Beirut can be a difficult city for two people who thrive in open spaces and value the color green. We are doing well, but Melinda and I are not used to being somewhere without a field, canal path, or parks in which we can explore or throw a Frisbee.
This weekend, we accepted an invitation to explore one of Lebanon’s most beautiful destinations. For the past few weeks, we have had the pleasure of meeting an older couple, Robin and Juliet Grayson; Robin is an Anglican priest in the United Kingdom, and both are friends of our local vicar, Nabil. During last week, we received the offer to join Robin and Juliet for a trip to the mountains surrounding the Qadisha Valley. We could not refuse. So, at 7 am on Saturday, we met them and were on our way. Just outside of Beirut, we stopped at the Dog River, where on the side of a mountain is an inscription from every conquering army that has come through Lebanon. One of the oldest steles, left by the Egyptian armies of Ramses II, was replaced by one commemorating Napoleon III’s 1860 expedition to protect the Maronite Christians.
Lebanon is a small country, so I was expecting the mountains to be, well, pretty. They were, in fact, serious mountains with sheer drops into a valley of which I could not see the bottom. Our driver took us up the winding roads, stopping for photo opportunities of the mountains. Our first stop was a museum commemorating the life of the artist and writer Khalil Gibran, who is best known for his collection of poems, The Prophet. Afterwards, we stopped at a small place on the road for Arabic coffee, zaatar, labneh, and cheese melts. Zaatar is bread seasoned with a thyme-based mix, and labneh tastes like something between goat cheese and sour cream. After this, we continued through the cold (yes, cold!) mountains to a peak with a preserved grove of the cedars of Lebanon. These trees have been famous for millennia and some were harvested to be the pillars in the temple of Solomon. It was just perfect to walk through a place of such undisturbed beauty, where 1,000-year-old trees can thrive. Cedar trees may sound very common in America, but these ancient wonders sprawl out on a majestic scale. Afterwards, we perused some souvenir shops that claim to have objects made from naturally felled cedar wood. We did not see anything we wanted, but one man gave us an ornament shaped like a cedar tree with our names burnt into it; it will work perfectly whenever we have a Christmas tree!
After the Cedars, we went to the Monastery of Saint Anthony. The Qadisha Valley has a long monastic tradition, and this monastery dates back to the 4th century. It is literally on the side of a mountain and includes a shrine to St. Anthony in a cave, a chapel carved into the side of the mountain, and the first Arabic printing press in the Middle East. Its preservation of the area’s history and culture and surrounding natural beauty made it the perfect embodiment of the Qadisha Valley region.
We had a wonderful weekend getting our fill of fresh air, cool weather, and majestic mountains, all of which were shared with new friends. We look forward to more adventures as we endeavor to adapt to (and occasionally escape from) the strange and exciting place that is Beirut.