Chapter 25: Young People, These Days!

Sehta.jpg

We take few last photos of Afqa, then slog uphill to the pickup point, passing an ancient Muslim tomb in the field next to a newer church, evidence of the region’s changing demographics over the centuries.

We’re spending the night at a delightful guesthouse run by the Germanos family in the nearby village of Majdel Aakoura , Guita’s Bed and Bloom.

Our hostess greets us old style with trays of sweets and jugs of icy rosewater flavoured lemonade, and as we sprawl in her garden regales us with family history. As the sun sets, the golden light turns the air to treacle, a Lebanese mountain speciality that is especially soothing today as we sprawl on woven straw mats on a lush lawn that is more daisies than grass. Fat bees buzz from flower to flower, occasionally stopping on noses or arms to determine whether we too can be mined for pollen, before realising we’re useless and buzzing on.

The talk turns vaguely political, as we perhaps prompted by a series of recent stand-offs between the Maronite Church and the Shi’ite villagers of nearby Afqa over land ownership, some of the group begin discussing Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria, Assad’s future and the floods of refugees being driven across the border. Already in 2016, the number of arrivals was noticeable, any by the time I left Lebanon in a couple of years later, refugees had added 50% to the country’s population – so numerous were they, that separate queues for Syrians were eventually set up at government offices, embassies and at the airport. 

The evening is too lovely to spend on war talk and when we are summoned to dinner, an unbelievably lavish spread of incredible soups, freshly picked water meadow herb salad and heavenly dumplings in garlicky yoghurt sauce, it turns to more pleasant discussions of the region and its history. Afterwards, Guita, who comes from a princely family and so is a Sheikha, talks a bit about the profound social changes wrought by one of the militias during the civil war, which worked on existing cleavages to exacerbate divides in the region – the after effects of which are still reverberating through the area. Hence the land disputes in Afqa.

A group of walkers decide to spend the night on the roof to better see the stars, which are out in full splendour tonight. I decline and while I do mildly regret my decision later - a night under the stars would have been magnificent - I’m equally glad when I see their bleary eyes the next morning that I didn’t stay up until 4 in the morning carousing. 

We’ve a tough day ahead and after a bouncy high-speed ride in the back of a truck to the start of the trail, which begins by an old summer camp at the foot of the escarpment that towers over the area, we begin the long climb back up to the 1800 metre mark.

Guita has decided to walk with us for part of the way, as like the rest of the mountain, this is land that has belonged to her family for many generations, its purchase funded by the years her ancestors worked in San Salvador. She is very attached to her land, and takes her role as Sheikha quite seriously, so much so, that she's selling a plot of land she has elsewhere in order to be able to keep hold of the land in Majdel. Though it’s obviously good, as Mel Brooks once famously remarked, to be the king, being landed gentry apparently isn’t any easier here than anywhere else, these days. 

We assemble for the start our hike beside a rather jaded donkey, which has clearly seen more hikers than we’ve had hot dinners, then for the next three hours, it's a steady climb, for the most part on pretty decent farm roads. I talk a bit to Doctor Beatrice, who's also a member of the trail’s board of directors and she explains the association’s drive to encourage people to sponsor of segments of trail – a process that involves either donating money or time, as sponsors are responsible for regularly walking their section, to make sure it remains in good condition, paths aren’t overgrown (or abruptly fenced off) and litter is removed. 

I suggest that she use her position to persuade wealthy Lebanese to cough up cash by promising them that as long as they continue to pay for it, their section of the trail can be named after them. I’ve long though that playing on the vanity/ego of Lebanon’s wealthy, who think nothing of dropping $20,000 on a handbag and who build chalets the size of city apartment blocks, is something of a missed opportunity. There are so many projects in Lebanon that languish because the State cannot (or simply will not) fund them, and I’d much rather have a Roman Temple named after Omar Hammoudi or a public park named after Mouna Bseiso than go without. Think of the number of libraries, hospitals and other public facilities that are named after millionaires elsewhere.  

I can tell the good doctoura isn’t particularly impressed, nor does she seem especially keen to keep talking to me now that her message has been delivered, even though she was the one who first struck up conversation, so I take my leave and speed up, passing one of the day-trippers who is now, as he will be for much of the rest of the day, on his phone, doing business deals. I rather wonder why he’s bothered to come along at all.

Even though we’re on a farm road, parts of the walk are quite steep, but the sweeping views more than compensate. We rise up through swathes of twisted juniper, crushing berries under foot, releasing clouds of slightly bitter, resinous perfume. 

A little further on, we pass a spot where Joseph says he discovered a cave that had been sealed at some point in the past, possibly during the civil war, when it may have been used as an arms cache. Perhaps even earlier, as old caches dating back to WWI have been found closer to the coast. 

