Chapter 15: Stairways to Heaven

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Jezzine was a grand town, once.

Grown fat on trade, as well as remittances from its far-flung sons and daughters – amongst them the father of the man who for a while, was the wealthiest in the world, Carlos Slim – it filled up with gracious family homes, red-roofed, triple-arched windowed Levantine beauties, like the Kenaan Palace, which we walk past enviously on our way out of town.

Parked insouciantly, incongruously, in front of its graceful arcaded exterior was a lime-green 1970’s American muscle car. The disconnect between it and the house was so absolute, that for a second, I felt like I had wandered into a Tennessee Williams play, where the muscle car belonged to the equally muscular, but impecunious lover of the ageing chatelaine, or perhaps of her brother, the soft-spoken and never-married funny uncle the kids all loved and the adults all talked about in hushed voices at family gatherings.

I scanned the street for more likely owners, as I really couldn’t imagine it belonging to the Kenaans – even if granddaddy Maroun had been a (political) tearaway during Lebanon’s push for independence in the 1940’s – but none of the neighbours jumped out at me, either.

As we left the town behind, following an old, beaten-up tarmacked road that reminded me of an advert I saw for Range Rovers when I first arrived in Lebanon, which had the tag-line “Because in Lebanon, all our roads are off-roads”, I saw that the hillsides were covered in terraces, most of them overgrown. 

Agricultural terracing isn’t exactly unusual in such a vertiginous country, but the terracing here was particularly extensive, and testified to a time when these slopes would have been a hive of activity. The big crop was wheat, apparently. It must have been backbreaking work, so I wasn’t surprised they’d been abandoned. Even people growing fruit trees in the mountains are becoming less keen, and they require less work, less water and are much more lucrative.

Robin explained that the reason these terraces were abandoned had a different cause and most of the higher altitude terraces in this part of the Shouf region were abandoned after the earthquake of 1956, which also destroyed 6,000 buildings, mostly in and around Sidon. 

The terraces remained abandoned, due to a succession of political earthquakes that followed – a minor civil war in 1958, political upheaval in the 1960’s and the growing destabilisation created by the presence of the Palestinian guerrilla forces, the Fedayeen, and the assorted political reactions to them. 

By the time the region settled again, times had changed. Agriculture was no longer desirable and terraces far away from towns were viewed as too much of an effort to farm. It seemed to me a great pity, not only because of the lost jobs each ruined terrace represented, but also for their impact, for where they were still in use, the intricate Escher-esque geometries they formed were mesmerising. 

How long Jezzine’s slopes had been terraced is anyone’s guess, but recent archaeological research suggests that Lebanon may be home to some of the oldest terracing in the Mediterranean, and some of those studied in the Batroun region, further to the north, may have been in use for up to 12,000 years.

I digest this food for thought as we stop to refill our canteens at a roadside spring. The water is pure and icy, as refreshing splashed on faces and necks as it is drunk. After years and years of drinking happily from Lebanon’s springs – drive through the mountains and you’ll see people filling up jerry cans all over the place - I’d become more cautious after people started getting sick and it was revealed that toxic waste had been leeching into many of the country’s aquifers for years, even into some of those that still produced bottled water. But the guides only permit us to all to fill up at springs that have been rigorously tested by the LMTA, the association running the trail, which also conducts regular check-up to make sure their recommended springs remain clean.

As I pop the cap on my camel pack, I see something moving in the ferns ringing the basin of the spring and to my utter astonishment, a tiny freshwater crab emerges, pincers waving uncertainly until, spooked by our presence, it scuttle off across the road to take refuge in a thicket of brambles.

I’ve seen bulbous land crabs in the Maldives, which live in the coconut palms and look like giant alien ticks, but they stick close to the coast, as they need to return to the sea periodically. I’d always assumed freshwater crabs actually lived in the water, but apparently they spend even more time on dry land than their land crab relatives. Even so, finding one so high up in the mountains was a bit of a surprise.

We smell a large goat farm before it comes into view. The unmistakable scent is borderline unpleasant in a playground ‘ewww’ kind of way, but it marks the point at which we will turn off the road and head up and into the wilds. The goats munch aimlessly as we wander past, observing us with their golden slitted hyphen eyes, and a large guard dog barks in the distance, warning us that we have been seen. A little further beyond, up a small valley, lie the picturesque remains of a tumbled-down farmhouse that perch precariously above a row of arcaded stables that are intact and still seem to be in use. It’s apparently another victim of the ’56 Earthquake and it sits in small bowl lined with the remains of terraces. 

