Writing

Chapter 24: As We Have Always Done

Afqa.jpg

Barbie is bobbing along the track ahead. I suspect Robin may have the hots for her, as I noticed him rubbing her foot as I passed by the lounge on the way to bed the night before. His ministrations obviously worked for today, she’s even pinker and more bouncy than ever.

As we swing around to the opposite side of the valley, our walk at first is uninteresting, as it is fairly flat and takes us mostly through orchards. Up above us, the streaks of snow on the peaks make me think of the whorls of vanilla between the stripes of chocolate on a Cornetto. Rarely have the slopes of Faraya looked so toothsome.

We pass another mazar, or commemorative shrine, this one complete with photos and a statue of Mary on top. It was put up in memory of a young woman who fell off the cliff here. Like the others we’ve seen along the way, public memorials commemorating a private loss, it is an invitation to pause and give thanks that one is still alive.

The view this morning is back across the valley and up at the escarpment we walked along yesterday. It’s nice but not breath-taking, although in places, long plumes of water fall from crevices in the opposing cliff wall, temporary waterfalls that will dry up once the snow has all melted. They are too far away to hear, but further along, a low buzzing fills the air as we pass rows of brightly painted hives, which reminded me of rows of beach huts.

Honey is produced all over the country. It’s made from orange blossom in the south, from cedar and mountain flowers in Mount Lebanon and from pine in the Beka’a - though now that someone in France has trained bees to make honey from cannabis plants, there are parts of the Valley that might want to get in on a more lucrative kind of sweetener.

These bees are feeding off wild thyme and rosemary and it has them buzzing about us. As a face full of stings is not the way I want to start my day, I keep a respectful distance. Even so, I attract a number of curious drones, which crawl on my arms and ears as I crouch to take a photo of the hives with the mountains behind. They seem to be trying to find out if I am salty or sweet, but when I don’t deliver up any pollen, fly off peacefully. 

Curiously, despite the relatively poor state of Lebanon’s environment and especially the widespread use of pesticides, the illicit dumping of toxins and the abundance of cell towers, colony collapse does not appear to have made it to these shores. I make a mental note to ask someone about that later, perhaps Robin, but of course, I forget. 

As we pass near the village of Hrajel, once the site of a large Roman encampment, we peel off up into a small wadi that leads off the main valley, which is a panorama of horizontal lines, created by steep rows of terraces. 

There are a scatter of buildings and from their condition, it seems we’re walking through a fairly poor area, but amazingly, even this nothing of a hamlet has its own tiny church. It barely has room for a pew but does have an absolutely enormous statue of Mar Sharbel outside. 

Complete with black robes and long, white beard, Sharbel is one of a number of Lebanese saints canonised by Rome in recent decades,and was born in one of the highest and most isolated villages in Lebanon, Bkaa Kafra, much further to the north. He’s widely venerated, with statues of him appearing almost as frequently as those of Elijah, who is popular with the Greek Orthodox. Somewhat comically, the statue is almost as large as the church. 

It’s a lovely day and the little wadi is quite beautiful, if dusty. There is a cluster of isolated farmsteads a little further along the track, and I assume the church must be theirs. If the name of the sweet and fast-flowing freshwater spring where we stop at to fill up is any indication, the hamlet is either inhabited by a single family or by people who know each other very, very well, for it is called Ain Ana, a rather unusual name that translates simply as ‘My Spring’. As there is no indication of who the ‘Me’ in question might be, it’s safe to assume this is not something the locals need explaining.

As we reach the end of the wadi, we have a short but steep climb to the plateau above. It’s lush and green and quite lovely, until we start to encounter the tell-tale colourful cartridge casings that indicate hunters frequent the area. As we turn a corner, we stumble onto their ‘camp’, a rotting sofa under a tattered plastic tarp, with piles of rubbish strewn everywhere, empty bottles of booze and hundreds, possibly thousands of spent cartridges on the ground. 

My blood boils. Bird hunting is big across the Middle East, much of it carried out illegally, out of season. Lebanon is a particular offender. It lies along a major migratory route and every year, some gurning idiot posts a picture of his ‘great kills’ on Facebook; tiny dead bodies, and some large ones, laid out on the bonnet of his souped-up BMW - though this happens less frequently now that some of them are being tracked down and prosecuted.

It would be one thing if the birds and other animals were being killed for food, but most of the time it’s for sport. Though how much actual ‘sport’ is involved in sitting on shit-stained sofas, getting hammered and shooting anything that moves, is beyond my comprehension. Hunters claim to love the outdoors and nature, though the condition in which they leave their sites would suggest otherwise. This is such a beautiful spot, but now, like so many others, it has been utterly despoiled. 

Further on, we walk past a shooting range/resort, empty for the season, bullet holes peppering a sign for an organic farm nearby. Talk about scary neighbours. The lodge, which is built completely out of scale to its surroundings, is unfinished and ugly, but does at least have spectacular views and as we come over crest of the mountain, my breath is momentarily taken. The Adonis Valley of old stretches out before us in a magnificent 180 degree panorama. 

