The day gets off to a cracking start with a long and in places, extremely steep descent from the edge of Bsharre, down, down, down into Wadi Qannoubine.
We are following one of the old walking trails to the valley floor, which lies some five to six hundred metres directly below the town. It’s narrow, rocky and extremely slippery in places, really not much more than a faint outline most of the time. There’s no room to make mistakes, and so where the trail is either excessively narrow or otherwise precarious, chains have been attached to the cliff walls, to make things easier.
As it is the weekend, our ranks have once again swollen, and so we are forced to make constant stops to allow everyone to catch up. This time, though, I’m not complaining. Making our way down an almost vertical cliff, the views are absolutely incredible. Qannoubine, one of two valleys that make up the area known as Qadisha (the Syriac word for ‘Holy’), is a riot of spring greenery. On both sides of the valley, multiple ribbons of silvery water fall frothing from the plateau and above us, some of the tallest peaks in the country, rise into the clear sky, their uppermost slopes still streaked with snow.
Qadisha is an UNESCO World Heritage site and with the exception of a few families, living here is not permitted. As with a couple of the country’s other World Heritage sites (Lebanon has five, in all), that protected status is now under threat, thanks to thoughtless construction work and the laying of new roads commissioned mostly by the Maronite Church, which really ought to know better.
For centuries, Lebanon’s assorted waqfs, religious endowments which in Lebanon are Christian as well as Muslim, took their responsibilities seriously, and were scrupulous about maintaining the vast swathes of land they own. Since the Civil War, they have been less conscientious and the bulwark they once provided has begun to fail. With few other sectors of the local economy performing well, the modern Lebanese state is aggressively, almost mindlessly construction-oriented nature, building so heedlessly that at times, you might be tempted to wonder if it were not a practitioner of the Great Work, the legendary Masonic goal of leaving the imprint of Humankind on every single atom in the Universe.
At the moment, it is only UNESCO status that prevents Qannoubine from being overrun entirely. The villages on the plateau above already encroach visually, and old dirt track, used by wanderers and church-goers, are slowly being tarmacked in direct contravention of the agreement.
Qadisha has a storied history as a place of refuge in time of religious persecution. During the Mamluk era, it was home to a community of Christians (and later of some Sufis), known in Greek as kaino beino or the ‘Community of Life’, who lived a strict, Biblical lifestyle. It is from this term that the name Qannoubine evolved and is why Qadisha is also sometimes referred to as the Valley of the Saints.
Now viewed rather dewily as ‘pure, decent’ folk, one can only imagine the puritan fervour, not that dissimilar to the Salafism running rampant across the rest of the region at the moment, that must have characterised their everyday. Still, it was this history that led to the building of dozens of rock-cut churches, chapels, monasteries and nunneries, and which attracted hermits, who made their homes in the caves and crevices that riddle the valley’s steep walls, some of whom came here from as far away as Ethiopia.
As we continue our descent, Mar Elisha, the monastery where the Maronites threw off ‘heresy’ and officially became Catholic, comes into view. Glommed onto the side of the cliff a hundred or so metres above the valley floor (sanctity always comes at a cost) it is a gleaming sandstone beacon in a sea of green, while above it, the snow-streaked slopes of Jabal Makmel glitter in the sun.
When we eventually reach the bottom of the trail, my knees are rubbery from the strain. Though it’s good to be back on level ground, the trail here disappointingly gives way to a section of tarmac road but thankfully today, there is no traffic and soon, the road veers off across the valley floor and switchbacks up the opposite valley wall, our trail becoming a cool, tree-shaded dirt track, that winds along the bank of a river, which is in full post-winter flow.
We pass several more waterfalls, including one that tumbles spectacularly from the plateau high above us and through a massive keyhole in the walls of the gorge. Qannoubine may not be pristine, but it is incredibly impressive, a kind of Lebanese Grand Canyon (though greener) that in places is almost a kilometre deep, more, if you take into consideration the height of the mountains all around us.
