On a high hill overlooking the Mediterranean some 30 miles south of Beirut lies the pilgrimage town of Maghdoucheh, famous for its 30-meter bronze shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary. It was here in Maghdoucheh that the Virgin Mary is said to have waited in a cave for her son Jesus to return with his disciples after preaching in nearby in Sidon. The statue, which depicts Mary holding Jesus in her arms, weighs a hefty six tons and was built in 1963 above the cave in which Mary was believed to have waited.
The sanctuary of Our Lady of Mantara has its origins in the Holy Gospels. It is said that after leaving Genesareth in Palestine Christ went to the region of Tyre and Sidon to preach the Good News and to heal the sick. It was at Sidon that he cured the daughter of the Canaanite women possessed of a devil and said: “Woman, your faith is great.” According to Saint Luke, after having chosen his twelve apostles, Jesus came down with them and stopped at a piece of level ground where there was a large gathering of his disciples with a great crowd of people from all parts of Judaea and from Jerusalem and from the coastal regions of Tyre and Sidon who had come to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. The old Roman road from Jerusalem to Sidon passed through Caesarea Philippi (now called Marjayoun) and through the village of Maghdoucheh.
According to holy tradition the Holy Virgin accompanied her son when he journeyed to Tyre and Sidon. However, Jewish women were not allowed to go into pagan cities. As Sidon was a Canaanite town and therefore pagan, Mary waited for her son in this grotto at Magdousheh. Here she waited in prayer and meditation, from which comes the name Our Lady of the Wait – al Mantara.
Subsequently the early Christians transformed this grotto into a shrine where they came to honor the Virgin and ask for her graces. Emperor Constantine the Great responded to St. Hélène’s request and transformed the cave into a sanctuary for the Virgin, erecting a tower in her honor. Empress Helena around 326 AD forwarded an Icon of the Virgin and Jesus as a gift from the Byzantine royalty, said to have been painted by St. Luke himself where the tower was built.
In later years the Christians of Maghdoucheh fled away from persecution to the towns of Zahle and Zouk after carefully concealing the entrance to the ancient grotto with stones and vines, returning after a thousand years under Fakhreddin II rule. However they could not locate the cave of “Our Lady of The Awaiting.”
By a stroke of luck in 1726, a shepherd happened to be near the grotto with his flock. Sitting under an oak tree, playing on his flute, he suddenly heard one of his goats bleating in distress. He ran in its direction and saw that it had fallen into a well, through the opening now to be seen in the roof of the cave just above the altar. He took his knife and cleared away the undergrowth so that he could pass. To his great joy he found a narrow path that led down to the bottom of a cave into which he crawled on hands and knees. He found lying in the dark an icon of the Virgin on an ancient altar. He rushed out and, leaving his flock, ran off to announce his discovery to the people of Magdousheh. Crowds came rushing up to see for themselves this cave which had been so long abandoned and to contemplate the icon of the Virgin. The bells pealed out to proclaim the event and processions were organized in the village.
At the beginning of the sixties, renowned architect Varoujan Zaven designed and executed a hexagonal chapel topped by a 36-meter tower in a conical shape to support an 8 and a half meter one-piece bronze statue of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus in her arms, of his own design as well, realized by Italian artist Pierrotti in Pietra Santa.
The word “Mantara” comes from the Arabic root word “Natar” which means to wait. Two booklets, written by a bishop of Saida in the 1910s, recount 16 miracles related to children and infertile women. The Lady of Mantara is the guardian of little children as most of her miracles were done for them; giving her another name: “Our Lady of the Children.” To this day, many children are baptized in the cave. They are then entrusted to the Blessed Virgin.
A kind of stillness hovers above the air of the Virgin Mary as you stand beneath her. She stands there worshiped by Christians and Muslims alike in austere manner holding her son reminding us that the love for ones child conquers all. She remains unmoved by it all, by the wars, by the fears, by the motion of time and the salty air that loiters around her. She remains unmoved high above in the sky, looking ahead with a faint smile, knowing that her son lies calmly in her arms, a mother first. She remains there harmonious…