On the downstairs balcony of the house we were staying in. The gorge behind me drops down into Qadisha Valley (which I will write about tomorrow!).
For our last weekend in Lebanon, we made our way to the village of Bcharre (or Bsharri), located high up in the Northern mountains. I will probably keep using the word ‘highlight’ a lot in the following posts because for me this definitely was the best part of the trip. It took a while for me to get the photos transferred from my camera to the computer (I lost the usb-cable :-), but here they finally are!
Bcharre has a very interesting and important history for Lebanon and Christianity in general. It is the place were the Cedars of God, the UNESCO protected ancient forest grows. Also, this is where Khalil Gibran was born, and later buried. And most of all, it is very high. Very very high. One-wrong-turn-and-fall-to-your-death-kind of high.
We stayed with our friends Suhail, his wife Patricia, and their family. They took us to places that the regular tourist might not venture to (like the very peak of the mountain), and really knew the roads and paths along the steep mountainside.Suhail drove us up to Bcharre from Beirut late at night, and I remember looking down from the car window in the beginning of the journey, thinking that there was no way we could get any higher than we already were. The roads were narrow, twisting and turning up the mountains, and at times I felt sick from just looking down. Driving back during the day, there was a moment when we seemed to be just above the clouds, which to me feels incredible; afterall, I’m a creature of flat lands, not mountains. The air in Bcharre was cooler and dry, compared to hot and humid Beirut.The name Bcharre, I later learned online, comes from the Phoenician language and means “House of Ishtar”, goddess of love, war and sexuality. I find this incredibly fascinating since the village is originally the site of Phoenician settlements and later, since the dawn of Christianity, became one of the most important areas in Christian history. This too is very unique of Lebanon: The country is filled with ancient places of worship predating the monotheistic religions. Since I mentioned the Phoenicians (those guys who cleverly created the first alphabet and dominated the trade in the area for thousands of years), I think it’s also worth mentioning that there are many Lebanese who view the Lebanese people as the descendants of the Phoenicians, and hence ‘not Arabs’, or at least not Arabs in the traditional sense. But let’s not dive into that debate right now!What is also interesting that compared to the rest of Lebanon, people from the area of Bcharre spoke Aramaic well into the 19th century and to this day have a very specific accent when speaking Arabic.
Bcharre is a living example of the beauty and the Achilles’ heel of Lebanon, and in a nutshell the entire Middle East. Everything there is so meaningful, so deeply historical and sacred on many levels, and just by looking at the eyes of people who live there, you know that they would defend this area to their deaths in a heartbeat. Of course, people everywhere will defend their homes and their values and belief systems, but in areas like Bcharre, it’s different. We are talking of thousands of years of religious history that people are not willing to simply let go and relocate if threatened. For the people living there a saint is not just some guy or girl who lived somewhere in a far-off land, but an actual person, and in many cases a relative even. Religion in places like Bcharre is very real, tangible — not symbolic like it is elsewhere in the world for the most part. Now, despite of one’s beliefs, atheist or religious, this place has a very special aura to it and even if religion isn’t in your repertoire, it is definitely a unique place in the world. Here, for the first time in my life, I began to understand on a heart-level what all the conflict in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas really is about, and why peace in the region seems to be impossible to achieve.
On top of the world: Patricia gazing towards Bcharre.
The village, like many of the high altitude villages in Lebanon, gets quite a lot of snow during the wintertime. There are even ski resorts! Apparently last year they had at best (or worst) over 2m of snow. Because our host knew the roads well, he drove us all the way to the top of one of the mountains (at the top it was quite easy to imagine the car just tipping over and rolling down the mountain :-). From the top, you can on a clear day see all the way to the Mediterranean, or as Suhail says; “this is the only place in the world where you can see people swimming on the beach, and skiing on the mountain at the same time”. (Well, technically you can see that in Finland too, with the exception that the swimmers are swimming in a frozen lake and the skiers are skiing cross-country :-)).
Here is the view from the top towards the opposite side of the mountain chain; into the Beqaa Valley and across the Valley, into Syria. This high up, despite the lush forests below, the mountain tops are desolate and windy, and yet incredibly beautiful. I think I have now given everyone an overdose of the word ‘incredibly’, so I shall continue tomorrow with Bcharre Part 2: Adventure in the Holy Valley!
…and the view to the other side of the mountain chain; The Beqaa Valley and Syria.