Moussa Castle: A life dream built stone by stone

Moussa Maamari carved every stone and sculpted the figurines and statues representing various scenes of Lebanese village life from the 19th century.
Sunday 02/06/2019
Moussa Castle under a blanket of snow. (Ziad Maamari)
Moussa Castle under a blanket of snow. (Ziad Maamari)

DEIR AL-QAMAR, Lebanon - The medieval-style castle with its impressive towers in the heart of the Chouf Mountains, famous for its old palaces and mansions, is neither ancient nor a vestige from the past. Still it has been drawing more tourists than any other site in the historical region.

Moussa Castle is unique because it was built by Lebanese visionary Moussa Maamari, who handcrafted every stone with his own hands with the help of his wife, Marie.

“Since he was 14, Moussa was obsessed by the castle of his dream. It was a childhood dream that took 60 years to come true,” said Marie Maamari.

She said it started when Moussa Maamari, who was born in a poor family, was chastised by his teacher for drawing a sketch of his dream castle during class and after his unrequited first love snubbed him, saying “my father has a palace, you don’t.” He then replied: “I will build a castle for you.”

Building the castle became a challenge as much as a dream. Maamari left school at 14 and went to Sidon in southern Lebanon, where he worked with his uncle in restoring the city’s Crusader fortress. He was tasked by Emir Maurice Chehab, the head of Lebanon’s Antiquities Department, to renovate castles and archaeological discoveries, including at Beiteddine Palace.

With money he saved from his work, he bought land where he planned to build his castle.

“Two weeks after we got married, Moussa told me about his dream and asked me to support him in realising it,” Marie Maamari said. “It then became a challenge and a dream for both of us.”

Maamari began to put his plan into action in 1963, moving more than 6,000 huge rocks, some of them weighing 150 kilograms, to the castle site.

“Depending on how much cash we had, we could sometimes hire the help of workers. At one point, we had to mortgage the land to secure cash to continue construction,” Marie Maamari recalled.

Moussa Maamari carved every stone and sculpted the figurines and statues representing various scenes of Lebanese village life from the 19th century.

“Today, the castle is a museum that recounts Lebanese heritage across ages, showing the simple life in the villages and designed to teach Lebanese children about heritage and traditions. The statues that Moussa sculpted are those of village people that he has known and who were part of his life,” said Maamari’s son Ziad Maamari, who runs the place with his two brothers.

After crossing a bridge leading to the entrance of the two-level “mediaeval castle,” visitors step into a large space where scenes of a bygone time are represented. The models are full of life. There are scenes of a woman grinding wheat, a man sewing clothes, another riding a donkey, a blacksmith working and a woman serving coffee to men in a diwan.

The ground floor includes a scene of the Last Supper depicting Jesus and his disciples as well as hydraulically moveable figurines performing various crafts and manual activities as reminders of Lebanese heritage. In a corner, the tools used by Maamari while carving the stones are displayed.

One can see a model of the classroom where Moussa sat as a child with statues depicting the teacher who beat him and students who mocked him when he drew pictures of the castle of his dreams. The original sketch of the castle that the teacher had torn survived and is on display.

The fort features a museum of ancient weapons that exhibits some 18,000 pieces, including rifles, daggers, swords, pikes and bayonets.

Maamari invited the girl who had snubbed him 60 years earlier to visit his castle as he had vowed. She accepted the invitation and met his wife and children.

“It was such an emotional moment. That girl’s attitude was the trigger of his dream. Everything you see here is his work. The castle he has built has become one of the most successful tourist projects. In fact, the castle made him immortal,” said Marie Maamari.

“It was hard, challenging and tiresome but we had faith and hope in our dream,” she added.

Moussa Maamari died in January 2018 at the age of 87 but his legacy is carried on by his sons.

The castle receives thousands of visitors per year, providing a significant of income for the creator’s family, with an entry fee of 15,000 Lebanese pounds ($10) for adults and 5,000 pounds ($3.30) for children under 12.

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The late Moussa Maamari outside his castle.(Ziad Maamari)
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The late Moussa Maamari and his wife Marie work on the construction of the Moussa Castle in the early 1960s. (Ziad Maamari)
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A model of Moussa Maamari’s classroom on display at the Moussa Castle.(Samar Kadi)
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A scene about village life in the 19th century. (Samar Kadi)
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A scene about village life in the 19th century. (Samar Kadi)
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Old weapons on display at the Moussa Castle. (Samar Kadi)
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