing such as abayas, caftans and turbans.

“The olives and the olive oil produced in this area are unbeatable,” said Najib Shams, an agriculture expert and entrepreneur. “Most farm produce is organic and whatever you eat in the local restaurants is made of locally produced ingredients.”

Visitors have the choice of several restaurants, all serving authentic local cuisine.

With its historical vestiges, Hasbaya is a true heritage that has been long neglected. The area reeled under Israeli occupation from 1982-2000. During that period, many traditional buildings sustained extensive damage and were not maintained.

“Priceless heritage sites such as the Chehab Serail need restoration badly but unfortunately the authorities are neglecting them. They consider that they have more pressing priorities to deal with,” Emir Munzer said.