Jabal al-Sheikh

Chapter 8: The Wise and the Tall

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I’m not sure that it ever really became easy to hike on Mount Hermon.

Eventually, tensions in the Shebaa Farms subsided, even though the Israelis remained in place, but flare-ups could, and did happen without warning, so the mountain remained off most radars. After a few years, parts of it became accessible to casual visitors but by then, life had become busy. I read occasional accounts of powder junkies trekking up to ski down the virgin slopes and of overnight hikes to the top, where it was possible to get permission to camp beside the UN post on the Lebanese side of the buffer zone between the three nations. 

The view was apparently magnificent. A close friend of mine once told me that his father had been force-marched up Hermon during the 1930’s, when he had served in the French Mandate Army of the Levant. He told his son that from the top, the whole of the eastern Mediterranean had been visible, from Jerusalem and Jaffa to Homs, Damascus and Beirut. He’d even claimed to have spotted Cyprus. That last part might have been hyperbole - even without smog, there’s usually quite a bit of dust in the air blowing in off the deserts to the east - but it sounded magical. It was also a stark reminder that this region, which generates so many headlines, where so many different outrages and atrocities take place and where the gulf between the sides seems so wide, is actually very small. Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese all live cheek-by-jowl, practically in each others’ laps.

Every year, I promised I’d make time to hike up Hermon but then work, a new flare-up, heightened political tensions on the border or good old mañana-ism would get in the way until eventually, the 2006 War once again made the hike impossible.

I keep calling it ‘Hermon’, the mountain’s Old Testament name, but in Arabic, it’s known as Jabal al-Sheikh. This roughly translates as the ‘Mountain of the Chief’ but ‘sheikh’ also conveys meanings of venerability, wisdom, age and mastery. Supposedly, it has this name because of the snow that graces it for much of the year, much like white hair or a taqiyah, the Muslim skullcap. But as is so often the case in a part of the world as old as this, it might also have something to do with Hermon’s ancient associations as a sacred site, for it is a place where according to legend, the gods and their offspring once resided.

For the Greeks, it was where Pan liked to frolic with his nymphs, while for Philo of Byblos, the 12th Century antiquarian and author of a lost history of the Phoenicians, it was home to four giants, who lived there with their human wives, but the mountain has been sacred since at least the Bronze Age. Two thousand years before Philo, the Canaanites knew the mountain as Baal-Hermon, the abode of the Lord of Hermon, and built the earliest of the 30-odd Phoenician, Greek and Roman shrines that still exist on the mountain’s flanks.

I’d visited one of them near the village of Deir el-Aashayer in the early 2000’s. It had once been used as a chapel by disciples of Saint Simeon Stylite, an early Christian ascetic who chose to get away from earthly distraction by spending 37 years on top of a pillar in a monastery in the hinterlands of Aleppo, but originally, it had been dedicated to an unknown group of local deities, the gods of Kiboreia, whose only surviving mention was a 3rd Century Greek inscription found on a bench in the temple, which dedicated the seat to Beeliabos, the son of the high priest of these Kiboreian gods.

Like its 29 siblings, the temple of Deir el-Aashayer is oriented towards the highest of Hermon’s three peaks, where at an altitude of 2,814 metres, lie the scattered remains of the most important temple of them all, the Qasr Antar, presumably the abode of the Lord of Hermon.

I’d seen one of the stele removed from the temple in the 1860’s on display at the British Museum when I studied at SOAS in the late ‘80’s. As a life-long reader of fantasy and scifi, I particularly enjoyed reading the Chariots of the Gods-style ‘alternative history’ that attempted to link the ruins of the highest known temple of the Ancient World with a story from The Book of Enoch (the Apocrypha were a particular teenage weakness) about the host of angels who were supposed to have descended from Heaven to Hermon, to take human wives. The fruit of their union, the Nephilim, were a race of giant demigods that the Flood had been sent in part to erase from the world.

The mountain is mentioned in the Old Testament as home to a variety of supernatural beings, including the Rephaim, spirits that spoke in buzzing voices and who could intercede on behalf of the living, and as home to the descendants of Gog, grandson of Noah, who like his grandfather, was a literal giant and whose people will apparently play an integral role in the Endtimes. Known in Islam as Ya’juj, Gog and his descendants are said to be confined behind a metal wall built by the ‘Two-Horned One’ (an epithet often given to Alexander the Great) and when it is removed, Ya’juj and his brother Ma’juj will lead their people forth to rain destruction on the world.

Not all of Hermon’s monotheistic associations are quite as chilling. It pops up in the Song of Songs, in which Solomon, himself no stranger to all things supernatural, entreats his spouse to “come with him from Lebanon'“ and in the New Testament, is claimed as the Mount of Transfiguration, site of Jesus’ first miracle, where the disciples witnessed his transformation into a being whose “face did shine as the sun, and [whose] raiment was white as the light”. It was up there, as he spoke with the spirits of Moses and Elijah, that a voice from the skies was heard to call Jesus ‘son’, which in the Christian tradition effectively makes Hermon the place where the Flesh first became Divine. 