Though we haven’t regained the height we were at the previous day, the views are spectacular, and as we climb along the valley wall, we look down and over the pine forests of Bkassine as we wend our way gently upwards towards the fortress at Niha. 

Lebanon is better known for its cedars, but it has far more Umbrella pines. They are grown here as a cash crop, prized for their soft, slightly sweet kernels, which are liberally used in Lebanese cuisine.

To me, they are the quintessential Mediterranean tree and their rounded canopies (hence the name) and soaring trunks make them look like lollipops, or drifts of green clouds supported on sticks. Seen from a distance, they coalesce into an undulating treescape that softens the unforgiving flanks of Mount Lebanon, covering the rocky slopes in fluff. 

That evening, as we chat over dinner, I discover that every part of the tree can be used. The cones and needles are sold for fires and its pollen produces a thick, dark honey, prized for its medicinal effects. The real star, though, remains the kernel, which has been traded for at least 6,000 years and can fetch upwards of $40 a kilo.

Umbrella pines require minimal tending and even a small copse can be a good little earner, but only as long as the trees remain alive, which explains how pines have, by and large, managed to avoid the fate suffered by their less ‘useful’ brethren – and a landowner trying to persuade me to purchase a plot of land up in the north of the country once explained that if I chopped down and sold all the trees on the land, I would be able to make my money back, and more.

The vast expanse of pines here, which cleans the air much like an oversized car freshener, is Lebanon’s largest forest. It’s also apparently the largest in the eastern Mediterranean. However true that may be, walking through it is a delight to all the senses; the dappled sunshine on the forest floor, the refreshing scent the needles release as they crunch underfoot, and the gentle buzzing of cicadas. It’s enough to make anyone want to sling up a hammock and drift off to sleep but as we’ve only just begun our day’s walk, it’s a bit premature to be thinking about slacking off. 

We reach the rocky outcrop that is the Niha Fortress a couple of hours later. No one knows for sure when people first began to tunnel into the rock here to expand on the network of natural caves, but it was first mentioned in 975AD, and was later captured and enlarged by the Crusaders, who used it to control the important Sidon-Beka’a Road. Badly damaged and then rebuilt in the 13thCentury, the fortress was used by successive conquerors, including the Abbasids, the Mamluks and the Ottomans. 

Now no more than series of enlarged caves, including storerooms, water reservoirs and a stable, linked by internal tunnels. Originally, the fortress would have been protected by a wood and stone façade, which not only made it secure but also created extra space, making it more capacious than it looks today, which rested on the shelf of rock that runs just below the lowest level of caves.

Walking along the shelf is a vertiginous experience and the first time I did it, back in the late 90’s, there were no barriers to prevent unwary explorers from taking the express route down to the valley floor below. 

Emir Fakhredddine, who spent years on the run from the Ottomans is said to have holed up here for, as he sought to escape the Pasha of Damascus, who was under orders from Sultan Murad IV to bring him to trial in Istanbul. Unable to dislodge him otherwise, his pursuers eventually discovered his water source and poisoned it with animal blood, forcing him to flee. He escaped by rappelling down the cliff, a feat that - as they say in Mexico- takes some cojones, even with modern equipment, none of which was available in the 17thCentury. Cojones seem to have run in the family though, for legend has it that his daughter, unwilling to be captured by ravening Turks, blindfolded herself and her horse and galloped off the cliff to her death. 

Parts of the fortress can be visited, although the upper levels can only be reached by climbing, and there is a labyrinth of rooms and corridors that have yet to be excavated on the other side of a small chasm. No one knows how extensive the network of caves may be, but the attempted plundering of a previously unknown cave just above the fort – by robbers wielding a bulldozer, no less - suggests there are plenty of secrets left to discover. 

It’s a popular place to visit and there are plans to increase access by bridging the chasm, to open the other half of the shelf to visitors, and building steps to the higher rooms to obviate Spiderman-style antics. 

Niha’s other claim to fame is that it is home to a troupe of hyrax – Marmot-esque creatures that are apparently more closely related to elephants than they are to rodents – which live and lounge on the rock shelves below the fort. Until the fortress was turned into a reserve and protected, people used to come up here and shoot them, but since then, their numbers have begun to increase and if you are quiet, they seem happy enough to allow you to watch, from a distance. 

After a quick tour and some hyrax-appreciation, we retire to a shaded rock shelf above the fort, kick off our shoes and have lunch under blossoming trees. The sun is hot, the air cool, and the ground carpeted in thick, lush new grass, and so naturally, we lay ourselves down and sleep.

Jezzine to Niha

LMT Section 21

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association