This Sunday, we get off to a slow start. It’s the after-effect of the massive influx of walkers the day before, I think.
Also, we have the other team to say our goodbyes to. Finally, after an age and a half, practically an aeon, we head out of Kfardebian at around 9-ish.
Our core group is now down to a more manageable five, though our numbers will be temporarily increased today by new arrivals; a man who works at the Swiss embassy, a vile American couple, who have just been kicked out of Cairo and who will do nothing but complain about how hideous Lebanon is for the rest of the day, a brassy Lebanese woman and her listless husband, who looks like he’d rather be propping up a bar, and a sour-faced Australian and her Barbie-esque travel-mate - blonde, pink tank top, shorts and sneakers and no day pack. Not even a pink one. I presume she's only with us for the day, especially as she seems to hate walking, but it seems she's going to grace us with her company for the next few days. Joy.
We’re on our way up to Faqra and will be overnighting close to the new reservoir at Chabrouh, below the ski resorts up in Faraya. The trail is easy, but the sky's such a cloudless, deep blue and the sun so strong, that at first, I worry it’s going to be a scorcher. Luckily, there’s a great deal more shade today than we’ve had for a while, and even when we re-emerge into direct sunlight later, we’re blessed with a breeze, so in the end, it isn’t as sweaty as I feared.
Naturally, we start by walking down to where we first entered Kfardebian. It's almost funny now that we’re going down, to remember how hard it had been to make this climb the day before yesterday. At the bottom, we cut off across the fields, plunging into the cool confines of a tunnel of trees that deposits us in a small pine forest.
We take a short detour to fill up on water. The spring is dry, to Joseph’s surprise, but then it has been a poor winter, with very little snow. I find myself wondering how soon the government-supplied water at home will get cut off, as has happened most summers for the last four or five years, for precisely this reason.
As we leave the forest, we begin to climb in earnest. Joseph tells us helpfully that it's going to be hard going and in parts, it is certainly steep, but he's either overstated the difficulty - perhaps to make our new arrivals feel better about being out of breath already - or I'm finally becoming fitter, because it doesn't feel particularly tough. Surprisingly quickly, the ruins of the temple complex at Faqra come into view above us.
The last one hundred metres up to them are a bit of a scrabble though, mostly because the ground is rocky and some of the rocks are loose, but it’s not especially taxing. The Americans are scowling and muttering under their breath, which I now take to be their habitual state, but Barbie’s barely broken a sweat, so she’s either applied an entire can of anti-perspirant that morning, or else like a camel, she’s good at conserving water.
Arriving at the complex, which I’ve visited a thousand times with guests, we wait for the guardian to come and unlock the gate. Like most of the bored souls paid to look after Lebanon’s hundreds of archaeological sites, many of which don’t get visitors for days at a time, he’s less than impressed with the bunch of old stones he’s paid to guard. He even suggests at first that we just take pictures from the entrance. It seems like the kind of advice that ought to get him sacked, but it’s obvious he’d rather not fiddle around finding the key and is just hoping that we don’t care enough, either.
Some of us don’t, of course. The Americans meander off mumbling about ‘having seen the pyramids and so’, and Barbie decides she’d rather sprawl in the lush grass, take Selfies and play with her phone than learn anything, which at least makes me feel less guilty about my instant stereotyping of her.
Alia, who accompanied us on the first ten days of the walk, joins us by phone and as ever, is full of interesting information. As the rest of us listen, she explains the site’s origins and its subsequent transition from pagan temple to fortified basilica and then ruin.
Most of the photos of you’ll see of Faqra show the dramatic portico of the main temple, which seems to have been dedicated Adonis, the demi-god associated with fertility, who was said to have in these mountains, but there are several temples at Faqra, most of which don’t get mentioned.
One, which began life as a temple to Astarte, was later turned into a church dedicated to St. Barbara. Alia tells us that as both deity and saint were known for their loving natures, it’s possible that the re-dedication was deliberate, a way to facilitate the eradication of pagan belief by repurposing the site for Christianity in a way that didn’t entirely contradict its past connotations – much as Christmas and Easter were conveniently grafted onto much older and quite different celebrations.
Back to Adonis. That the main temple at Faqra was dedicated to him is an assumption. No identifying statues or dedicatory inscriptions have been found to prove this one way or another, but as the second temple was dedicated to Astarte, his consort, and as the main temple in a complex was usually dedicated to a male god, it’s assumed that Adonis it was.
I’ve always found it a source of some amusement that in Adonis, who died nearby in Afqa, this tiny sliver of the Mediterranean not only gave the world the epitome of male beauty, but also the nec plus ultra of female temptation and sexual license, for Jezebel, the whore of Babylon herself, was a Phoenician princess from Tyre.
But I digress. Like all good Levantine temples, the ones at Faqra began with the Phoenicians, who mostly built temples along the coast and up in the mountains to propitiate the gods of both regions, but was subsequently Hellenised and briefly Romanised shortly before Rome adopted Christianity.
Although it looks impressive from a distance, the portico was poorly restored and from closer up, the replacement concrete blocks and rusting rebar, are all too visible. Faqra was damaged during the civil war, when several of the repaired sections collapsed, so it may hold the distinction of being the only temple from the ancient world where blocks of chipped and damaged concrete are strewn amongst the original, more millennial remains.
