The Levant: Part 3
A young man on a Vespa drove towards me with the slumped and bloody carcass of a dolphin slung over the floorboard, its nose and tail nearly dragging on the rough pavement. It was probably just a big fish, but the children playing outside the few shops on the seaside street stopped to tag along excitedly behind the motorbike. I followed in my rearview mirror as the group turned off the street to make their next move.
* * *
This was the rural road that ran parallel to the North-South highway; not far behind were the ruins of Byblos, in the near distance was the broad, flat profile of urban Tripoli. Many Lebanese would give the impression with their tone that it was all still a ways away: “Yes, far: twenty kilometers maybe.” In a small country where lifestyles and landscapes change at every few mile-markers, far is never so far. Russians and Australians, I imagine, would give very different answers to those sorts of questions — “It’s easy, just six timezones west. After the bridge.”
But minutes after leaving Tripoli, I was driving through the dark clouds above the Wadi Qadisha seeking shelter in the only places I knew to look. Aramaic for “Holy Valley,” the area and its many caves have for millennia been a site of Christian hermitage; painted signs for deir dot the side of the road, sometimes appearing not to point to anything in particular. These are the modern markers of ancient monasteries, still inhabited and many still offering friendly lodging to retreaters. But to find even the largest complex, you may need to believe (in the side-roads); the signs on the main route are about all you can get for advertisement. As loud as Tripoli is with blasting car horns and old engines grumbling, the crest of the valley is silent.
I pulled off the windy highway at a sign for the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya, tucked away in the hillside one-thousand, two-hundred and twenty-three feet below (my watch told me). Legend has it the Monastery has been around for seventeen hundred years, since its founding by Saint Hilarion. Others suggest this may be (as someone named Hilarion would have loved) a joke, and documentation dates only to the turn of the second millenium. Restored in the sixteenth century, the monastery is named for its most prestigious visitor, Saint Anthony the Great, father of monasticism and patron saint of hermits, monks, butchers, pigs, basket weaving and defense against pestilence (among other qualifications). But I didn’t know that.
I parked outside an church just a minute from the road and knocked dubiously on the door to find it dark and empty. Even though I had warned myself not to assume anything about their look, “monastery” doesn’t just mean “church” and I began to think the brown road signs were more for sightseers than for western wayfarers in Spanish hatchbacks. Except that there was one more sign, rusty, in Arabic (like mine) that pointed to a deir further down the driveway — it wasn’t a driveway. I followed, and immediately the trees parted to reveal the entire valley, huge and wide, with a thin road winding way down toward the floor. One man sauntered down the road and pointed me in the only direction, correcting my pronunciation (it’s “dare” not “deer”).
On the way down I was hailed by a group of hikers that didn’t look like they had been without food or shelter for months. Promising. Two women in the group had walked their fill and were grateful to have a ride back down and to guess where I was from — for the first few hours, we spoke together in French. And that’s when I saw it: the storybook picture of a monastery, immaculately carved into the rocky cliff face. “Let’s go see if they have rooms,” said Layla.
Their group was an international one, some Germans and French, and mostly Syrian and Lebanese. Out here in the forest, no one was local. I was the youngest by many years, but their hospitality had no lower limit: though they were travelers themselves, they exuded goodwill and forced me into a state of total comfort, having found everything. Layla, the stout and cheerful owner of a health club in Damascus, gave me a tour of the immense building — five stories of single rooms and dormitories.
At dinner, though, on this Christian holy ground in a country where major religious sects all claim they are the majority, I hid my Judaism. The conversation had turned to Middle Eastern politics, albeit civilly (a feat), and I thought I’d err towards preserving the tranquility that had existed in the valley for thousands of years (except for the Crusades and a few massacres). Still, I did my best as an American sounding board for Layla’s questions: Why was it necessary to oust Saddam? Why does Israel bomb thousands of innocents? Why do they make you take your shoes off in airports?!
I slept in one of a dozen empty beds in a comfy dorm with one window to let in the freezing night air. In the morning when the sun lit the entire valley all at once, I snuck into the glowing red cave of Qozhaya where candles burn by a shrine and a table displays a pair of heavy metal shackles — in addition to providing quiet for monks in solitude, the valley was also an asylum for the insane, where people thought the silence (and padlocked bracelets) would do good for the soul. Saint Anthony, says the monastery’s website, “also has a history of curing those having mental problems.”
Who knows. I sure felt great after breakfast.
More pictures from Lebanon right here.