 Lebanese Christians and Druze, who accept Christ as one of ten incarnations of the Divine in flesh but believe that Jesus and Christ were two separate people, used to observe the Feast of the Transfiguration each year on August the 6th by climbing up to Qasr Antar, where the Christians would celebrate mass. At the moment, that is no longer possible. In 2014, an Al Qaeda affiliate involved in Syria’s Civil War, the Jabhat al-Nusra, kidnapped the soldiers at the UN post on the Lebanese side. The soldiers eventually escaped but the post has been abandoned and while al-Nusra aren’t supposed to be present on Lebanese soil, the Lebanese Army does not permit trekking into the upper levels of Hermon, just in case. And so again, Qasr Antar is out of bounds, standing silent and alone, as it has for millennia, silent witness to conflict and upheaval.

Not that you’d know any of that from two thousand-plus metres below. As our hike began, we rolled gently through a patchwork of woodland and orchards for the first five kilometres until, on the outskirts of Ain Tinta, less a hamlet and more a cluster of houses on a hilltop, we began the long, slow climb that would eventually take us up from where we started at 700 metres, to today’s highest point of 1400 metres.

Maybe because it was a Sunday there more people out and about than the day before, amongst them a trio of Druze uqqal, who were standing by the path chatting as we emerged from a particularly fragrant grove of umbrella pines. The Druze are divided into two communities. The majority are juhhal - the Ignorant - Druze by birth but with only a minimal understanding of their faith, the intricacies of which are kept secret from both the juhhal and non-Druze. 

The uqqal are initiates. They dress distinctively, to denote their status, with the men wearing long black shirts, baggy sherwal trousers and a white taqiyah, the women a full-length black or dark blue dress and a long, gauzy white head scarf that can be wrapped around the face to serve as a veil, if necessary. The more learned uqqal are referred to as sheikhs and usually wear a fez wrapped in a white scarf, so from the look of it, our trio was composed of two younger uqqal and a sheikh.

One of the uqqal, who sported a particularly impressive moustache, hailed us and with a twinkle in his eye, asked why we were wandering through the uplands of Mount Hermon and when he learned we were planning to spend the night in Rashaya, his surprise was almost comical.

“But that’s 20 kilometres, at least,” he said, eyeing our boots and backpacks with a concern that suggests he thinks we may have lost our collective minds. “It’s a very, very long walk, are you sure it’s worth it?”

“Where? They’re going to where? To Rashaya? What? Why don’t they just take a taxi?” the sheikh ventured helpfully, as we waved goodbye. His two companions beam broadly as though it’s the funniest thing they’ve heard all month.

Still climbing, we followed goat trails across rocky hillsides dotted with small, scrubby patches of wind-twisted trees. Although we could see the peaks of Mount Lebanon on the horizon to the left, we’d lost sight of the Beka’a Valley itself, which is hidden below rolling waves of orchard-covered hills, a sea of green studded with small clusters of red-roofed houses for as far as the eye can see.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Ain Aata, the view was panoramic. Stopping for an early lunch in the concrete shell of an unfinished house a couple of kilometres outside the village, we discover that Nabil, the bus driver who ferries our bags between overnight halts, was waiting. He’d driven up to deliver a crate of ice-cold beers, which was greeted enthusiastically by the group. Short and rather tubby, Nabil is quite musical, an accomplished oud player and always singing some song or another. Today was no exception, and as he handed out the beers, he managed to get an impromptu singalong going.

The sun was brutal. I don’t drink beer and I’m not one for campfire songs, especially when it’s midday and there is no campfire, so I found a shady spot at the rear of the house and tucked into my lunch, an assortment of lukewarm items scavenged from the morning’s breakfast. This is to be the way from here on. The families we stay with provide two meals, dinner and breakfast, and we’re free to pop anything we fancy from either into our lunch boxes, so that we aren’t forced to find a village to eat in at lunchtime.  

Large and sporting what will be a massive roof terrace once it is finished, the house is a clunky breezeblock box with small window openings. It’s more engineering than architecture but as far as location goes, it’s unbeatable. To the front, it looks out over a boulder-strewn slope behind which the snow-streaked peak of Mount Hermon rise, and to the rear it has an uninterrupted view across the Beka’a to the peaks of Mount Lebanon beyond. 

Winter hadn’t been especially good and the snowfall, which provides Lebanon with much of its fresh water, had been scant. Normally, the wall of Mount Lebanon would be one long band of white. This April, it was only the tallest peaks that still had any snow left but that made it possible to make out the gleaming peaks of Mount Sannine and further north, Jabal Makmel and the peaks around The Cedars, in the hazy distance. Both seemed impossibly far away but our walk would take up and past both places before it came to an end.