On our second to last day, we return to the bottom of the cliff at the end of Sahel el-Qammoua and trail along its base for a while.
Overnight, we’ve become a large group, as people have come in to walk the final two sections of the trail with us and so once again, the camaraderie of the trail, built up over almost four weeks, is diluted by a flood of fresh faces.
At first, the trail meanders gently up and down. In what turns out to be my final act of clumsiness on this trail, which has already gifted me scrapes, stubbed toes and bruises from being careless with where I put my feet , I manage to trip over a branch and fall straight into a large holly bush, from which I emerge with an few extra cut or two.
We don’t climb much today, in fact, we’ll lose more altitude than we gain, and for the most part, we’re walking through forests, less impressive than those above on the sahel, but still very pleasant.
Early on, we pass high above Akkar al-Atiqah, a small and unassuming town with a very ancient history. It’s one of a handful of Levantine cities mentioned in the ancient Amarna Tablets, which means that it has been around for at least 3400 years. Apart from the remains of an Arab castle, briefly controlled by Raymond de Sainte-Gilles, the Crusader Count of Tripoli, there are few historical remains left there today but then the town’s greatest contribution to history was one of flesh and blood, as little old Akkar al-Atiqah produced the only Roman emperor of Lebanese birth.
Severus Alexander was born somewhere down there in some sumptuous villa in 208AD, when Akkar al-Atiqah was known as Arqa. Fourteen years later, he was the second-youngest head of the mightiest empire in the world, all thanks to his grandmother, Julia Maesa, who having ensured that her grandson, Elagabulus became emperor first, then had him adopt his cousin Severus as heir. Elagabulus himself was Syrian, born about 80-or-so kilometres away on the other side of the current border in the city of Emesa, modern-day Homs, which has been decimated by Syria’s civil war.
Apparently famous for his “unspeakably disgusting life” (the words of Barthold Georg Niebuhr, 19th century German historian, not mine), Elagabulus venerated the god after whom he was named in the form of a conical black meteorite he brought with him from Homs. It seems he earned his reputation for his lengthy relationship with his blond slave charioteer, Hierocles and public marriage to another man, Zoticus, an athlete from Smyrna. Perhaps an early iteration of the Party Boy, he was also fond of heavy cosmetics, shaving his body and wearing wigs.
Roman statesman and historian Cassius Dio claimed that the Emperor “set aside a room in the palace and there committed his indecencies, always standing nude at the door of the room, as the harlots do, and shaking the curtain which hung from gold rings, while in a soft and melting voice he solicited the passers-by.” A canny Levantine, he apparently also had numerous agents “who sought out those who could best please him by their foulness. He would collect money from his patrons and give himself airs over his gains; he would also dispute with his associates in this shameful occupation, claiming that he had more lovers than they and took in more money.”
Julia, it seems, did not approve and came to see Severus as a better choice for the throne, and for maintaining the family dynasty. Once his position in line was assured through adoption, she had Elagabulus assassinated. Severus managed to rule for 13 years before he met the same fate, and while it may not always be good to be the king, the journey from (Lebanese) country boy to Roman Emperor isn’t an easy road, even with someone as determined as Julia Maesa by your side, so perhaps surviving 13 years as the centre of the Ancient World isn’t too bad, after all.
A little further along, we come across two men loading wood onto donkeys. It’s illegal to take wood from the mountains without a license, which is in turn, very difficult to get. They claim to be soldiers, though they aren’t in uniform, but as they don't want to be in any photos and get defensive when I try to photograph their donkey, which is decked out in a colourful saddle, I assume that’s probably not the case.
Just before lunch, we come across a Red Cross van parked on the edge of a cliff. At first, it looks like there's been an accident but it turns out that they’re a engaged in a training session, which has been organised for our benefit. Lebanon has no dedicated mountain rescue service, so the Red Cross serves multiple functions and is held in great esteem for the incredible bravery they showed during the civil war, when they were often the only ambulance or rescue service willing to plunge into the thick of battle.
We watch the crew winch a 'victim' up the cliff. It's rather fun and on the second rescue, get to hold the rope and help haul the victim to safety. Afterwards, we have a long lunch under the trees as the volunteers tell us a little more about their work.
From here, it’s all downhill but the descent is gradual. The forest has given way to scrub, which soon peters out, and we are walking along bare ridges, covered in tree stumps and a solitary tree, sole remains of the forest that once covered them.
Entering the Helsbane Valley, the greenery returns and we arrive at Sarkis and Bakhos, a 9th Century church in the middle of a grove of trees on a small hilltop. It’s in ruins, and although it has been partially excavated, trees still grow out of its upper levels, their roots twined through the stonework. We’re shown the remains of a fresco on one apse and a small catacomb, which was probably reserved for the priests, which has several Crosses of Jerusalem carved on its lintel.
The church was abandoned about 400 years ago, when its congregation moved to a more convenient location lower down the valley and as is often the case, appears to have been built over a much older Roman temple. Robin tells us that in October, the ruin flickers back to life for a day, as local congregants come up to celebrate the saints' feast day, before abandoning it once again to silence and the occasional visit by hikers and ramblers, like us.
At the bottom of the valley, we pause for a while at the spiritual Disneyland that is Mar Challita, an ancient church that has been rebuilt and 'expanded' to include acres of saints in kitsch niches, faux stained glass, cheap chandeliers, gaudy carpets, heavy perfume and piped church muzak. It’s so cloying that my first impression is of a wedding cake designed by Gucci for Liberace - less Outsider Art than Omigod Awful.