Winding ever upwards, we finally crest the mountain, where we are rewarded a jaw-dropping view over the villages of Qartaba, Aaqoura and the entire valley all the way down to the coast. We’ll be overnighting in Aaqoura, from here, a pretty swathe of red-roofed houses that washes up the walls of a distant cliff, and we can even make out part tomorrow's trail to the cedar reserve in Tannourine. Briefly, I understand what omniscience feels like. 

We pause for a while, before making our way to the small and curiously prehistoric-looking shrine of Saydet el-Sehta, a low, circular structure made of piled rock, on top of which a large illuminated cross and a statue of Mary gleam whitely against the intense blue of the sky. 

The sun is fierce and its quite windy, so when we stop here for lunch on the concrete terrace, I try to find somewhere sheltered to tuck into my food, which includes some of the dumplings from the night before – the yoghurt sauce warmed by the sun.

Afterwards, I climb on top of the stone structure and stand next to statue to get the best view yet of the villages and the valley below, then I take a short nap under a nearby tree, sunlight dappling my face.

Continuing onwards, we pass through a massive and rather pungent flock of goats, under the watchful gaze of a rather wild-looking guard dog, who wags his tail as he growls, frustrated perhaps because his owner has told him not to bark at us. The plateau undulates gently and as we follow the dips and rises, streaks of dust-covered snow begin to appear. The breeze has gone and it’s quite warm, so I stop periodically to grab handfuls, more ice than snow, to scrub my head and place handfuls on my hat to cool down, much to the collective amusement. The ground here is strewn with stone goat pens, topped with thorny branches, that remind me somewhat of the Neolithic huts of Skara Brae, though these face the (far-off) Mediterranean, rather than the Atlantic.

As we begin our descent, we pass boulders composed entirely from the fossilised remains of marine worms and shellfish. Lebanon is home to some of the richest and most varied marine fossil beds in the world as 100 million years ago, most of the country was under water, its mountains formed when the African and Arabian plates collided with European and Asian plates – a process that politically-speaking, you might argue has been happening ever since.

Lebanon’s geological make-up gives the ‘Lebanon is not Arab’ school solid, if ironic support; for just as some Lebanese insist that they are not Arabs (which technically is correct, at least on the genetic level), the sliver of land that is now Mount Lebanon is not even part of the Arabian plate, which begins with the Beka’a Valley. Perhaps rather unfortunately for them - for there is a degree of racism in the way this particular theory is sometimes presented - tectonically speaking, Lebanon is African.

If you read Wikipedia, it will tell you that the earliest known account of Lebanese fossils is attributed to the Father of Lies, Herodotus himself. That said, as Mireille Gayet, Pierre Abi Saad and Olivier Gaudant point out in their lovely book, Fossils of Lebanon, that claim can’t be verified, for although the Greek historian does discuss fossils in his Histories, he doesn’t make specific reference to Lebanon’s.

As they explain, the earliest verifiable reference was made by Eusebius of Caesarea, the 3rd Century Bishop of Palestine, who in his Armenian Chronicles writes that “I have seen certain fishes, which were found in my lifetime on the highest peaks in Lebanon. They took stones from therefor construction, and discovered many kinds of sea fishes which were held together in the quarry with mud, and as if pickled in brine were preserved until our times, so that the mere sight of them should testify to the truth of Noah’s Flood.”

The sight similarly amazed Louis XI, who was given a fossil of a fish as he departed Sayette, today’s Saida, on his way back to France after the Seventh Crusade. Apparently, it “was the most marvellous in the world, for when a layer of [the stone] was lifted, there was found between the two pieces the form of a fish. The fish was of stone, but lacked nothing in form, eyes, bones, colour, or anything necessary to a living fish.” The description, which appears in de Joinville’s 1248 account Des Saintes Paroles et des Bonnes Actions, goes on to describe le roi as likening the fossil to a Tench, a freshwater fish, proving that while Louis may have been a king, and (if we ignore his zealous expansion of the Inquisition and eradication of the Cathars) possibly a saint (yes, he has been canonised), when it came to smarts, he was rather more lacking.

But back to the walk. The final descent takes ages. As we rattle our way down, I remember walking up this way a few years earlier and remember it being a hellacious climb. Going down isn't much better and hemmed in on either side by sheer rock walls, it’s hot and there’s no view. 

Eventually, we hit tarmac and walk up into Aaqoura, a tiny village that is famous for having 45 churches, practically one per family that used to live there. As we meander into the village, dusty, sweaty and weary, we pass four elderly widows, like elderly widows all around the Mediterranean, dressed completely in black, who are having very jolly coffee on the trellis-shaded terrace outside one of their houses. They invite us over for a cup as we pass, and can't believed we have just walked from Majdel and up and over the mountain to Aaqoura. Clearly, they think we might be missing a few marbles.

“Don’t they know there’s a road now?” the eldest of them stage whispers to her friend, as she surveys us with barely concealed alarm. “Wahiyet ‘aadra, I swear I don’t understand the young these days.”

Afqa to Aaqoura  Section 11 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Afqa to Aaqoura

Section 11 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association