We begin to see some of the old hermit caves. Around 35 have been found so far, many still bearing traces of flaking murals and calligraphy, some in Arabic, but most in Syriac, Greek and, in places where Ethiopian hermits lived, Amharic, as well. There were so many Ethiopians here at one time – a Roman-era saint from Tyre is credited with the conversion, explaining the ties between the two countries – that one of the nearby monasteries was given over to them, which would no doubt surprise many contemporary Lebanese who can only conceive of Ethiopians as domestic workers.
The trail meanders along the valley floor and we continue to lose altitude, albeit more gently. Sometimes it disappears altogether and, in a reprise of the trail to Baskinta, we end up walking along a wide concrete tube that contains sewage, rather than water. It’s old and tatty, so we have to be careful not to fall through holes in places.
Our local guide today is every bit as annoying as Georges. Clearly, there’s something about this region and the people who live here. Elias is tall, tattooed and a native of the valley - his family is one of the few permitted to live in Qannoubine itself. This should make him the ideal person to lead us. Unfortunately, he is also very much in love with himself, and seems appears to walk with an invisible mirror suspended in front of him, so relentlessly does he preen.
He also sings, God help us, and at the top of his voice. In this, he is aided and abetted by a handful of other walkers, amongst them the gay couple and his apparent love interest, a slightly older woman who feigns constant terror, clinging to his arm every time the slightest bump appears in the trail and screeching like a chicken being plucked, singlehandedly reversing the work of generations of feminists in the process.
Perhaps noticing the way our self-obsessed chaperone discretely but inappropriately cops a feel of Chicken Woman each time she attaches herself to him, the portlier of the two chorus queens, who is obviously interested in the one muscle Elias hasn’t yet flexed in public, attempts the same gambit. But when his second, admittedly artful attempt at a ‘stumble-and-grab’ is rewarded with a frigid glare, he dusts himself off and finds consolation in flirtation via sing-along. Between Chicken Woman, the Chorus Queen and Narcissus, we have descended to such a level of camp that this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Barbra Windsor come wobbling out of the undergrowth.
The sewage pipe at least is wider and flatter than the water pipe, so our walk along it proceeds at a fair pace. As we get deeper into the valley, we pass the remains of the occasional ruined home, though how old these remains may be is difficult to tell. The few hamlets permitted to exist in Qannoubine, which are quite literally no more than a couple of houses, are all along the far side of the valley, where the walls of the gorge are less sheer.
As the trail rises from the valley floor and up into pine forests, we catch a glimpse of a number of ruins dotting the wall of the far side of the valley, amongst them the remains of Mar Semaan, the ancient Maronite patriarchate, which is built into a series of caves. We also pass beneath the remains of an old hermitage-cum-monastery just beneath the town of Hadshit, which Joseph says still had traces of 4th and 5th Century frescos the last time he was there, though as the ruins are not protected, there’s no knowing how much remains intact. Like their 18th and 19th Century European counterparts, when faced with a wall of medieval frescos, the response of too many local visitors is to carve their initials into the plaster. So much of Lebanon’s unique and impressive heritage remains undiscovered and uncatalogued, and most of what is known is unprotected. Properly managed, it would make the country far more money in the long run than pointless construction, but as the political ‘elite’ here - and indeed, in so many other countries, these days - repeatedly demonstrates, the environment and heritage are only useful in so much as they can be used for immediate profit.
Shortly before lunch, we climb up to Our Lady of Qannoubine, a monastery that was once also the seat of the Maronite Patriarch. The church is full of teenage second and third-generation Lebanese emigrants, back in the fatherland for the summer to discover their roots, but once they file out, we’re able to admire the remaining 12th century frescos (most didn’t survive the mandatory whitewashing required by Ottoman authorities), including a psychedelic number depicting St. Stephen and the Virgin. The big draw though, is the surprisingly well-preserved mummy of Patriarch Youssef Tyan in a small chapel next door to the rock-cut church. Tyan died in 1820 in an ‘odour of sanctity’ - which apparently means that his corpse emitted a ‘fragrance’ after death - and was first buried under the church, before he was later exhumed and placed on view in a glass coffin. I can’t help feeling a stab of pity. He looks good for a 200 year-old corpse, but to be place on display like a rack of lamb, seems an ignominious end.
