There is a certain serenity that settles on the mountains of the Shouf where land, sky and the blue horizon congregate. Behind the huge public square or midan, the Kharj Barracks, a beautiful architectural structure with an open courtyard and surrounded by volts stands still untouched by modernity. This massive structure was built by Fakhreddine II in 1616 as a munitions warehouse and barracks and remodeled into a food storehouse mainly for soldiers under Bechir III Chehab (1840 – 1842). It has taken a new life now, restored, this monument is the stunning setting of the French Cultural Center where cultural and social events take place. We spent a night there with the kids watching football. It was one of those nights where the open dark skies, the stars so clearly visible, and the crescent of the moon stood next to each other peacefully painting a picture perfect night. Sitting in its womb, one could get a sense of the culture and people that still inhabit this land.
The next morning we woke up to the crisp fresh air of the Shouf and headed towards Saydet el Talleh, or the church of Our Lady of the Hill, a short distance from the Midan. It has been destroyed and rebuild many times, dating back to the 15th century. The church has an old door decorated with a half-moon under a cross, a reference to the name “Deir el Qamar” (monastery of the moon). Monk Nicolas Smisaati built a church on the site over the ruins of an old Phoenician temple dedicated to the goddess Astarte. Destroyed by an earthquake in 859, it was reconstructed by the Order of the Templars during the Crusades. The second church was destroyed by the Saracens and rebuilt during Fakhreddine 1st Maan’s reign (1518-1544).
According to local legend ” a Druze Emir in Baakline looking at the hill of Deir El Qamar, saw a light coming out of the hill. He gathered his soldiers and ordered them to go in the morning and dig in the land. He said to them: ‘if you find an Islamic symbol, build a mosque. If you find a Christian symbol, build a church.” In the morning, the soldiers went and found a rock with a cross on it and under the cross there was the moon and Venus.”
The rock discovered by the soldiers can be found above the old gate of the church. A Byzantine column can be found inside the church. The inhabitants honor a “miraculous” icon of our Lady of the Hill placed behind the altar. It was painted in 1867 by the Italian artist Guerra. On the feast of Our Lady of the Hill, the first Sunday of August, thousands of believers go in a big procession with the miraculous icon from the entrance of Deir El Qamar to the Church. To really understand the beauty of this place, you have to walk into the heart of this church with its vaulted ceiling and minimalistic décor. A feeling of serenity overshadows this place, as you wonder why has this exact location been guarded by so many over so many centuries. Some places will carry their story hidden in between their walls with signs left here and there waiting to be retold. Our lady of the hill stands there quiet, serene, watching over those hills that haven’t changed much with time, build and rebuild, handed down by those who believe in the power of a woman from the time of Astarte to our modern days.
After what felt like a long walk through time we headed to Bkerzay passing by beautiful villages like Baaakline and Kfarhim. Bkerzay, another beautiful village in the Shouf, is home to “Bkerzay,” a conservation project that began in 2008 with a goal to promote local organic products such as soaps, oils, herbs and honey, and to teach and create the craft of pottery.
As you drive through the dirt road with trees and wild flowers, if left to their own device would claim back this little stretch of road, you’ll find yourself detached from all encompassed by the beauty of nature. The landscape is covered with olive groves, lush woods and a variety of flora indigenous to Lebanon.
In this simple built structure, the beauty of their pottery with vibrant colors catches your eye immediately. Shapes and colors, flora and birds are beautifully drawn on plates and vases creating a world within a world where nature and animals roam free. Their exquisitely crafted artistic pottery is done by their master potter Ahmad Deif, an Egyptian who learned the craft in his village back home and came to Lebanon to pursue it full time.
Passed his artwork, on their lovely terrace that opens to a sweeping view of mountains crowned with cypress with villages dotting in the landscape, one can stand there unmoved humbled by this magnificent landscape. In this idyllic setting, kissed by blue skies and decorated by its lush surrounding one truly gets a glimpse of “Libnan el akhdar” (Lebanon the green).