Shortly afterwards, we turn into the Qozhaya Valley, which together with Qannoubine makes up Qadisha.
Spelled with both a ‘k’ and a ‘q’, the name Qadisha is derived from the Syriac root word meaning ‘holy’, and as in Syriac, the letter ‘a’ is pronounced as an ‘o’, people would have spoked of the Qodisha, rather than the Qadisha Valley. It’s testament to the persistence of their linguistic roots that the inhabitants of this region still pronounce it that way in Arabic, a language that wouldn’t have been widely spoken up here until three or four hundred years ago. Indeed an old Levantine equivalent of ‘when pigs fly’ roughly translates as ‘when Christians speak Arabic’.
We hike along the thickly forested valley, which is narrower and not as deep as Qannoubine. Our goal is a monastery, St. Anthony of Qozhaya, which is where we will be spending the night. After a while, it comes into view, floating above a sea of pine trees, which must be laden with pollen, for when the wind blows, shimmering clouds of golden dust blow from trees, covering the surroundings in sticky, heady powder.
Like the other monasteries in the area, St. Anthony’s is carved out of the side of the valley. Surrounded by pines, its red tiled roofs and weathered sandstone façade makes it look like we have stumbled into Provence or the foothills of the Italian Alps.
It’s been a long day, and I’m eager for a rest. As we wind up the valley, we drop down to a small bridge across the river and then climb back up the other side to the monastery, a cluster of buildings built over the original rock-cut chapels and rooms, which are well over a thousand years old. One of them in the lower levels of the main building, has been turned into a museum and amongst other exhibits, proudly displays an early 19th Century printing press, which according to its plaque was purchased from Thomas Long and Sons of Edinburgh. Qozhaya has a long history of printing but this one, though venerable, is a mere stripling compared to the original press, which began churning out pamphlets and books in 1610.
Not many places in the region did. For a long time, printing was banned in the Ottoman Empire, ostensibly on the grounds that Arabic, which was the language of God, should not be produced by anything as soulless as a machine. The Empire’s non-Muslim citizens, however, who read doubtlessly inferior books of dubious authority anyway were eventually permitted to use the press, a concession that was to inadvertently give Ottoman Christians and Jews significant advantages over their Muslim counterparts a couple of centuries down the road.
In Lebanon, there’s a running dispute over which monastery was the first to print an Arabic-language book. If you insist that the book has to be printed in Arabic script, then the title goes to Kinchara, where the first locally printed Arabic-language Bible was produced in 1734. But Kinchara was not the first monastery to print a book. That title belongs to St. Anthony’s, which produced a bilingual Syriac-Arabic psalter in 1610, but as both the Arabic and the Syriac texts were printed in the Syriac alphabet, which is closely related to Arabic, Kinchara maintains that the title is theirs. Lebanese disputes about who did what first generally tend to involve Syria, so it’s worth noting that the first Arabic-language books printed in Arabic were produced in Aleppo in 1706. Though this pips Kinchara to the post, it doesn’t come close to Qozhaya. That said, it’s probably worth noting that first book printed anywhere in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t in Arabic or Syriac but in Hebrew, with Jacob ben Asher’s Arbaah Turim appearing in Constantinople in 1493 courtesy of the Ibn Nahmias brothers, who had just been expelled from Spain following the Reconquista.
After a night made significantly more jolly by the unexpected appearance of a friend, who plans to hike the trail for a couple of days, and has come bearing a sackful of rather excellent chocolates and a small bottle of brandy, I settle in and sleep like the dead.
The next morning we get off to a very hot start, with a windless march straight up the valley, during which we rise 600 metres or so over the course of two hours. As mornings go, this one feels interminable. Although we do pass a rather pretty waterfall and are walking in the shade of trees, the views aren’t inspiring, but then as I was woken at 5am by one of the other walkers clumsily crashing about the dormitory room, I’m not in the most accommodating mood.
We reach the outskirts of Ain Tourine, a village that is apparently in the process of being rebuilt. Between the rubble-filled roads, torn netting on the buildings and ripped up cobbles, it looks more like a post-war zone than the pretty village we’ve been promised. I’m momentarily mollified by an adorable puppy, which squirms with glee as I scratch his back. Dogs bring out an almost maternal instinct in me – something the sight of babies never does – and I’m tempted to wonder if in my past lives I wasn’t always necessarily human.
As we straggle along the main drag, which will be delightful once the reconstruction is finished, a beaming silver-haired woman in her late 50’s, comes out of her house to greet us bearing an artfully-balanced tray of cups and a steaming rakwe from which she dispenses thick, sweet black coffee with laughter and smiles. We all immediately fall in love with her, and she revels in the flood of attention.
It’s decided that we’ll take an impromptu break and having dispensed her coffee, the woman, whose name entirely appropriately means ‘the grace of God’, begins reading the finished cups, overturning them on the tray and scrutinising the patterns left in the dregs. It seems that we’re all marvellous, glorious and have glowing futures ahead of us, which is rather nice to hear, whether or not you place any stock in the perusing of coffee grounds.
