Lebanon’s Douma village where Levantine traditions survive

The Heritage Museum, near the souk, showcases the village’s history through pictures of immigrants from Douma, local handicrafts, traditional artisan works and traditional clothes and accessories.
Sunday 07/04/2019
A general view of old houses in Douma.(Samar Kadi)
A general view of old houses in Douma.(Samar Kadi)

DOUMA, Lebanon - The winding road leading to Douma in northern Lebanon offers dramatic views of valleys and steep mountains as it climbs up more than 1,000 metres from the coast. Set in the heart of the Batroun Mountains, Douma bears all the hallmarks of a traditional Lebanese village, with stone houses with red-tiled roofs, noise-free streets and a charming souk.

It is among the few places in Lebanon not spoiled by disorganised development and rampant urbanisation. Boasting more than 200 houses built in traditional Levantine architecture style, an old market with arcaded stone shops and ancient monasteries and churches, the village is much as it was centuries ago.

“It has simply preserved its genuine old features. That is why it is called the ‘Bride of all Villages’ ,” said Douma Mayor Joseph Maalouf. “Almost all its houses are built in the traditional style. New houses are built according to strict construction regulations that impose stone and red tiles.”

Historians say the name “Douma” is of Phoenician origin meaning “tranquillity,” “rest” and “calm.” The village is also called “Douma El Hadid” (“Iron Douma”) due to the abundance of iron in its soil and the superior craftsmanship of its blacksmiths.

Its strategic location turned Douma into a site guiding convoys through what was known as Damascus Road, connecting it to Syria via Baalbek and Hermel in the Bekaa Valley.

“At the turn of the last century, Douma’s souk was called ‘El Bandar’ because it was the trade centre for the whole region. Caravans of no less than 60 mules used to converge on the souk carrying goods from Damascus and the Bekaa. They would go back loaded with local produce like grains, fruits and vegetables,” Maalouf said.

“There were tailor shops, shoemakers, woodcarvers, furniture manufacturers and a flourishing arming industry. Douma was an unavoidable stop for brides-to-be buying their trousseau,” Maalouf said.

Douma’s location also made it a passageway for the transport of cedar trees to the coast, where Phoenicians used them to build ships.

In the town square sits a fourth-century sarcophagus bearing a Greek inscription that this was the burial place of Castor, who died in 317.

During the Greek and Roman eras, Douma witnessed a prosperous period marked by the construction of many places of worship. One of these is the Asclapeo temple, stones of which were later used in building Saint Dumyat church. The lantern of the temple’s priest, Asclapeos, sits at the entrance of the old market

Strolling in the souk’s narrow alleys, one can imagine the hustle and bustle of buyers and traders and caravans unloading merchandise.

Today, the renovated souk is mostly quiet. Many shops are closed but the few that are open offer goods that are a feast for the palette. Homemade fig and apricot jams, orange and blueberry syrups, wild thyme, olives and olive oil and tannour bread, all prepared in the old-fashioned way, are among local specialties on display.

The Heritage Museum, near the souk, showcases the village’s history through pictures of immigrants from Douma, local handicrafts, traditional artisan works and traditional clothes and accessories.

Many of Douma’s inhabitants emigrated to the Americas during the great famine in the early 20th century. The remittances they sent back helped invigorate the village economy. Old houses were rehabilitated, new ones were built and modern infrastructure established.

Maalouf recalled that one immigrant who visited in the 1940s and found that electricity had not reached Douma paid from his own pocket to install utility poles and bring power to the village.

“Immigration was valuable for Douma and Lebanon in general, as much as the discovery of oil for the Gulf countries,” Maalouf said, adding, “Unfortunately second and third generations of immigrants are losing their ties to the native land.”

The Christian town boasts several old monasteries and churches. Some, like Saint Nohra Sanctuary and Saint Dumyat church, are believed to have been built on the ruins of ancient temples.

For a genuine village experience one can stay at Beit Douma, an 18th-century mansion turned into a guest house where traditional meals cooked by Douma’s women are served.

Less than a 10-minute drive from Douma is the village of Assia, where the tradition of pottery-making is still alive. One can learn about the craft from local artisans and discover items their families have been making for generations.

“Douma is one of those places that if you visit once, you always want to return,” said Maalouf.

An aerial view of Douma in northern Lebanon.(Samar Kadi)
One of Douma’s old houses in northern Lebanon.(Samar Kadi)
The old souk in Douma in northern Lebanon.(Samar Kadi)
A shop at the old souk in Douma.(Samar Kadi)