We have lunch in a cave at one end of the monastery and then resume our walk. From here, the trail drops back down towards the river and after a while, we pass Abou Joseph, a fairly well-known restaurant, popular in summer months and at weekends, which is strangely empty today, but perhaps its still too early for lunch.
From here, we climb steeply out of Qannoubine, through a side valley and down to Fradis, a rather remote village between the two main valleys of Qadisha area. The village’s name is unusual. Some say it’s Byzantine, some that it’s Canaanite, but the most commonly accepted story is that it’s a corruption of the Persian word ferdows, or Paradise - though how a Lebanese town would end up getting a Persian name isn’t clear. The thickly forested valley it occupies certainly deserves the description, but the village itself is a cluster of fairly unattractive buildings. We make entry beside a row of animal sheds and so if this is, indeed, paradise, our first impression of it is that it smells overwhelmingly of cow shit.
Immediately, we’re greeted by a cheekily cheerful, possibly inebriated cowherd, ciggie dangling from his lips, who insists on introducing us to his prize Frisian, which he informs us, only half mockingly, that he’s willing to sell us for a mere $2000. Gender not-withstanding, the cow is called Obama. Being no expert on the average price of milch cows in Mount Lebanon, I can’t tell whether the name has been given as homage or as a joke. Perhaps if he were to name a pig ‘Trump’, all would become clear.
Walking into the village, which is more attractive within than from without, we hear music and we stop at a rather vigorous spring to fill up. In a nearby house, there’s a party going on. The day is warm and our spirits are high - mine especially, now that Elias has stopped singing - and we begin to dance. We quickly attract attention. Some of the children at the party lean out of the window to watch and a neighbour comes out onto his porch, where he stands beaming, clapping in time and shouting ‘aiwa, aiwa’ (‘that’s it, that’s it’) as we dance, until the host of the party emerges to see what the fuss is all about.
As greetings are exchanged, we learn that his name is Richard and that the slightly sulky, sleepy-eyed little girl he’s clutching in one arm is his daughter, who has recently broken her arm. Momentarily distracted from pouting, she raises one arm, which is wrapped in a shiny new cast. Hilariously, Richard is a childhood friend of one of the women walking with us today. This leads to a great deal of hugging and cries of joy, as neither has seen the other since they were children in Guadeloupe. Of all places. Naturally, this felicitous reunion means that we’re invited to the party and we we learn that when he left Guadeloupe, Richard lived in Paris for a while, but missed the countryside and so when on a trip to Lebanon one year, he fell in love with a girl from Fradis, he decided to move with her back to her village.
It is a classic Lebanon moment. Nowhere else would someone born in the Caribbean and brought up Paris end up in a remote mountain village, where one day, he would chance across a friend he had not seen since they were both children. I’ve witnessed so many of these unexpected encounters over the years - some less desired than others - that I’m no longer surprised by them. After all, Lebanon is a small country and the usual six degrees of separation that pertain elsewhere, are often reduced here to one, or at most two. This means that for the most part, almost everyone, from the Prime Minister to the owner of a cow called Obama, can be reached by asking friends if they know someone who knows them.
The trail calls and eventually, we are forced to make our goodbyes, with Richard and his friend vowing to remain in touch from now on and Richard’s wife inviting her and her family to ‘come for a coffee, anytime’ and we leave in flurry of goodbyes, as though we had all now become sons and daughters of Fradis.
After the fun and laughter, the stairs out of Paradise feel especially steep. We slog our way upwards dutifully, crossing the narrow road to which the stairs lead, and follow the trail upwards and over the crest of the hill, where we get our last glimpse of fragrant Fradis, already lost amongst the trees.