Though the walls of the temple are largely intact, the rear half is taken up by a massive pile of fallen blocks and columns. This being Lebanon, it’s possible to climb onto them and wobble your way to the back wall, which gives out onto a impressive view of the valley beneath and the sea in the distance. Compared to the now anaemic experience that many other ancient ruins have become, roped off, untouchable and remote, I’ve always rather liked the fact that here, a combination of official apathy, rules-don’t-apply-to-me’ism and ambient chaos means that should you desire, you can treat most of the country’s ruins like ancient parkour courses and while I understand that isn’t terribly good for their long-term survival, it does allow for a greater appreciation of them.
We leave the complex, which is nestled into a labyrinth of heavily eroded limestone, twisted by elements into wild and wonderful shapes including, to my eyes anyway, what looks rather like a herd of elephants, and crossing the road to visit a cluster of sacrificial altars and the impressive ruins of a watchtower/altar on the edge of a precipitous escarpment that plunges vertically to the village of Hrajel below.
Alia returns on speakerphone and points out another interesting fact. Despite their importance, the altars are amongst the few to have survived the Christianisation of Lebanon without being destroyed or reconsecrated, possibly because the area was abandoned shortly after the end of the Roman era.
The altars are moderately interesting, but it's the remains of the massive watchtower/altar, dedicated to the Emperor Claudius, successor of the infamous Nero, who funded its last reconstruction, that catch my eye. It has always struck me as vaguely Asian, probably because of the way trees and shrubs grow out of it. Shades of Angkor perhaps, or even Calcutta, albeit on a more modest scale.
The view from the top of the sixteen-metre pile is anything but modest though; a panoramic vista of Mount Lebanon, and in winter of skiers on the pistes further up the road at Faqra.
Originally, the tower would have been a few metres taller with a massive sacrificial altar under a wooden loggia on its top, which would have been accessed by a ramp. Of course, the loggia, ramp and altar have long since disappeared and the only way up is via a cramped internal staircase that was probably only used by priests. The pilgrims that would once have come here to propitiate Zeus Beelgalasos, the Lord of the Mountains, a rather grim figure known for his ‘sharp, rending teeth’ and for starting storms, are long gone, too and although most visitors today seem content to gawp as they zip by in their cars, if they notice the ruins at all, it does still attract the occasional admirer.
Today, this meant a gaggle of Ethiopian women, decked out in their Sunday best, shimmying to Afropop and striking poses against the backdrop of the tower and the sweeping views of the valley, as a Lebanese guy (someone’s boyfriend perhaps?) snapped away like Litchfield. Looking around, I see we’ve stumbled into a Lover’s Lane as nearby, a couple who look like they had been engaging in some serious lip-locking until we ambled in, blast old Abdel Wahab songs from their white Cortina equivalent, all smoked glass windows and attitude, albeit sans the furry dice.
We stop for lunch outside a nearby café that dates back to the Faqra of pre-wars years. Its walls are covered in faded black and white photos and other reminders of brighter days. As we sit in the shabby ‘garden’, whose decay is clearly not just a result of the recent winter, I feel rather sad. Like so many other places in Lebanon, the café is a ghost of what it once was, though it’s still possible to imagine it as it was, full of day-trippers, tourists and eager skiers, downing plates of fried eggs sprinkled with sumac, before heading on up to the slopes or deeper into the mountains. I wonder how much money it makes. If appearances are anything to judge by, not much. It’s surviving through sheer force of will and I suspect that once its charming, elderly owners die, it will be bulldozed and turned into something more chic, with a pool and an outdoor sheesha deck in place of the garden. That, or a mall.
We continue along the escarpment edge in the direction of Chabrouh, our stop for the night. As we reach Jisr el-Hajjar, the natural rock bridge at Mzaarat Kfardebian (the farmlands, not the town we slept in the night before) the landscape takes on the appearance of a giants’ playground, with massive blocks of strangely shaped stone scattered all around. We traipse across the bridge, milling around and taking pictures, while two of the walkers, Salam and her husband Alfred, slope off to have a quick swim in the river pools below.
We’re headed in that direction ourselves, as it’s decided that we’ll take the quick (read: sheer) route to our stop for the night. Apparently the river further up is still too wide to cross, even this bone dry year.
As we pick our way through the sharp rocks towards the streambed below, one of the hikers falls and hurts her knee for the second time that day, necessitating a stop to patch her up so that she can carry on. Barbie looks like she’s about to ask to be carried, though I can’t imagine she’ll get much more than short shrift if she does, and our ever-delightful American compatriots grumble loudly about how Lebanon is full of garbage and how they wish they had never had to leave Cairo. I find myself vividly seconding their emotion.
The final stretch of the trail takes us across farmland, where we discover the desiccated remains of a baby hyena and, further up, encounter a wild baby tortoise, which is very much alive and, as it snaps the twig proffered by one of the walkers, apparently has quite the bite.
After stopping for a drink at what I’m reliably informed is the ‘best spring in Lebanon’ the Nabaa al-Aasal (Spring of Honey) which is near the Nabaa al-Laban (Spring of White/Yoghurt) – thus possibly the origins of the Biblical ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, though naturally, the Israelis would disagree - we arrive at a youth/community centre run by the Order of Malta. The new and newly-renovated building is not exactly overflowing with charm. It is, however, enormous, and as we are the only people staying tonight, I take advantage of the situation to snag a room of my own.
We have an uninspiring dinner in the vast, cavernous kitchens, prepared by an extremely funny, wise-cracking lady from Tripoli, who informs us to great hilarity that she is divorced and a smoker, statuses frowned upon by her employers, who are doing their best to remedy both.
Sated, I retire to my room to enjoy a quick read before bed and then settle in for a peaceful night’s sleep….only to be kept awake for an hour by the demented barking of a dog, far away on the other side of the valley.