700 Year Old Maronite Mummies 

By Guita G. Hourani* 

Speleologists discovered a valuable find of human remains in the "refuge-of-the-persecuted"-- The 'Asi-al-Hadath Grotto in the Qadischa Valley.

The Discovery 

At eight o'clock in the evening on July 13th, 1990 and after two years of excavation, speleologists from The Groupe d'Etude et de Recherches Souterraines du Liban (GERSL) (1) found the unexpected - a mummified corpse in the 'Asi-al-Hadath Grotto' (1300 m. above sea level, 700 m. high).

The shrouded body belonged to a four month old infant. She was named Yasmine by her discoverers. Clothed and fully interred only 40 cm below ground, she was laid on her back alone in the grave, her head resting on a smooth stone. Yasmine was carefully wrapped in gauze by the team and transported from the grotto to the laboratory. Beneath her shroud she wore three dresses (2) -- one blue, a beige dress over it, and a more elaborate dark beige dress embroidered with silk threads over both (3). Her head was covered with a headdress under which she wore a headband made of silk. She was adorned with one earring, and a necklace garnished with mouth-blown glass pearls and two coin pieces dated to the era of the Sultan Mamluk Baybars. Found nearby were a darker lock of human hair, bay leaves, almonds, walnuts, garlic, and onion peels (4). Little Yasmine is introduced to the world at this time as the first known mummy of her people. The GERSL excavation efforts continued, and between September and December 1990, other mummies were discovered. Yasmine had not been buried alone in the grotto, but four more infants, three adult females, a male skull, and a foetus had shared her grave yard and kept her company for some seven hundred years (5).

The state of preservation of the mummies varied "with some being little more than bones and pieces of dry skin, while others are better preserved." (6) As the preliminary identification, numbering, and naming of the bodies progressed, the mummies each began to take on individual characheristics. And while each of the mummies provided new historical details, they also added much more enigma to the history of Mount-Lebanon.

The preliminary examination of the bodies revealed that they were naturally mummified (7). The grotto in which they had been interred acted as a perfect cast for the buried bodies, eliminating the formation of air pockets that normally facilitate the process of decomposition. Moreover, the low humidity of the grotto's air and the lack of organisms in its soil slowed the total decay of the bodies (8). Once preserved, they remained virtually unchanged over the next seven centuries.

These rare and unlooted graves lied in the environs of the Cedars of God in Northern Lebanon, ready to, on the one hand, illuminate the history and culture of Medieval Mount-Lebanon and on the other, to add to the mystery of the life and death of its inhabitants-- the Maronites (9). Buried simply but with dignity, the eight bodies, one foetus, and one male skull were fully shrouded and interred 40 to 80 cm underground. No gold, no earthly possessions, no ornaments accompanied the bodies on their eternal journey (10). 

The Qadischa, "Holy Valley" or "Valley of Saints" is a site of overwhelming serenity, a solemn forest of majestic cedars, scented pine trees, effervescing springs, and marvelous terraces. It embraces hundreds of hermitages and rock caves for anchorites (11); the persecuted and the oppressed have found shelter in its villages and grottos (12). Many of the Valley's hermitages and rock caves have taken the names of those hermits who lived or were massacred there (13). Some of the grottos are familiarly known by the title 'Asi ', i.e.' the impregnable', as in 'Asi-al-Hadath and 'Asi-Hawqa where genocide once occurred (14).

This Holy Valley can reveal much about the faith and martyrdom of its inhabitants. Throughout their history, the Maronites were "firmly attached to their religious beliefs, that they would prefer persecution to recantation."(15) Many of the Maronites of the Orontes River area, Hama, Homs, Mabboug, Qennersrin, Aleppo, Damascus and others joined their churchmen in Lebanon. They migrated from the cradle of their faith in fifth century Cyrrhus and Apamea to the refuge of the Qadischa Valley and its environs (16). Economic reasons were not a factor in this resettlement (17). Rather, the migration was a passage to religious freedom. Lebanon's mountain offered them an almost impenetrable sanctuary. Persecution by the Muslims and later by the Greek Orthodox followed them to their new homeland (18). Since that time, the Maronites have always faced the challenge of death for their faith. Individual and collective martyrdom shadowed every century of their existence. It is therefore not surprising that Maronite human remains can be found in Mount-Lebanon. What is astonishing is the degree of preservation of some of the mummified bodies unearthed at 'Asi-al-Hadath. 