Elias, who for our sins remains with us today, has been somewhat diminished by the loss of his adoring chorus but as he doesn’t know how not to be the centre of everyone’s attention all of the time, he whips out his nay (yes, that would be a kind of flute…) and attempts to distract us from God’s Grace. His little show feels desperately needy and sad, but then he lost my sympathy five minutes after we first met him. Still, from the looks on some of the other walkers’ faces, I can see that I’m not the only one who thinks he’s a crashing bore.
Leaving Ain Tourine, the trail takes us through fields of tall, silvery thistles. The ground is a bit loose underfoot and naturally, Captain Clumsy ends up falling face-first into them. I emerge with trousers full of prickles and soon develop a surprisingly itchy rash on my arms, which go red and puffy. Thankfully, Robin is on hand with a miracle spray. I’ve been bitten, stung and pricked by countless plants and noxious creatures over the years and never suffered an allergic reaction, so I’m a bit surprised at my body’s vehement response. Probably falling face first into a large patch of thistles didn’t help, but I resolve to give any future patches the widest possible berth.
On the outskirts of Ehden, we reach an old 17th (or possibly 7th Century, I wasn’t paying close attention) shrine to some saint or another and in a last desperate bid to get attention, Elias the Execrable begins ringing the bell frantically. Perhaps he’s trying out for the role of Qasimodo (though he may want to work on his charm), perhaps he’s been huffing glue, perhaps he was deprived of oxygen at birth, whatever the explanation for this paroxysm of demented campanology, the gambit fails. We file by, pointedly ignoring him. I can only imagine the tribulation that bringing that child up must have been and hope that his parents had access to an ample supply of Prozac.
We wind through the streets of Ehden and make our way towards Mar Gerges Cathedral, outside which there’s a statue to Gibrayil al-Sahyouni (or Gabriel Sionite), the 16th Century polyglot from Ehden who worked on translating assorted religious text from and into Arabic at the College Royal in Paris and at La Sapienza in Rome. Inside, there used to be a mausoleum for Youssef Bey Karam, the 19th Century nationalist freedom fighter and rebel who died in exile in Naples but his body has been moved to the lovely 8th Century Mar Mamas, while the cathedral undergoes rennovation.
After a very early lunch on the famous main square, which is ringed by bars, cafes and restaurants, we climb out of town along a series of old, arcaded sandstone staircase and then along a track that takes us up to the ridge above. It’s a long and gruelling ascent with relatively little tree cover, though the wind does occasionally cool us off. The views from the top of Jabal Mar Sarkis are breath-taking. The red-roofed sprawl of Ehden lies directly beneath us and although it is a bit hazy, we can see all the way out to the snow streaked slopes above the Cedars in the south, up to Tripoli and the coast to the north, and down into the Arz Valley, which is where we are heading next.
But first, we’re allowed a short break. We sprawl out on the rocks at Harf Ehden, on an outcrop near the top of this mountain named after an early Christian martyr. Sarkis and his companion Bakhos (they come as a pair) were officers in the Roman Army who were humiliated and tortured in an attempt to force them to renounce their secret belief. They refused and were separated to break down their resolve. Bakhos was removed to Barbalissos (Qala’at Balis in northern Syria), where he was beaten to death while he was being tortured, while Sarkis was moved to nearby Resafa, an ancient fortified city of Akkadian origin, where he was beheaded.
Resafa, a city built mostly of mudbrick with a high quartzite content, which I remember made the walls glimmer in the harsh sun when I visited the sprawling, completely deserted site shortly before I came to Lebanon, was renamed Sergiopolis during the Byzantine era, when a basilica was built over the spot where the officer - now a saint - was executed and buried.
As I sit there on an outcrop covered in crosses of different sizes, swinging my feet over the several hundred metre drop, I’m reminded of the early ‘90s book by American academic, John Boswell, who uncovered evidence that Sarkis and Bakhos were invoked during male same-sex union ceremonies performed in the first centuries of the Church. Naturally, Boswell’s book was widely denounced, with ecclesiastical authorities huffing angrily about shoddy scholarship and the blatant misinterpretation of ancient texts.
Whether the early Church performed same-sex unions or not – and the evidence appears to suggest that it did - the saints’ own hagiography clearly refers to them as erastoi, the Greek word for lovers in the physical sense, so it seems that homophobia (and possibly misogyny) was something the Church learned later in life.
Surrendering the heights, we leave Ehden, a town supposedly founded by the descendants of Shem, son of Noah, and home of the great statue of Baal Loubnan, the Canaanite God of the Snows, and make our way along the Arz Valley side of the mountain.
After another short climb, we arrive at the outskirts of the national reserve, where we’re greeted by one of the reserve’s coordinators and guided to a sunny hilltop, where trays of cedar saplings and a stack of shovels await.
An hour or so later, we’ve planted them all, adding in our small way to the mammoth task of restoring Lebanon’s long-lost forests and as we resume course, following a narrow wadi down to the eco-lodge where we’ll be spending the night, I feel quite proud of my little sapling. Should it survive climate change, careless feet, forest fires and ravening goats, it will eventually grow to become part of the Million Cedar Corridor. As I look down the valley to the coast above Tripoli and north into Syria, I’m happy that wherever in the world I may end up next, a part of me is growing slowly in the mountains of the Lord of Snow.