We woke early and went down the steps at the side of the hotel for an early morning swim. Christine is still finding it diffcult to move quickly on steps or slopes as her confidence has understandably been knocked, but we eventually made it. I wade in and it was beautifully warm but the beach shelved quite steeply and the waves were quite rough for the Med. I splashed about but the undertow was vicious and so I stayed very close to shore. Christine sat and wetted her feet. If was very pleasant for a few minutes just to have the beach to ourselves and enjoy the water.
Back in the hotel a copious breakfast was offered. The food here is certainly plentiful, but the coffee was horrible. We left about 9.15 and drove to the University of Balamand to meet a professor who was an expert in Christian / Islamic relations. He was a little late so we wandered around an C11th monastery just below the University. It was beautiful with a central courtyard with a large jasmine which filled the place with scent. There was also a lovely Greek Orthodox chapel with an array of icons which we struggled to identify, although there was no mistaking St George. He seems to be everywhere.
After about 20 minutes the professor arrived and we were ushered in to a very modern meeting room with views over the campus. He gave us some background on the work he is trying to do to improve relations between the two groups which he refers to as encounters rather than dialogue. He pointed out the problem of reaching the ‘grass roots’ , of getting the work beyond the academic. He agreed that insecurity (financial, social, etc) makes people make irrational decisions. They do not always react logically or in their own best interests – Brexit being a case in point. Politicians and others want to exploit divisions rather than look for common ground. I shall write up notes later.
Leaving the University we came back down onto the coastal plain. Haytham, our guide, said he had a surprise for us. Tripoli was too unsafe to go into until about 2 months ago, (it was under ISIS control) but he felt that we could now. He wanted to take us to a fantastic Sunni mosque built in 1365. Of course HMG advises visitors not to go to Tripoli, but hey, what do they know!
Actually it is very unsafe – not because of the terrorists burst because of the traffic. It is manic! Somehow our wonderful drive delivered us safely to the mosque, which is quite stunning. We met the Imam who was delightful and even bought some lucky members of the group cups of coffee from a street vendor at the mosque gate. The peace and beauty inside the building was in marked contrast to the pandemonium in the street which us filled with cars and repair workshops. Somehow we all made it back on to the coach and the driver negotiated a perilous route back through the traffic.
Now we were travelling up the Qadisha Valley or the Valley of the Saints. It is a very steep sided valley cut deep into the limestone and lined with caves which gave been lived in by monks and hermits for years. Some of these have become monasteries and the whole valley is now a UNESCO world heritage site. We climbed the valley sides eventually stopping for lunch at a pizza place next to an ice cream parlour. We made use of both, sharing a cheese and salad pizza and then a delicious but very tasty ice cream sundae.
The afternoon began with a visit to the death place of Kahlil Gibran who wrote ‘The Prophet’. He is buried in an old cave dwelling on the side of the hill. I cannot say I was impressed. Most of the museum was a collection of his paintings and drawings. He could certainly draw, but I wasn’t so sure about his painting. Most of the works were of naked women with a occasional naked men. In some scenes they seemed to be getting to know each other rather well in poorly executed rural settings. He could certainly paint a good breast. I swear one pair of nipples seemed to follow me round the room. The last chamber was underground and there in a cave off this chamber was his coffin. It was all a bit macabre. I’m afraid it left me all a bit cold, but obviously not as cold as he was. Still many of the group seemed to enjoy the visit and I must say that I thought ‘The Prophet ‘ had some good stuff in it.
We continued to climb and the mountains were now really showing themselves. It was very beautiful, Through a small settlement and we came to a small wood of Cedar trees. The road outside the area was lined with tacky stalls selling every conceivable gimcrack made of cedar! Once inside (a small donation gives you entry) it was an oasis of calm. The cedars are majestic and of course very old, some saying back 2,000 years. Their wood gas been used since the time of the Phoenicians for ships and buildings. Solomon’s temple and the great buildings of Jerusalem were built using caedar from Lebanon.Dead wood is sold to the companies making the tat and the money us used for conservation. New areas are being planted but it is a slow old business.
Our last visit involved a vertiginous drive down the northern side of the Qadisha Valley to a Maronite monastery which began as a series off rock caves where monks and anchorites lived. The monastery of St Antoine was built in the C17th and is now a much visited place, in spite of the very narrow road to it which clings to the mountain side. We wandered around the museum which has the first printing press to print in Arabic in it. Early texts are also there, many of them printed in St Antoine. There is also an eclectic mix of linen chests, vestments and cooking pots. We went into the church while a service was taking place and listened to the beautiful sound of the monks singing. As we sat entranced a woman wearing a very flashy outfit came in with her iPhone on filming her progress. She came down the aisle to the front filmed the monks and then sat filming the rest of the service! She seemed totally unaware that this was a religious event and that others might be offended by her actions!
We al so visited a cave where the insane were chained to the rock walls in an attempt to cure them. Freud eat your heart out…prayer and chains are all you need! A long journey home, but a sumptuous meal awaited us. Indeed there really was too much to eat, but we did try. Mother Agnes and Sister Carmel joined us. They are remarkable nuns who gave been doing much to help Syrean refugees and to try to get out the true story of what is happening in Syrean. They assert that the Syean confluct is about outside control if the region and nit about internal rebellion (although that was how it began). They were very persuasive.
Tomorriw we head back to Beirut.