The Grotto 

This incomparable discovery presented more questions than answers. 'Asi-al-Hadath Grotto is in the vicinity of Hadath-el-Gibbet, known as Al-Hadath (19). The high altitude of the grotto makes access or regular use of it as living quarters difficult (20). Yet, there is evidence of organized communal arrangements (21) -- a man-made water reservoir (3.5m x 1.4 m surface, 1.5m depth, and 8 cubic meters volume); a stone basin for grinding grain by hand; and two well-like openings (22), probably used for retrieval and storage of water. The grotto contains two main rooms-- a large living quarter and the grave-yard room (23). Although a thorough scientific examination of the mummies, their artifacts, and the site itself remains to be done, some preliminary remarks can be made at this time.

Historical Context

Between 1102 and 1289, Mount-Lebanon including al-Hadath" fell within the confines of the County of Tripoli." (24) Tripoli was one of the four fundamental city units of the Crusaders Kingdom of Jerusalem (25) -- the County of Edessa, the Principality of Antioch, and the Royal Territories (26). Meanwhile the Mamluks (27) over took Egypt, Syria, and Palestine, and set out to conquer Lebanon and expel the Crusaders. As modern scholars have pointed out, the Maronites, who constituted the majority population of that County (28), presented a constant obstacle to the Mamluk (29):

"in fact, the effective military assistance rendered by the Maronites to the Franks of Tripoli must have been one of the factors that helped the County face repeated Muslim attacks successfully and outlast the other Crusader states." (30)

It was not long before the Mamluks realized that in order for them to capture Tripoli, they must first subdue the Maronites (31)

The Mamluks launched several assaults against the highland of Tripoli devastating Gibbet Bsharri, Baqufa, Kfarsaroun, Hasrun, al-Hadath and others between 1250 and 1289 (32). One particular raid was recorded in Ibn 'Abd az-Zahir's chronicle during his service as Secretary of the Court of three Mamluk Sultans (1223-1292 A.D.). Under the title of "the Account of Capturing the Patriarch of al-Hadath from the Region of Tripoli", he wrote:

"It happened that a Patriarch of the region of Tripoli annoyed, behaved insolently, became haughty, and frightened the governor of Tripoli and all the Francs. He led astray these people of those mountains and the people of those valleys who are of the strayed people. And this continued until he was feared by every neighbor. He entrenched himself in al-Hadath and held his nose high [with arrogance] and no one succeeded in tricking him... It happened that the governors [of the Sultan] ambushed him several times but did not find him. Then the Turkmans sought him in his place and tricked him so that they captured and blind-folded him and [took him] prisoner. [The Patriarch] was one of the infidels and their impious ones, hence the Muslims were relieved of him and were spared his wickedness. His capture was a great conquest, greater even more than the conquest of a stronghold or a fortress..." (33) (Author's interpolations appear in square brackets).

Reports similar to that of Ibn 'Abd az-Zahir are to be found in the margins of two Bibles (34) from the al-Hadath region near the Monastery of 'Mar Aboun' (Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhayya). The two Bibles were discovered by Patriarch Istephan Duwayhi during his research and writing of Tarikh al-Azmina between 1670 and 1704. The first Bible contains a note written in 1283 by an anonymous Christian who witnessed these events. The account contained in the second Bible is a copy of the first one, and it is dated 1504 A.D. These accounts testify to the dramatic events unfolding in 'Asi al-Hadath during the thirteenth century.

The witness and writer of the original account of 1283 tells us that:

"On August 22, 1283 the Muslim soldiers headed toward al-Hadath where the inhabitants took refuge in a magnificent and inaccessible grotto called al-'Asi. The grotto was besieged for seven years. [The soldiers] received it through the Aman (35), then burned its prefecture [the al-Hadath village] by fire and took the women captives." (36) (Author's Interpolations appear in square brackets).

These two references are testimonies about a tragic event that occurred in al-Hadath. The accounts coincide in time, place, and action, and confirm an offensive against al-Hadath, thereby providing some historical context for our understanding of this archaeological discovery.

The Artifacts

Apart from the mummies themselves, a wealth of artefacts found at the site suggest that the people buried there were Maronites from the al-Hadath village, and that their death occurred circa 1283, which corresponds to the reign of the Mamluks and the presence of the Crusaders. Among the many examples of medieval pottery excavated, one pot attracts attention by its Arabic inscription: "This belongs to Boutros from al-Hadath." (37) Artistic and archaeological significance is manifested in the designs and motifs embroidered on textiles which are identical to designs found in the Syriac Rabbula Gospels (38), a sixth century artistic masterpiece which belonged to the Maronite Patriarchate until the mid-fifteenth century, but is now housed in Florence, Italy. A striking copy of two peacocks facing one another with a tree of life in-between remains vivid in color seven hundred years later (39). From the Grotto over twenty manuscripts were unearthed. One of which is in Syriac and is a Maronite hymnody, another is in Arabic and bears the name and signature of George son of David, the Archdeacon of al-Hadath (40). Among the discovered items, several engraved wooden double-toothed combs-- thin teeth on one side and coarse on the other, are identical to the combs used by Mamluk women in Egypt and are on display at the Museum of Islamic Art in Cairo, Egypt (41). Many poles, arrows, and notches have been found to be identical with the Mamluk era arrows now on display at the Traditional Art Museum of Aleppo in Syria (42). An assortment of Crusader and Mamluk coins also invite the speculation that these mummies are of the thirteenth century (43).

