So, like I was saying in part one, there was one other reason behind us being so cheap. We couldn’t come all the way to Lebanon and just stay in Beirut, so we booked our first tour since the Grand Canyon in 2010. Fawzi from Explore Lebanon Tours was our guide. Within less than an hour of leaving Beirut, seeing the hills layered with mist; we knew saving our money for this was worth it.
Our first stop was the St. Anthony Monastery of Qozhaya. Nestled in verdant slopes of the Qadisha Valley, its monks are credited with the abundance of wheat, vines, cedars, olive trees and mulberry trees surrounding it. In 1584, it housed the Middle East’s first printing press. Hermits lived in rocky cells in the cliffs surrounding it. Strangers and pilgrims came from afar, seeking its generosity and shelter. It was passed to its current owners, the Lebanese Maronite Order formed in Aleppo, in 1708. In the light morning mist, it was ethereal.
Tourists gathered with bowed heads in St. Anthony’s Church of Qozhaya. A display with a silver cedar honoured saints from Lebanon. Fun fact: St. Anthony is also the patron saint of my half-hometown, Lisbon.
The monastery was quiet inside. No one occupied the polished reception desk. My footsteps echoed. It was so peaceful I felt like I was intruding.
Fawzi directed us to the Cave of Qozhaya. Despite the mumble of chattering tourists outside, inside it was utterly silent. At its centre was a stone altar. There was a faint, strangely comforting musty odour. I could have sat there for hours just enjoying the serene quiet.
The cave is famous in the Middle East for miracles, especially curing mental illness. Unfortunately, I’m still bipolar.
We got back in the car. I stretched over the back seat to take photos. The views of the Qadisha Valley were just too beautiful not to!
The car stopped on an unassuming suburban road. ‘Here,’ Fawzi said, ‘The Cedars of God!’ There was no fixed entrance fee, but donations were welcomed. In return, we got some cute postcards.
It was around 10am. Paths were quiet. The air was refreshingly cool and pure. Soothing stillness reigned amongst the trees. I was glad for a guide as Fawzi explained which cedars were 1000, 1500 or 2000 years old. It was difficult, yet amazing to even try to comprehend their age and vastness.
Atop a hill, in a serene clearing, a cross sat before a log altar. It belonged to an unmarked church. Fawzi explained this was the Church of God. The surrounding cedars, 2000 years old, were supposedly planted by Jesus himself.
The surrounding mountains reached the clouds. As we walked back down, Fawzi pointed out the oldest and hugest tree of all – at 5000 years old. I was tiny beside it!
Hills around the forest were arid. It was incredible to see the cedars surviving regardless.
We stopped at a quiet café in Bsharri for lunch. Fawzi picked a labneh wrap for me and meat for my mum.
Our final stop was the Khalil Gibran Museum in Bsharri. The views it offered of the town and its surrounding green hills were stunning.
Gibran was an artist, writer and philosopher. Before the museum was purchased by his sister in 1931, it was the Monastery of Mar Sakis (St. Serge). His wish was to be buried in its hermitage and have the monastery converted to a museum. It houses 440 paintings, letters, drawings and Gibran’s furniture and belongings, as well as his tomb. The museum opened in 1975. Entrance fee is 8000 LBP. Photography isn't allowed.
I was sad our tour was over, but excited to see more beautiful views on the way back to Beirut. Fawzi showed us photos of the same roads and the cedars in winter. Untouched snow was piled high. It was difficult to imagine this hot and humid place ever buried in snow!