As for Challita himself, if the way the statue in the first courtyard is dressed is an accurate indication, he was a Crusader, so my first thought is that the story of his sainthood is going to be, shall we say, interesting? But it turns out he was a Roman general and a former governor of Egypt, who was beheaded in 4th Century when Rome briefly reverted to pagan rule. As for his depiction in classic Crusader regalia, well, that’s anyone’s guess.
The leaflet claims that his remains were buried here, though that’s at odds with the official story, which says Challita was transported to Constantinople after his decapitation in Antioch. Curiously, for the leaflet lists the saint’s many and attested miracle, nowhere is it mentioned that Challita is venerated in part for his ability to cure afflictions of the male genitalia, which i’ve always thought might help explain why there are so many shrines dedicated to him across the region.
As usual, the church was built on top of a Roman temple and for decades, lay in ruins on land of the woman who currently owns it. Its rebuilding and transformation into ecclesiastical theme park is the fulfilment of a promise she made when her son fell ill, and promised the saint that she’d rebuild his church if he would grant her son another 10 years of life. According to the story, he did and for the next 10 years, mother and son worked on restoring the church themselves, and then a decade after he was healed, he died. She decided to keep going, and has been at it for the better part of the last 30-odd years, building here and adding there, all in her own inimitable style. She still greets visitors to ‘her’ church and unsurprisingly, looks quite worn out by her years of hard labour.
According to Google Maps, we are only 19 minutes walk from Qobaiyat, our destination for the night, although of course, it takes us longer, as we follow a green, shaded watercourse into town, not the road.
As we sit down to a rich, hearty meal at the convent we’re staying at for our final night, and which seems somewhat at odds with a life of abnegation, the reality that my long walk is almost over sinks in, and although I am tired, I am unable to sleep. I will miss this trail, with its discoveries and revelations. I will miss the wilderness and the freedom, the beauty and the exhilaration. I will miss and the simple pleasure of learning every day that just when I think I can’t walk any further, that I have reached my point of exhaustion and that there is no way in Hell I’m going to get to the top of that mountain, I am able to do it anyway.
The end, when it comes, feels like an afterthought.
In a final twist, the last section, normally a quick 7 to 8km walk, has been expanded to 17, so that hikers along for the last day don’t feel cheated. After a month of sometimes very inaccurate estimations of how far and how long we will be walking each day, these ‘surprises’ have become something of a running joke, and so I’m secretly pleased our last day will be no different.
For some reason, perhaps because for the first time in weeks, I am no longer able to be here, now, I remember very little of that last rolling section to Aandquet, a village that even friends of mine who are from north Lebanon have never heard of before. I do remember that it was hot. Brutally, hot. That my feet ached and that for the first time in weeks, my thoughts were fixed on home and Beirut, not on the excitement of the day ahead.
I’m not sure how I expected our walk would end. I knew there was to be a small ceremony to mark our arrival and the completion of the 8th Lebanon Mountain Trail Throughwalk. I also knew that there would be certificates for those who started at the beginning – Salam and I – speeches from the mayor, and then a buffet, after which a bus would arrive and drive us back to where we began, in the parking lot of the LMT offices in Hazmieh, a suburb in the hills of Beirut.
I think that secretly, I hoped for a small crowd, a few cheers, maybe a banner across the road. But there is nothing. Just Aanquet, silent, somnolent, deserted. I enter the village almost alone. The other walkers trail behind and Joseph and Robin have been side-tracked by some of the LMT staff that have come up to celebrate the end of the trail with us.
Looking around, I see an LMT sign outside a roadside restaurant, where the ceremony is to be held. Suddenly feeling the whole of the last 28-days in my knees, calves and soles of my feet, I drag myself inside to get something cold and fizzy to drink.
As no one was there to clap for me, I hang my boots on the window ledge and clap and cheer as Salam, Robin, Joseph and some of the other walkers who joined us for the weekend, arrive. Some seem happy, some do not notice, a few look at me like I am mad. Perhaps I am, after all, it is infernally hot and I have just walked all the way from Marjayoun.
I want to congratulate Salam, but almost as soon as she is inside, she disappears with some of the folk from the LMTA, no doubt discussing the state of the trail. I do not know the other walkers and they do not seem any more inclined to talk to me than I am to them. So I receive my certificate, say my ‘thank yous’ and listen to the speeches. Goodbyes can be made in the bus, on the way back to Beirut.
There is nothing more to do now but eat, and wait.
Or just wait, for the buffet, though lavish, is uninviting. In place of the myriad local, regional and village delights we have been lucky enough to sample along the way, our final meal is bog-standard standard Lebanese fare. There’s hommous and tabbouleh, sfiha and rqaeq jibneh, moujaddara, waraq anab and makanek, and for those who want it kafta and djej mishwe. It looks tasty, but it’s generic. There’s nothing here I can’t find in any Lebanese restaurant, anywhere in the country, so I fill up on salads, with a couple of kibbe and rqaeq jibneh and return to my window perch.
And so after 28 days, five missing toenails and nine blisters, my 470-kilometre odyssey comes to an anticlimactic end, as I sit alone, one hot May afternoon at a table in a glorified shisha café by the side of the road in a sleepy northern village that is just a few minutes drive from the border, and the ongoing war in Syria.