Up in the mountainous region of Lebanon hides the Qadisha Valley, a UNESCO heritage site filled with caves carved in the rocks and once inhabited by Christian monks. During my last day in Lebanon, I went hiking in this surprising part of the country and also took the opportunity to visit the Tannourine Cedars Forest Nature Reserve and the striking Baatara Gorge.
How to get there
The region of the Qadisha Valley, Tannourine and the Baatara Gorge is located about 100km north-east of Beirut, however, it will take you a good two hours to get there. Arriving by public transport is pretty much impossible, so the best options are to rent a car, hire a taxi for the day, or like I did, book a guided visit.
To explore this UNESCO site, I went on a private guided tour with Living Lebanon, a local company that organises both group and private visits. My travel companions and I were lucky enough to be guided by the owners of the company themselves, and we had an incredible time with them! We were very pleased with their services also chose Living Lebanon for our visit to Baalbek and the Jeita Grotto too.
The Qadisha Valley is a very unique place in the world, comprising one of the biggest settlements Christian monasteries.
This ensemble of churches and monasteries carved into the cliffs and dating to the very beginning of Christianity back in the 4th century is located enclosed in the middle of the Lebanese mountains.
Here, the first Christian communities of the region took refuge, creating their shrines in the natural caves that they used to live and meditate.
Even today it is quite surprising to think how these first communities were able to settle down in such an isolated place, with some of the caves located in the middle of very high cliffs that can only be accessed with special equipment.
Qadisha Valley is especially significant as it is the origin of the Maronites, the biggest Christian community in Lebanon. It was in this valley where the patriarchs and bishops of this order lived and founded one of the biggest Christian denominations of the Middle East.
After arriving in the valley, our first stop was the Mar Lichaa Monastery.
The origins of this settlement are unknown, but back in the 14th century, it used to be the residence of the Maronite bishops. Later in the 17th century, a noble Frenchman from Aix-en-Provence called François de Chasteuil took residence in this monastery, where he lived as a hermit for the rest of his life.
Once the most famous residents of Mar Lichaa Monastery was Antonios Tarabay, a Lebanese monk who lived in this monastery as a hermit until his death in 1998. Nowadays he's worshipped by many Christian believers and is currently in the process of beatification by the Catholic Church.
From Mar Lichaa Monastery we started our hike around the Qadisha Valley. Even though the path is not clearly marked as few tourists go there, the hike was very pleasant and easy enough to do. The views of the natural caves and the Lebanese mountains in the background are well worth the effort.
The next stop was the St. Anthony of Padua Church. Even though we don't have much information about it, it was constructed in the 13th century, but some renovations have been carried out in the recent years. On the upper part, the building still preserves parts of its original wall made of mud and uncooked clay, a technique used by the Maronites to remain hidden and avoid using fire to build their settlements.
After crossing between two cliffs only aided by a piece of wood laid on the floor, we arrived in the Monastery of the Cross, one of my favourite parts of the visit to the Qadisha Valley.
Even though unfortunately its state of preservation is very poor (you need to be careful not to hit the rocks or rest on the walls, as they can easily collapse), the construction is still quite impressive.
Dating back to the 10th century, it has a 1,000-year-old painting of Jesus on the cross, as well as multiple paintings from the 12th century with Greek inscriptions.
The building was severely vandalised during the Lebanese Civil War, and many of these paintings have been partially lost. A section of the building has also collapsed due to meteorological factors, which was one of the reasons why just a few years ago the UNESCO was very close to adding the entire Qadisha Valley to the List of World Heritage in Danger.
In the monastery, you can find inscriptions in three different languages: Syriac, Greek, and Arabic. One of the most prominent inscriptions is a passage in Arabic that mentions Satan, where his name is written upside down.
I continued the hike by visiting some other cave churches of the valley, including Mar Sarkis, offering an incredible view of the valley from the inside; Mar Bahnam, a typical hidden church built between the 12th and 13th century that still preserves some colours of its original paintings; and St. Shmouni church, the only church that we visited dedicated to a female saint.
This last church used to have beautiful paintings inside that were completely destroyed after the locals tried to protect them from the war by covering them with concrete. They just didn’t realise that removing the concrete would also remove the colours! Fortunately, a visitor had taken some photographs of these paintings back in the 70s, helping us get an idea of what they looked like back then.
Apparently, some of the buildings in the Qadisha Valley are normally closed to visitors, but we were incredibly lucky and our guide knew the management of the site and was able to get special access to this area. Another good reason to book the visit with Living Lebanon!
Tannourine Cedar Forest Nature Reserve
After walking along the Qadisha Valley for over a couple of hours, we drove up the Lebanese mountains until the Tannourine Cedar Forest Nature Reserve.
The views on the way were absolutely fantastic. I visited at the end of the spring, and the peak of the mountains was still covered in snow, an incredible contrast to the sunny coast just an hour to the west. Definitely not the sight that one would expect in the Middle East!
The Cedar Forest Nature Reserve of Tannourine is one of the largest that you can find in Lebanon, with over 80% of the trees there being a cedar, the national symbol of the country.
The cedar is so important for Lebanon that it even appears on its flag, representing a symbol of holiness, eternity and peace.
Some of the cedars in this nature reserve are centuries old and have grown forming incredible shapes. The impressive views of the snowed mountains and the beautiful surroundings made the Tannourine Cedars Forest nature Reserve a very special part of this day trip.
Descending from the mountains and not too far from Tannourine, our final stop was the Baatara Gorge, one of the most impressive natural formations of Lebanon.
This waterfall drops 255 meters into a cave hidden behind a natural bridge of stone. The cave was carved naturally out of Jurassic limestone millions of years ago.
The best time to visit is during the spring months, when the snow starts melting up in the mountains and this incredible formation becomes a dazzling waterfall. I couldn't have had a better view to finish my memorable trip to Lebanon!
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