Lebanon’s ‘sacred valley’, a sanctuary for pilgrims and nature lovers
Wadi Qadisha, Lebanon - The ancient staircase leading to the monastery of Hawqa starts near a small hut selling soft drinks and snacks. “Tfaddalo!” said the owner, a middle-aged lady. “You want to visit the Colombian monk? He is all the time in the monastery.”
The shopkeeper is obviously used to visitors stopping by before they start the march down the trail to admire the natural beauty of the Valley of Qadisha and visit its ancient monasteries and shrines, one of which, Hawqa monastery, is inhabited by Colombian Dario Escobar, the most famous of Lebanon’s three hermits.
Strewn with caves that served as refuges for early Christians, convents carved in the rocks and old monasteries and clusters historically inhabited by hermits and monks, the Valley of Qadisha in northern Lebanon, rightfully earns its name as the “sacred valley”.
Qadisha, which means “holy” in ancient Aramaic, is split in two branches, Wadi Qannoubine and Wadi Qozhaya, which are hewn from the rock at the foot of the highest peak of the Lebanese mountain chain, Qornet es-Sawda, which rises more than 3,000 metres above sea level.
The beauty of the valley, which starts at 900 metres and goes up to 1,900 metres, and the difficult access to the convents, some of which can only be reached through rugged zigzagging paths and steps, makes it an ideal place for recluses seeking the sole company of the Creator. Escobar, an 80-year-old hermit, who spends his time in prayer, meditation and reading holy books, smiled as he welcomed visitors, although he did not seem to appreciate being interrupted in his daily activities.
“When I came to settle in this place 15 years ago, I thought that I will be alone, living in peace but, as you see, the trail has been repaired making the access easier, so I became the distraction of many people who come here,” Escobar said.
“I came to Lebanon to be a hermit. Next week I will turn 81 but you don’t have to sing happy birthday to me,” he added with a smile.
Escobar, a Catholic monk, lived in several countries in Europe before settling 25 years ago in Lebanon’s “sacred valley” with the permission of the Vatican. For the first ten years he lived in the monastery of Qozhayah, in the opposite side of the valley, before moving to the more secluded Hawqa.
The history of Qadisha valley is inseparable from that of Lebanon and its Maronite Christian community. With its high rugged mountains and difficult geography, Lebanon was a refuge for minorities throughout history, including Christians, fleeing the wrath and persecution of conquerors and invaders from the Mamluks to the Ottomans.
“Qadisha is the valley where the Christian Maronites found a place in which they could live in security after their massive exodus from Syria between the eighth and tenth centuries AD,” explained the Reverend Jade Kossaify, a 33-year-old Maronite cleric.
“It hosts many monasteries dating back to the very early days of Christianity, including Deir Qannoubine, the fortress palace monastery, which served as the See of Maronite Patriarchs for several centuries, between 1440 and 1823.”
Deir Qannoubine can be reached by foot from Blawza or Diman, a walk of several hours that gives an idea of what the journey was like for early pilgrims and patriarchs. The monastery’s church, half built into the rock, is decorated with frescos from the 18th and 19th centuries.
Another monastery, Sainte Marina, is the resting place of 17 of Lebanon’s 26 Maronite patriarchs.
“Wadi Qadisha is also the sole place in Lebanon where you can find hermits living in total seclusion,” Kossaify said. He explained that hermits either lived alone or in a group of no more than three. “Otherwise, if they live in a community in a monastery they are called cenobite,” he said.
Qadisha valley has sheltered Christian monastic communities for many centuries, even before the Maronite clergy sought refuge there. One of the monasteries “Mar Assia” has ancient Ethiopian inscriptions on its walls.
Evidence of human life traced to the Palaeolithic age was also found in several grottos scattered around the valley, Lebanese explorer, Pierre Abi Aoun, noted.
“There are 86 sites in Wadi Qadisha which were used by man as far back as the medium Palaeolithic age, some 80,000 years BC, whereas material proof of Christian presence dates back to the fifth century,” Abi Aoun said.
Abi Aoun was among a group of four Lebanese cavers who discovered eight naturally preserved mummies in Aassi al Hadath, one of the “historical caves” in the valley that they had spent two years exploring between 1988 and 1991.
He said crusaders and Mamluk chronicles in which Aassi al Hadath was mentioned constituted their first guide for the search of the cave. “We first discovered a mummy belonging to a 4-month-old girl. The others were of three adult women and four female infants. They were all wrapped in shrouds and none presented any traces of violence.”
Manuscripts written in Syriac and Arabic were also found, indicating that the mummies belonged to Christians who were probably hiding there.
Qadisha valley, listed as a World Heritage Site, is regarded as the spiritual cradle of the Maronite community. Not only does it hold the tombs of the patriarchs of the past but it is a paradise for nature lovers.
Trekkers can immerse in the fairy beauty of the legendary place as they climb winding pathways along the rocky cliffs to reach some sanctuary with peeling wall paintings dating to the early Middle Ages.