The Holy Valley and the Forest of the Cedars of God
|If These Walls Could Talk...: The Qadish Monastery (Katherine Johnson)|
Northern Lebanon has some remarkable highs and lows. In ascending order, you have the long and yawning Holy Valley, the towering cedars, and Mount Lebanon (Jabal al-Makmal), at 10,131 feet the country's highest mountain. The altitude gain could do quite a number on your lungs, but a bit of wheezing is nothing compared to the hardships the valley's inhabitants have endured over the centuries, not to mention the devastating harvesting of the cedars.
If the trees and valley could talk, they'd have some lively anecdotes to share. The Holy Valley, for example, could tell stories about its resident holy men, who came to this austere region to live modestly and reflect wholeheartedly in the nooks set in the rocky hillsides. The first dwellers date from the Paleolithic Age, when Christian anchorites sought quiet time in the natural bivouacs. The next wave of guests arrived in the seventh through tenth centuries, when persecuting Syrian Maronites became a popular blood sport. The Maronites found a safe haven in the stark landscape and quickly set up shop: monasteries, churches, agricultural terraces (olives, grain, and grapes), pilgrims' lodging, etc. Other denominations and ethnicities also migrated to the foothills, including Jacobites (Syrian Orthodox), Melchites (Greek Orthodox), Armenians, and Ethiopians. However, the valley was peaceful for only so long. In the mid-1300s, the Mameluk sultans Baibars and Qalaoun attacked the cave communities. Yet the monks never surrendered, and in the 15th century, they established the Deir Qannubin Monastery as the seat of the Maronite Patriarch. Five hundred years later, the seat was still standing.
In the timeline of the cedars, a half-century takes us only to the sapling phase of this historic grove on Mount Lebanon's western slope. The Forest of Cedars, which springs up like a green oasis in the scrubby, khaki landscape surrounding the town of Becharre, bore witness to some big biblical happenings. Considered the world's oldest tree, the 3,000-year-old specimens were name-dropped in the Bible 103 times, including a mention by Prophet Ezekiel. The Israelites fashioned their First and Second Temples in Jerusalem out of the grade-A timber; kings Hiram of Tyre and Solomon also claimed the cedars for their own building projects. By the sixth century, though, the cedars were being felledand later snacked upon by goatsmore than replanted.
Today, visitors can glimpse vestiges of a time, place, and people faded but hardly forgotten. A handful of monastic compounds act as living dioramas. The Monastery of Mar Lichaa, for example, comprises a handful of closet-size cells, a refectory, offices, and a communal church with four chapels chipped out of limestone. The Monastery of Our Lady of Hauqqa, meanwhile, sits on a 3,773-foot-high perch and includes a 154-foot-long cave that is reachable only by ladder and was a repository for medieval pottery and arrowheads. Other monastic structures exhibit wall paintings and frescoes, a mill, and fortification remnants.
Whereas the monasteries are sprinkled throughout the Holy Valley, the cedars are in a concentrated areaspecifically, five acres within the 1,596-acre forest reserve. At last count, there were 375 of the ancient cedars still alive, two of which are more than 3,000 years old, ten over 1,000 years old, and the rest a young hundreds-plus. Walking trails loop through the trees, which can stretch up to 115 feet high. The preserve is also the site of the Maronite Chapel, as well as 200 stone markers that Roman Emperor Hadrian placed around the fragile botany like a second-century velvet rope. Thousands of years later, a monk-like serenity has returned to the Forest of Cedars; the sound of falling cedars has been silenced.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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