However, the most important and uncontestable evidence comes from the mummies themselves. 

Customs and Rituals

Compared to the mummies of Egypt, these mummies were simply buried without any long term or elaborate preparation. A preliminary observation of the mummies already reveals striking parallels with customs and rituals still practiced in present day Lebanon. An adult woman was found buried with her eighteen month old child. The infant was placed at the mother's left shoulder. We are almost certain that the infant is hers since this method of burial is still practiced today in Lebanon when the deaths of both mother and child are caused by complications in the birthing process (44). Most interesting of all is the adult woman who is buried with her infant. She is found with pieces of cotton and cloth inserted in both her vaginal and anal orifices. This preparation of the deceased for viewing is still practiced to our day. In some areas of Lebanon such as the Bekaa Valley, the cotton and cloth pieces are wrapped around a small onion and inserted in the human orifices (45). Another cultural manifestation is the presence of long black human hair found between Yasmine's toes. It probably belonged to the child's mother. Local tradition has it, that the grieving mother will pull out her hair while kissing the feet of her lost chield (46). A talismanic prayer recovered from the grotto requests the intercession of saints in curing a sick child (47). This prayer resembles the ones still in practice and use among the Maronites inpresent-day Lebanon, e.g.,. 'Kitab Mar Antonios' -- the Talisman of Saint Anthony of Qozhayya (48). A wooden house key was found on the body of one of the adult female mummies. In accordance with traditional customs, at the funeral of the last surviving member of a family, the key to the dead person's house will be tossed over the roof of that house indicating that the house of that family will forever be closed. In this case the person died in a besieged Grotto, so the key was tossed in the grave (49). Today in similar circumstances mourners will comment by saying, "pity this family, their house is forever closed." 

The Status and Future of the Mummies

The mummies, who have been out of their original environment, i.e. the grotto, since 1990, have yet to be studied. The mummies are now at the National Museum in Beirut and "are exposed to all sorts of factors that can cause irreversible deterioration. Changes in temperature, bio-deterioration, photo-oxidation, and pollution, among others create harmful conditions from which such organic materials must be protected. Even substances, such as phenol, that are being used to preserve these mummies from insects, fungus, or bacterial attacks are likely to cause reactions on the skin's surface and thus have long term caustic effects. Such dangers are also compounded by the museum's heavily trafficked urban area (emitting high amounts of oxidants), lack of air filters (to remove soot and dust), and drastic changes in temperature, etc." (50)

These physical remains can teach us much about the medieval history of the Maronite people, a community which today extends around the world. The mummies also have much to teach us about natural preservation, which is a rare phenomenon. Professor Arthur Aufderheide, a renowned pathologist and expert on mummies has stated that the mummies can be analyzed and studied, either individually or collectively, through Computerized Tomography (CT Scan), X-rays, osteological examination, dentition, chemical dietary reconstruction, radiocarbon dating, corpolite studies, molecular biology study (DNA), and hair and nail analysis. 

Professor Aufderheide stated that through such studies, these mummies will help to identify relationships within the grotto-group itself; that kinship elements may also be traced with their contemporary descendants; and that very specific information about their diets, medicines, diseases, and other ailments. The causes of their deaths can be obtained by means of the modern technologies used in studying them. 
Scientific analysis of the mummies requires not only qualified and experienced scientists, time, and patience, but more importantly adequate financial resources. Museums in many countries are faced with a shortage of funds for the study of antiquities, but most stewards of national treasures find that they can accomplish their objectives through collaborative relationships with scientists and scholars from the international community. 

It is, therefore, critical that these mummies be studied before preservation considerations such as "inert atmosphere cases," (51) limit scientific access to them.

The study of these mummies will, inevitably, connect us to a history that has been passed along, generation after generation, by word-of-mouth during cold winter nights- a history that has reappeared with the mummies.

As Yasmine and her companions are being exhibited at the Lebanese National Museum in Beirut, they patiently wait for the world of science to decipher their secrets, now that their solemn sleep has been interrupted.

* Guita G. Hourani is a Fellow at the Institute of Christian Oriental Research, the Catholic University of America, and President of the Maronite American Research Institute (MARI).

