Lebanon’s Hardine: A treasure trove off the beaten track
HARDINE, Lebanon - With more than 30 monasteries, churches and hermitages, the ancient village of Hardine is known as the “Lourdes of Lebanon” and is visited by Christian pilgrims as well as seculars seeking tranquillity and a peaceful retreat for contemplation.
Perched on rocky mountains and sheer cliffs rising 1,400 metres above sea level, Hardine is where one can hear the “voice of silence, meditate, pray and feel close to the creator,” says the village Bishop Youssef Saleh.
“Hardine, which was a centre of paganism and home for many pagan temples in the ancient times, was the first town to become Christian in Mount Lebanon,” Saleh said. “Its name is derived from the Syriac language meaning ‘pious’ but some argue that the name stems from the words ‘haret’ (‘home’) and ‘deen’ (‘religion’), owing to the numerous places of worship in the village.”
Known as the “Rock of Faith and Religion,” Hardine is a historically significant site for Lebanon’s Christian Maronites. Pilgrims from across the country visit Hardine’s many ancient churches and monasteries on weekends, while hermits of all faiths spend days in the secluded hermitages in the rocks and on cliff tops.
“The places of worship and seclusion were built in the rock and inside caves starting from the sixth century AD. Some date back to the seventh century, others to the ninth century and the eighth century and some were built in the Middle Ages in the 12th and 11th centuries and later,” Saleh said.
“For instance, Mar Tadros Church dates to the tenth century. Mar Challita, Mar Nohra and Mar Elias Churches, which are all in mountain caves, are much older and Mar Yohanna Chkif Cell dates to the Crusaders’ period.”
Hardine is the hometown of one of Lebanon’s four saints, Saint Nimatullah Hardini (1808-58) who was canonised by Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II in 2004.
The cells inside the rocks are equipped with basics and can be used by anyone seeking isolation from the outside world.
“Hermits are not only members of the clergy,” Saleh said. “We often receive secular people who spend days in the hermitages meditating and engaging in spiritual exercises and yoga.”
Hardine Mayor Ramza Assaf said she hopes to place the village on the religious tourism map as the “Lourdes of Lebanon and the region.”
“The most important project for us is to promote religious tourism. However, Hardine has archaeological treasures in addition to its religious heritage,” Assaf said.
“Our main project is to connect all the monasteries for the pilgrims to visit through a footpath that goes on the side of the rock. We want them to be able to access all the caved monasteries, because at present some cannot be accessible for the regular pilgrim.”
“Hardine’s wealth consists of its natural beauty, clean environment and religion which we are keen on preserving as well as its character as a sanctified village. We have strict construction rules, allowing only two-storey stone buildings with red-tiled roofs,” Assaf added.
She explained that the village’s importance dates to before Christianity reached the area, as evidenced by its archaeological vestiges, including a 1,900-year-old temple built for the Roman god Mercury under Emperor Hadrian Augustus (117-137).
The hilltop temple with 30 enormous pillars was severely damaged in an earthquake and only a few columns remain standing.
“The Directorate of Antiquities began restoration of the temple before the beginning of the civil war in 1975. It stopped during the war and now we are seeking to relaunch the restoration,” Assaf said.
Hardine is not the place to be for partygoers but rather for people seeking solitary peace and tranquillity in the many hermitages and monasteries that were used by early Christians.
“Christians used to hide in the caves while fleeing persecution at the hands of the Mameluks and the Ottomans in the 12th century and then the 17th and 18th centuries. We even have 12 martyr nuns from Hardine who jumped over the cliffs to escape invaders,” Saleh said.
“The village is naturally protected by the valleys and the rocky mountains around it making it an ideal place for the then new religion (Christianity) to flourish.”
Legend has it that in 270AD, a Roman official imprisoned his daughter in Hardine for converting to Christianity. She converted many others in Hardine to the Christian faith.
“Hardine was at one point the seat of the Maronite patriarch before it was moved to Wadi Qannoubine. It is a town of sanctity and holiness, that is full of monasteries, hermitages and churches, which you can find everywhere — in the valleys, on the cliffs and in the rocks,” Saleh said.
For Assaf, Hardine is a “treasure that is not really recognised… It has a long history that we are determined to make it better known.”