Walking on we leave death behind us, and climb up and wind through grassy meadows, sprinkled with wildflowers to an abandoned shepherd's hut. Long and rectangular and made of stone, it has a few small openings for windows and a flat, compressed earth roof. It’s remarkably contemporary. Enlarge the openings and replace the metal window grilles with expanses of sliding glass and this would be the perfect Modernist getaway – further reminder that the mid-century Minimalism of Gropius, Corbusier, Van der Rohe et al was inspired by the simple cubic structures of traditional Middle Eastern architecture.

It appears to be abandoned and I remark to Robin that it would make a rather lovely addition to the Lebanon Mountain Trail. An overnight stop perhaps, or somewhere to enjoy lunch. 

That we do in the grassy meadows next to a small Shi’ite shrine a little further ahead, as the call to prayer echoes around us from the village of Afqa below, an incongruous sound in what is now, with a few exceptions, the solidly Christian uplands. 

We are permitted a short nap and the welcome opportunity to free toes from boots, which is made all the more delicious by the delicate play of light across my face and the rustle of wind through the branches of the apple tree under which I am sprawled.

It’s a short break though, and with several hours still to go, we pack up and continue onwards, entering the top end of the Adonis Valley, proper. The mountains here are covered in juniper, which can grow as high as 2400 metres and may once have grown even higher. Something about the lines of greenery and snow, and the shape of the mountains make it looks as though we are somewhere in the Rockies, or the Dolomites. 

Scrambling up a small hill, Robin points towards the far end of our route, where the top of the massive cave known somewhat disarmingly as the Afqa Grotto, can be seen. We’re here to take a look at a curious Roman inscription carved into a rock on the side of the hill, which is thought to mark the end of something, an ancient municipal boundary of some kind, lost to the passage of time.

The sun is hot and there’s no shade. From the Rockies, we pass into Arizona, as temperatures rise and every footfall creates clouds of dust. The valley won’t be pristine for much longer, as the tell-tale traces of construction suggest, but a few sweaty kilometres later, we arrive at the mouth of grotto and the source of the Ibrahim River, which at this time of year is fat and furious, fed by melting snow. The roar the river makes as it plunges out of the grotto cascading through rocks to a second fall into a deep, deliciously clear pool, is deafening.

I’ve never seen the grotto at this time of year. Afqa has usually been a mid-summer visit; a chance to escape from the heat of the coast, by which time the flow is much less fierce. By late June or July, it’s quite easy to get deep into the grotto and, should the mood take you, walk from this side of Mount Lebanon to the other, where you would emerge in Yammouneh, a pocket valley high above the Beka’a.

Whether that's still possible, I don’t know. In the past though, priests walked underground between the temples to Astarte/Aphrodite on either side of the range; the spectacular one here in Afqa, which attracted pilgrims from all over the Ancient World, and the smaller one on an island in the seasonal lake in Yammouneh, as part of their annual celebrations.

The trip up the Adonis Valley to Afqa was once a major pilgrimage route, and the trek from the coast near the town of Byblos, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, took three days, with feasting along the way. The revelry reached its peak at the temple, infamously the site of ritual prostitution and sacred orgies, after which, the pilgrims returned, sated, and in some cases, pregnant.

The temple marked the site of Adonis’ death. He was killed on the banks of the river by a boar sent variously by a jealous goddess whose advances he had spurned, or by an angry god seeking vengeance on the demi-god that had stolen his consort’s heart. Whoever was responsible, the boar is said to have gored the Most Beautiful Man in the World in his thigh, and as he bled out by the river, his blood turned its water red.

It’s likely an allegory for spring, for amongst other things, Adonis was the god of fertility, propitiated to ensure a good harvest. Each year, then as now, mountain fields fill with bright red anemones known colloquially as the Blood of Adonis and for a few days, the river turns a reddish brown. This is either a result of the first snowmelt dislodging mineral-rich build-up deep inside the grotto, or Afqa honouring the demi-god who died here, depending on whether you grew up reading Shelly or science.

Sadly, there’s not much left of the temple today apart from a rubble-strewn stone platform, though blame for that lies with the Emperor Constantine, who after seeing the Light, ordered it torn down in a vengeful attempt to erase its powerful associations with fertility and sex.  

Unfortunately for old Constantine, his gambit didn’t entirely work. Long after the temple was gone, the people of the valley continued to propitiate Astarte, albeit after a suitably monotheistic makeover, and so when they wished to conceive, Christian women from nearby villages offered up prayers to the Lady of Afqa, while their Shi’ite neighbours instead petitioned The Great Lady. 

In both cases, what they did was exactly the same, the petition solemnised by tying a piece of white fabric to a tree outside the ruins of the temple, exactly as pilgrims to Astarte had done for thousands of years before them. Exactly, in fact, as some women still do today, though whether modern supplicants suspect that Afqa’s original lady was a pagan goddess, is more difficult to say.

Faraya to Afqa  Section 12 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Faraya to Afqa

Section 12 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association