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Volume 27, Number 2March/April 1976

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A Walk in the Lebanon

Written by George Taylor
Photographed by Penny Williams-Yaqub

The asphalt road ended abruptly above the church, a black line drawn on the ground to divide the world of automobiles and summer villas from a great emptiness of space and limestone crags. We crossed the road—my wife, my daughter, and myself—and stood on the edge of 3,000 acres of weathered limestone stretching eastward to the bare shoulder of Mount Sannin. I thought of Cromwell's comment on County Clare in the west of Ireland: "There's not enough timber to hang a man, enough water to drown him, enough earth to bury him."

A taxi had just rocketed us from the teeming center of Beirut to this summer resort of Mrouj. Most of the population of Lebanon lives on or near the coast.

Mount Lebanon is sparsely populated, a half-empty playground for skiing, picnicing, hunting, and hiking, but also a harsh terrain for farmers, herders, quarrymen and foresters. In 40 hazardous minutes we had climbed 5,000 feet through the distinctive pomological pattern of Lebanon: first the palms, bananas and citrus fruit trees of the coast; then the olives, almonds, peaches and apricots of the foothills; then the cherries, pears and apples of the heights, with the ubiquitous, undemanding pine tree knitting the three levels of landscape together.

We dismissed the taxi and stood for a moment on the asphalt edge of the great beyond. Then we plunged onto a steep track...

At first the track, forcing its way through boulders and pillars of limestone fluted by wind and rain, was distinct and subsidiary tracks led off to numerous quarries, all disused and deserted. These quarries were one-man or one-family enterprises: they had just a small concrete platform, a beam to hold the crusher and riddler, an arc of level ground for a truck to load and turn, with a black oil stain showing where the power generator had stood. This was quarrying on an individual scale: the characteristic Lebanese individualism expressing itself even on the mountain top.

After the quarries, however, the track dwindled to a narrow stony path. Land Rover country had ended; mule and donkey country had begun. And at 6,000 feet even the mule path vanished as we burst onto a wide ledge where eroded soil from the heights had buried all but the head and shoulders of the limestone rocks. There was no path now; we stumbled through gaps among the boulders. Walking ahead of us, Alexandra pounced on a Neolithic flint, then another, and a third. They were glossy, chocolate-colored scrapers, chipped from the nodules of flint which clung to the limestone like barnacles. We were surprised to find worked flint at this height, so far from the flint areas of the coast and the Bekaa valley.

But there was a greater surprise half a mile further on. Here, at the head of a wadi gouged out by winter torrents, on a flat surface of living rock we could make out a crudely chiselled Latin inscription, badly weathered, and made legible only by the low angle of the sun: Boundary of the Forests of the Emperor Hadrian Augustus. We paused to look at the forest. Five windswept leafless walnut trees huddled at the edge of the gorge with a wide arc of stony desolation stretching to the horizon beyond. Time has covered Hadrian's boast of ownership with a patina of irony.

But although the forests have gone, this gesture of imperial arrogance may yet prove invaluable to those who plan to restore a green cover to Lebanon's crust. Hadrian set his boundary markers along the entire length of Mount Lebanon, providing indisputable evidence of the forest's altitude more than 18 centuries ago. Well over 100 of these boundary markers have now been found, unequivocal guidance to the ecology of the past.

The path reappeared now, just in time to help us make a final ascent to a ridge commanding the Sannin gorge. Just beneath this ridge, another surprise awaited us. Long be fore the Emperor Hadrian carved his boundary stone, other men had balanced massive squared blocks one upon another to form a rectangular enclosure. Inside the sanctuary walls we found a single decorated stone, a tapered block of hammered granite with four stylized trees roughly carved on its sides. Perhaps this was a free-standing baetyl from the courtyard of the sanctuary—the cult-stone of the Semitic equivalent of Silvanus, the woodland divinity who protected the trees and boundaries of forests. And crowning the ridge itself, breaking the skyline like a surveyor's trig point, were five massive sarcophagi. For a thousand years these sarcophagi have been a landmark for the region. The men buried in them long before can have had no fear of tomb robbers, for they scorned the deep and cunningly concealed shafts of contemporary tombs on the coast; they chose instead the protection of nature itself. The green cover of dense forests and the isolation of the mountain site sheltered them from the eyes of all but the pious worshippers who walked in procession to the sanctuary of the sylvan god. Yet the site had been plundered; several sarcophagi lids, prised off, lay half buried in the ground and one sarcophagus—the largest—had been breached where lid and sides met.

The whole of the Jebel Sannin peak was now visible, its bare slopes pink from the failing sun. Our path dropped steeply, threading apple orchards tended by the sturdy farmers of Biskinta, the biggest village in the Sannin district. Now the red tiled roofs of the cafés encircling Sannin's spring came into view. Slim poplar trees, wealthy in leaves, and oleanders—sure sign of abundant water—followed the river down the valley. A long line of red-cloaked schoolboys marched into our view, led by a young priest from the Brothers' school; their bus stood in the shade of the poplars at the spring. This was our first sighting of human beings since we'd left Mrouj.

The water of the spring surged up into a rock basin lined with bottles cooling for the café patrons. Young, ski-booted Lebanese, taking a break from the snow, supped at tables round the spring. The smoke of the shish kebab brazier drifted lazily up to meet us. Our walk through the High Lebanon—our brief visit to the past—had come to an end.

George Taylor, who teaches English at the American University of Beirut, is the author of The Roman Temples of Lebanon, a book on little-known ancient sites.

This article appeared on pages 10-13 of the March/April 1976 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1976 images.