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Maronite pilgrimage

Alex Klaushofer

It had been a long time in the coming. I had wanted to go to Nahr Ibrahim - known in English as Adonis Valley - since before I even set foot in Lebanon. An area of great beauty deep in the Lebanese mountains, it's steeped in religious history - the Greek myth of Adonis began there, giving rise to the first shrines and chapels that line its rocky sides. In Christian times, the Maronites took refuge from Muslim persecution there, developing a distinctive spirituality in keeping with their tough mountain environment.


As Lebanon's biggest Christian sect, the Maronites - eastern Catholics in communion with Rome - are both politically powerful and beleaguered, struggling to retain their position in a complex mosaic of religious communities. (Lebanon's power-sharing constitution stipulates that the president must be a Maronite; its prime minister a Sunni Muslim.) To this day, Adonis Valley, along with much of Mount Lebanon, remains their heartlands, partly thanks to the lack of public transport.


An attempt to visit it by car with friends from Beirut a few years earlier had proved abortive. Partly because sectarian divisions express themselves geographically, the Lebanese tend not to know areas outside their own, and we got lost, settling for a grumpy picnic in an unnamed spot.


But finally, I am going to spend the weekend in Aqoura, a village close to the source of the Ibrahim river. (Aqoura in Syriac means 'cold spring'.) The trip is being organised by 33 North, one of a small number of Lebanese eco-tourism companies trying to introduce people to rural Lebanon while benefiting the locals. We are to spend the morning picking apples - that most biblical of fruits - tour religious sites in the afternoon and take to the hills on Sunday for a full day's hiking.


The weather has broken in Beirut as we set off, the clouds opening over a sticky city. The day before, ten people had cancelled. It's a symptom of the close-knit nature of Lebanese society, explains tour operator Gilbert Moukheiber: 'If one is sick, the others won't come.' So we are a small group: two Lebanese families, Gilbert's wife and me. I am the only foreigner and they are all Maronites, so the trip will afford an outsider a rare glimpse into the weekend world of this distinctive sect.


After about an hour, we enter the valley, the 4x4 snaking along the road halfway up the mountainside. Above us, soars a barren rockscape; below, acres of lush orchards, sculpted into terraces and nourished by the valley waters. We travel further into the cleft until we're almost enclosed, the exit to the outside world just a strip of sky on the horizon, pausing at the yawning cavern of Roueiss which, extending 5.5 km into the mountain, is Lebanon's second deepest cave.


Then it's round to Aqoura, strung out along the far end of the valley's hairpin curve. Rows of tents stand in the orchards, housing seasonal workers brought in from Syria. We're given brief instructions on how to pick without bruising the crop - 'hold, twist and pull' - and told to leave any fallen fruit on the ground.


Apples, apples everywhere. The trees are loaded, every branch bowed under the weight of the dark red fruit. I pick slowly, and am easily overtaken by the Syrians who scramble into the branches and strip them bare. The storm crossing the country is overhead, and thunder richochets around the valley. The shelter of the trees is a great place to watch the display -  silver forks of lightening exploding into gold as they hit the sides of the mountains. 


Storm over, we repare to a sunny orchard for lunch - potatoes cooked in an open fire, fatayer [savoury Lebanese pastries], tomato salad and barbequed meat. Afterwards, I lie down among the trees and doze, intoxicated by the cidrous smell of the apples decomposing around me. Then we take a walking tour of the village. Old people in black salute us from balconies, and one family cooking outside gives us enough kessik - bread cooked with a specialty cheese - for the entire group.


The adults are friendly enough,and we share a common language of French, but the children seem intrigued to have a foreigner among them, and keep coming to ask or tell me things. There's a girl of nine and two boys a little older, brandishing plastic guns with which they mean to protect us.


In the church of St Antony, preparations are underway for a wedding. The interior is sumptuously decorated in red and white, the air scented with roses and crysanthumums, and filled with the arabesque sounds of singer and pianist rehearsing. It's such a feast for the senses that I want to linger, but the ceremony will start soon, so we head instead for St Elie, a pretty chapel of buttery stone with a forecourt on a rocky outcrop. An evening mist has descended and it's no longer possible to see what's going on elsewhere in the valley.


Then Gilbert leads out of the village, pointing out the stone-cut steps that in Roman times formed the main route between Byblos and the Bekaa. At a perilous little bridge, the girl makes a mew of fear and takes my hand. We ascend up a cliff path in the fading light. The mist is thick now, and I'm starting to wonder how we will get back in the dark.


But suddenly human forms appear in the rock beside us: little statues in cavities behind panes of glass, and the heads of saints and apostles carved out of the cliff face. It is, Gilbert explains, the work of one man from the village in the 1990s. Further on there's an illuminated grotto, and through the metal gate I can see the hooded face of St Charbel, the nineteenth- century monk who went on to become Lebanon's first Maronite saint. Next to him, hands raised in prayer, is Estephan Nehme, who was canonized in June.


A turn or two later, and we're at our destination. Mary stands on a stone plinth overlooking the valley, holding the Christ child aloft. Behind, in the rock, is the chapel of St Peter. It's hot inside, but the children take the opportunity to investigate the religious accoutrements, opening boxes they shouldn't and putting out votive candles. (They relight them when I remind them they represent people's prayers.)


Outside, Gilbert declares five minutes of meditative silence and, briefly, all fidgeting ceases. 'Will you pray with us, Alex?' he asks, and we form a semi-circle, holding hands while one of the group recites the main Maronite prayer in Arabic: 'Ya Mariam ...' 


By the time we finish, the mist has rolled back and it's possible to see the cars on the valley floor below, the headlamps ploughing through the darkness. And there is a spiral of steps built onto the mountainside - 770 to be precise - to take us back down to the village for dinner under oak trees, and a full moon.


The next day, after a traditional lebanese breakfast at the farmer's house, we set off for the highlands above Aqoura. We start at 1600 metres, climbing to 1900, where it is cooler amid the vast blue skies.


It's a stony uplands desert, but the terrain is studded with purple and yellow cyclamen. Spent bullets also litter the ground - the products not of conflict, but the Lebanese love of hunting. By mid afternoon, we are proud to have done nearly 11 km at altitude and in the heat. The trip, like so much of life in Lebanon, has been full of contrasts.



Alex Klaushofer is the author of 'Paradise Divided: A portrait of Lebanon'