The Qadisha Valley – Nature’s sacred sanctuary
September 17, 2020
Deep, wild, remote and breathtakingly scenic, the Qadisha Valley with its grottoes and waterfalls is an unforgettable experience. Known as the “Holy Valley,” Qadisha has been a place of refuge for those fleeing religious persecution since the fifth century, and is also home to some of the most important early Christian monastic settlements in the world.
Marking the start of a deep geological fault, the extending valleys reach out of sight to the sea. The valley derives its name from the Semitic root “Qadisha”, meaning holy. Surrounded by the magnificence of red-roofed heritage houses and framed by snow-capped mountains, the valley has an overwhelmingly peaceful aura of silent divinity.
Monks, ascetics, anchorites and hermits have sought asylum in the Qadisha Valley since the early middle ages. Nestorians, Monophysites, Chalcedonies and Monothelites hid from persecution and sometimes death, which would have no doubt befallen them due to medieval controversies over the nature of Christ. Even Muslim Sufis found refuge in the valley creating such rich diversity and giving an everlasting spiritual feel to the place. From the womb of Qadisha, prayers were raised in Arabic, Syriac, Greek and even Ethiopian.
To this day, time seems to have stood still in this magnificent gorge, and the modern advancements of the 21st century have not yet scarred the natural beauty of the valley. In fact, classified under UNESCO’s world cultural heritage, its countless caves, chapels, monasteries and luxuriant vegetation have made it one of the most beautiful and most famous natural sites of Lebanon.
Some of its most spectacular man made features are awe-inspiring historical treasures like rock-cut chapels, grottos, and hermitages, many painted with frescoes dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The Qadisha Valley brims with caves and rock shelters inhabited from the third millennium B.C. to the Roman period. During the seventh century, some Christian monks settled in almost inaccessible limestone caves to lead their ascetic lives.
A great destination for pilgrims, history buffs and fans of art and architecture, the Qadisha Valley offers much to see and explore from abandoned to restored and inhabited monasteries, an ancient print house, museum and more. Read on to discover a few spots that are an essential addition to your “must visit” list.
Overlooked by the northern towns of Blawza and Diman, stands Deir Qannoubin in a stunningly wild setting. Home to Maronite patriarchs from the 15th to the 19th centuries, Deir Qannoubin derives its name from the Greek work Kenobin meaning “monastery”. The monastery’s church is built into the rock and on its walls are centuries-old paintings depicting the coronation of the Virgin Mary by the Holy Trinity, while nearby lies the chapel of Saint Marina, a burial site where 18 Maronite patriarchs are entombed.
Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya
One of the most stunning spots in the Holy Valley, Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya or the Monastery of Saint Anthony stands in an aura of ancient solitude. Nestled in the midst of lush greenery and overlooking the valley, the monastery was the place of choice for monks who wanted to disconnect completely from the outside world and devote their lives to poverty and prayer.
To this day, visitors can see the hermits’ cells still attached to the rock. Dating back to the 5th century, Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya housed the Middle East’s first printing press, which was imported around 1585 and produced several liturgical and religious books. Completed in 1995, the monastery’s museum houses a collection of sacred and ethnographic objects, as well as an old printing press.
The monastery’s church was crafted with the hands of man and nature, set in a natural cave with rose colored stone, its manmade façade is hardly separate from the cliff itself. Known as the “cave of the mad”, Saint Anthony’s cave was a place that sheltered the possessed or mentally ill who were brought to be cured by the saint. At the start of the third millennium, Deir Mar Antonios Qozhaya is still alive with an overwhelming quality of intense piety and remains one of the most important Christian sites in the area.
Deir El Salib
The best way to completely cut off the outside world is to make it as physically difficult to access as possible. At least that is what worked best for anchorites who took up their solitary residence in hard to reach (even with ropes and ladders!) cells at Deir El Salib or Monastery of the Cross. This cave hermitage holds 13th century frescoes and inscriptions with writings in Arabic and Syriac, which may still be vaguely visible.
An ideal place for meditation, Mar Sarkis is a place of almost otherworldly calmness and serenity. Once a cave tomb, what remains of the site of Mar Sarkis today is an altar that stands under the wonderfully protective and cooling shade of two old oak trees.
Deir Mar Elishaa
One of the most ancient sites in the valley is Deir Mar Elishaa or the Monastery of Saint Eliseus; there are no existing records of its exact date of construction. There is evidence, however, that the Lebanese Maronite Order was founded in this monastery in the year 1685, with a Maronite bishop taking up residence in Deir Mar Elishaa during the 14th century. The monastery is built into a cliff and its church encompasses four altar niches cut from the rock.
The Chapel of Saydet Hawqa
Kept alive to this very day, the Chapel of Saydet Hawqa is a site for celebration when a high mass is held during the feast of the Assumption of the Virgin in August. Thought to date back to the 13th century, this minute monastery is composed of a chapel and monk’s cells constructed inside a shallow cave.
Commune with nature
Although the Qadisha Valley can be primarily considered a pilgrim’s destination, nature enthusiasts, hikers, and the adventurous will also find a wealth of activities that they can enjoy.
The valley offers ample trails for hiking and trekking, mountain climbing, caving and other natural exploration. The Qadisha Grotto is a beautiful gorge studded with stalagmites and stalactites that are strategically lit to bring out the stunning beauty of nature’s artwork. A 10 minute walk on a footpath will lead you to the cave where you can also enjoy the waterfalls, and refreshingly cool temperatures.
The small, picturesque villages surrounding the upper rim of the Qadisha Valley offer a true taste of traditional Lebanese village life, hospitality, cuisine, and cultural and religious traditions.
The warm summer months make a trip to the Holy Valley an ideal escape from the sweltering heat of the city. Whether it is religion, culture or adventure that takes you to Qadisha, all you’ll need to do is simply prepare to be awed like never before!
How to get there:
From Chekka take the main highway east towards Amyoun passing through Hadath El Jebbe, and Bcharreh. The valley can be accessed by foot from any of the following villages: Tourza, Blawza, Hadchit, Hasroun and Diman.