3 Days in the Valley of the Saints

3 Days in the Valley of the Saints

As you descend into the valley, traveling thousands of feet down sheer canyon walls on narrow, twisting roads, occasionally protected by railings of ancient stone, the snowy landscape gives way to rich greenery and waterfalls fed by meltwater from the snowy peaks above, cascading thousands of feet down red and white stone to the valley below. You can’t help but be overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. No photo or video can truly capture the overpowering size of everything around you: the steep, cave-dotted walls of the valley dwarfing skyscrapers, and the mountains stretching even higher all around them.

This is the Valley of Qadisha, past the snow-covered villages of the Christian North, seated in the shadow of Mount Lebanon—praised continually in scripture for its beauty and for its unique cedar forests, from which Solomon’s temple and many of the wonders of the ancient world were built—it is here, in this land of giants, in this God-built fortress, that for 2000 years, Christians have continually sought refuge from the violent attacks of the pagan world around them.

We have an active relationship with the church of the east and visiting with them to discuss the future of Christianity in the region, and the world, as well as evaluating on the ground the multiple humanitarian crises now affecting the Middle East was essential. However, the Lord spoke to the Apostle with an additional mission: to go down into this holy and ancient place and to pray—to pray for the region, for the body of Christ, and to bring your names with him.

As you descend further into the valley, passing under the 600 year old monastery of Mar Elisha, built some 500 feet up the canyon wall following the crusader era, you enter into the cool wet lowlands of the valley, along the banks of the Qadisha river, where the road ceases to be a road and becomes a thin pathway of dirt, gravel, and very large white stones. Mossy and leafy lichens cling thickly to the rocks here, dripping wet with dew and the overflow of small creeks. A carpet of vibrant green grass surrounds the river, broken up by tall thin trees and the occasional spot of snow, as winter gives way to spring. Small stone bridges help cross the various contributories that flow down to join the river Qadisha.

Here I happened upon a forgotten iron altar, completely grown over by the thick greenery of the canyon walls, only a tiny fragment of it visible as you peer into a dark gap in the dripping moss, and here our car could not make it any further. After some time spent walking through the peaceful lowlands, Doctor Harfouche praying, and me doing my best to try and capture the beauty and history of this place, we decided to return later with a more robust vehicle.

There are thousands of caves in the valley of Qadisha, and spread throughout them are churches, rudimentary altars, lodging places, and strongholds to escape invaders, many of which date back all the way to the first century. Frescoes and paintings of the Good Shepherd and the saints dot their walls; pottery and other remains of civilization mark the places where the people of God once sheltered. Many of these caves are hundreds or thousands of feet from the ground, and even the lowest are well hidden and difficult to reach. Stone terraces constructed to hold the soil climb the canyons like massive staircases in some places, allowing the nearly sheer walls to be cultivated for grain and other produce in times past.

Venturing further into the valley and higher up the paths along its walls brought us to a wide open and rocky canyon region, where the walls stretch further and further apart and the sun shines warmly over its peaks. Beneath the large expanses of red and white stone, the massive boulders and cliff faces, the holy river still gave its sound hundreds of feet below us. Overlooking this vast sea of open sky was a network of enormous caves dug into the peak of a high canyon wall. Above these caves, carved into the very rock of the mountain, clearly visible from thousands of feet away, was an enormous cross.

Caves, of course, are not the only significant pieces of Christian history preserved in the holy valley. In fact, the Qadisha valley contains within its 35 kilometer length the largest and oldest collection of Christian hermitages, refuges, and monasteries in the world. No other place holds as many surviving sites dating back to the first centuries of Christianity’s spread.

After crossing a few more steep mountainous paths in our new, four wheel drive vehicle, overlooking massive waterfalls, beautiful vistas, and the gushing Qadisha river ever further below us, we came to the place where the wider paths ended, left our car, and began our hike even further into the valley. We walked over well worn pathways and sun-dappled, ancient stairs, built from large white stones planted side by side into the dirt of the hillside. The stairs seemed to grow even older and more worn as we climbed through the dense trees, further and further up the canyon walls.

Far below us, a few old homes hung precariously from the canyon walls, seemingly isolated from the outside world, and surrounded by small stone terraces for cultivating grain and other crops.

The valley has been continually inhabited by Christians for nearly 2000 years and continues to host monastic communities and a small number of families and caretakers today, many of which live in small homes, mere dozens of feet away from the ruins of abandoned stone structures many hundreds of years old.

The sun began to set over the western wall, casting the depths of the valley into shadow, but high along the eastern side it still shone brightly on us. The afternoon was cool, and the air somehow seemed even crisper and cleaner than anywhere else in the mountains we had traveled. As we approached our last destination on the third day, I reflected on the procession of incredible places we passed along the way, here in this ancient valley, surrounded by the snowy peaks of Mount Lebanon: rivers, marshes, canyons, waterfalls, like some preserved piece of eden hidden in one of the most historically tumultuous and difficult regions of the world.

The valley is not completely free of signs of the upheavals around it in modern times. Even some of the scant few modern dwellings constructed here that we saw were abandoned or destroyed; but these signs do not match those within the ancient monasteries and caves, damages left by the myriad invasions launched over the centuries by men and nations intent on uprooting and killing the Christians living here.

Up ahead of us shining in the afternoon sun was Qannoubine, built in the fourth century by Christian monastics seeking refuge in the valley in the days when the church was still whole. It served as a place of refuge for Christians for more than 1000 years before it came to be known as the fortress palace of the Maronite Patriarchs in the fifteenth century.

“Have you ever seen a place like this?” I asked as I walked up next to my father. “All of this history, all of these beautiful, unbelievable, important places, all right here. How can a place like this even exist?”

Doctor Harfouche just laughed, smiled, and said, “John, it’s Lebanon.”

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