For Whom the Bell Tolls

post 234/365


Only the bells tear through the silence of the wide-open valleys, reminding the heavens and its people of this serene land. Breathtakingly beautiful with trees that stretch as far as the eyes can see, still up to this day, it is hard to reach, adding to its charm. Nothing disturbs its silence other then the birds and the breeze that tiptoe along humbly giving respect to the stillness of Wadi Kadisha.

Kadisha means “Holy” in Aramaic, giving it its name the Holy Valley. It has sheltered Christian monastic communities for many centuries. The valley is located at the foot of the Makmel mountain of the Mount Lebanon chain, to the west of the famous forest called “God Cedars Forest” mentioned in the Bible and which still stands with young growing trees. At the town of Tourza the valley divides into two branches, each named for a monastery there: Wadi Qozhaya leading to Ehden, and Wadi Qannoubin leading to the Cedars, separated by the mountain of Mar Elias. A path goes along the bottom of the valley through an area called “Bain an-Nahrain” (Between the Two Rivers) where Wadi Qannobin meets Wadi Qadisha

The sides of the valley are steep cliffs that contain many caves, often at more than 1000m and all difficult to access. The most scenic section of the valley stretches for approximately twenty kilometers between Bsharri and Tourza. It is here also that the Holy River, Nahr Qadisha, flows, its source a cave at the foot of the Forest of the Cedars of God. Above the famous Cedar grove stands Qornet es Sawda, Lebanon’s highest peak.

The Qadisha Valley’s many natural caves have been used as shelters and for burials back as far as the Paleolithic period. The Aassi Hauqqa (cave) in particular, near Hawqa has yielded archaeological items indicating Palaeolithic, Roman, and medieval periods of use.

Since the early centuries of Christianity the Holy Valley has served as a refuge for those in search of solitude. Historians believe that the Kadisha Valley has had monastic communities continuously since the earliest years of Christianity. It was also at times a destination for Muslim mystics, or Sufis, who also visited it for meditation and solitude.

Early Christian communities fleeing persecution found refuge in the Kadisha. Among these groups were the Jacobites (Syrian Orthodox), Melchites (Byzantine Catholic), Nestorians, Armenians, and even Ethiopians. The Maronites, however, are the dominant Christian group in the valley. From the late 7th century, Maronites fled to the valley from their original areas of settlement in the Levant. At that time, they feared persecution from the Jacobites, who were non-Chalcedonian, and who persecuted Chalcedonian Maronites.

Maronite settlement intensified in the 10th century following the destruction of the Monastery of St Maroun. The Maronite monks established their new center at Qannubin, in the heart of the Qadisha, and monasteries quickly spread over the surrounding hills. Early Maronite settlement in the valley combined both community and eremitic life.

The Mamlouk sultans Baibars and Qalaoun led campaigns in 1268 and 1283, respectively, against the fortress-caves, monasteries, and the surrounding villages. Despite these attacks, the Deir Qannubin monastery was to become the seat of the maronite Patriarch in the 15th century and to remain so for 500 years. In the 17th century, the Maronite monks’ reputation for piety was such that many European poets, historians, geographers, politicians, and clergy visited and even settled in the Valley. The first printing press in the middle east was built in 1610 at the Monastery of Qozhaya (refer to previous post: in the Kadisha Valley.

The valley’s natural caves, being comfortless, scattered, and difficult to access, provided monks and hermits sufficiently isolated and inhospitable conditions to live out Christian solitude, contemplation, and devotion. Many of the caves and irregularities in the cliff-sides were adapted to serve as individual dwellings (cells), chapels, and monasteries, and such buildings were further carved out of the cliff faces of the valley. Some have interiors covered with frescoes and facades. Around the caves there are terraced fields made by the hermits for growing grain, grapes, and olives.

While there are numerous monasteries in the valley, there are several main monastic complexes:

The Qannubin Monastery

The oldest of the Maronite monasteries, although its foundation is often attributed to the Emperor Theodosius The Great in 375AD, it is more likely that it was established by a disciple of St Theodosius the Cenobite. For the most part it is cut into the rock cliff side – monastic cells, church, cloister, and accommodation for travelers.

The Monastery of St Anthony of Qozhaya

Tradition has its foundation in the 4th century in honour of the Egyptian andchorite, St Anthony the Great, though the earliest documentary records date back only to around 1000AD. Destroyed in the 16th century but quickly restored, it comprises a corridor, meeting room, and chapel, with a mill and a number of hermitages cut into the rock nearby.

The Monastery of Our Lady of Hawqa

situated between Qannubin and Qozhaya Monasteries, at the base of an enormous cave. It was founded in the late 13thC by villagers from Hawqa. The hermitage appears to have been located on a wide platform at mid-level, where there is a water reservoir fed by channels. The upper level, only accessible by ladder, is a cave some 47m long, where the wealth of medieval pottery and arrowheads that have been found suggests its use as a refuge. Archaeological finds show that this cave was in use in Paleolithic, Roman, and medieval times.

The Monastery of Mar Sarkis

Also called Ras Al Nahr, it overlooks Ehden, Kfarsghab, Bane, and Hadath El Jebbeh. Given its exceptional location overlooking the valley at an altitude of 1500m, the monastery is called the Watchful Eye of Qadisha. It is dedicated to saints Sarkis and Bakhos (Saints Sergius and Bacchus). The name Ras Al Nahr means the top of the river as it is in the vicinity of the Mar Sarkis source. The first church of Saints Sarkis and Bakhos was built in the mid 8th Century A.D. on the ruins of a Canaanite temple dedicated to a god of agriculture.

The Monastery of Mar Lishaa

Perched on the cliff, it was first mentioned in the 14thC, shared by two communities, a Maronite solitary order and the Barefoot Carmelite order. It consists of three or four small cells, a refectory, and some offices; the communal church includes four chapels cut into the rock-face.

In 1998, UNESCO added the valley to the list of World Heritage Sites because of its importance as the site of some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements in the world, and its continued example of early Christian faith.

Filled with caves and rock shelters inhabited from the third millennium B.C. to the Roman period, the valley is scattered with cave chapels, hermitages and monasteries cut from rock. Since the Early Middle Ages generations of monks, hermits, ascetics and anchorites found asylum here. They prayed in many languages: Greek, Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopian, a holy valley indeed where every rock, stone, pebble, trunk, tree and grain of earth bears the imprints of a great past civilization.


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