(1) A Lebanese non-profit organization established in 1982 to document and study Lebanon's grottos, caves, caverns, and cavities. | Back to text

(2) Seasonal clothing was not known in thirteenth century Mount-Lebanon. People simply added layers of clothing in winter. Momies du Liban: Rapport préliminaire sur la découverte archéologique de 'Asi-l-Hadat (XIIIe siècle), GERSL, (France, 1993), p. 58. | Back to text |

(3) Silk production was introduced to Tripoli by Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the VII century A.D. See Firro, K. Silk and Agrarian Changes in Lebanon (1860-1914),"International Journal of Middle East Studies", 11 (1990), pp. 151-169; and Chevalier, D. La societe du Mont Liban a l'epoque de la revolution industrielle en Europe, (Paris, 1971). | Back to text |

(4) Momies du Liban, pp. 38-40. | Back to text |

(5) Momies du Liban, pp. 35-57. | Back to text

(6) Doumet-Skaf, I. The Asi-l-Hadat Mummies," National Museum News", First Issue, (London, 1995), p. 8. | Back to text

(7) Mummification occurs either through an act of man, as in the mummification of the Egyptian mummies, which occurred due to a mortuary treatment called embalming; or by an act of nature, like the mummification of the ancient Scythian bodies of the Altai mountains in Siberia which occurred due to the permafrost conditions; or that of the Lindo man, due to the anaerobic conditions of the bogs. The Bog Man: The Archaeology of People, (Harvard, 1987), pp. 17-18. | Back to text

(8) Momies du Liban, pp. 220-222; and Doumet-Skaf, p. 8. | Back to text |

(9) The Maronites, Eastern Catholics, derive their names from the celebrated Saint Maron [350-410 A.D.] who lived in Apamea in what is now Syria. There, he lead the life of a hermit. He guided a number of disciples and many lay followers who embraced his way of life. These followers came to be called the Maronites. Jowett, W. Christian Researches in Syria and the Holy Land, (London, 1826), pp. 17; Canivet, P., and Leyro-Molinghen, A., Theodoret de Cyr: Histoire des Moines de Syrie, vol. II (Paris, 1979), pp. 29-33; and Urquhart, D. The Lebanon (London, 1860), pp. 10-18. | Back to text

(10) Momies du Liban, pp. 35-57. This is the only account on the discovery. | Back to text |

(11) Leroy, J. Monks and Monasteries, (London, 1963), pp. 107-113; de la Roque, Voyage de Syrie et du Mont Liban, (Paris, 1722), pp. 48-57; and "Liban Souterrain", No. 2, (1989), pp. 15-70. | Back to text |

(12) Encyclopedie Maronite, USEK, (Lebanon, 1992), p. 9; de la Roque, pp. 48-57; Leroy, p. 99; and Salame-Sarkis, H. Contribution a l'histoire de Tripoli et de sa region a l'epoque des Croisades, (Paris, 1980), p. 34. | Back to text |

(13) De la Roque, p. 57. | Back to text

(14) Encyclopedie Maronite, p. 90; "Liban Souterrain", No. 1, (1988), pp. 18-23; and "Liban Souterrain", No. 2, (1989), pp. 6-13. | Back to text

(15) Leroy, J. Monks and Monastaries of the Near East, (London, 1963), p. 106. | Back to text

(16) Beggiani, S. Aspects of Maronite History,, "Maronite Voice", Vol 3, No. 2, (1996), p. 7. | Back to text |

(17) De la Roque, pp. 18-23. | Back to text

(18) Leroy, pp. 106-107. | Back to text |

(19) Dussaud, R. Topographie Historique de la Syrie Antique, (Paris, 1927), p. 72. | Back to text |

(20) Mount Lebanon's inhabitants have built and lived in houses since before the Canaanites, the Amorites, and the Phoenicians resided in it. L'Architecture Libanaise du XV au XIXe Siecle, Beirut, 1985; Renan, E. Mission de Phenicie, (Paris, 1864); and M. Chronologie des plus anciennes installations de Byblos, "Revue Biblique", LVII, 1950, pp. 590-593, 584-603. | Back to text |

(21) The Maronite American Research Institute (MARI) is indebted to the Photographer Michel Schbot, whose courage and professionalism made it possible to have exclusive photos of the Grotto. MARI is thankful to Mr. George Chadrawy and Dr. Samira Abi Chahine-Chadrawy for their assistance to Mr. Schbot during his visit to al-Hadath. | Back to text |

(22) Momies du Liban, pp. 24-33. | Back to text |

(23) "Liban Souterrain", pp. 10-11. | Back to text |

(24) Tripoli, on the North shore of Lebanon, was one of the Crusader's strong-hold. It fell to the Mamluk army in 1289. Salibi, K. The Maronites of Lebanon under Frankish and Mamluk Rule (1099-1516), "Arabica" IV (1957), p. 291, 294; and Hiro, D. A History of the Lebanese Civil War, (New York, 1992), p. 1. | Back to text |

(25) The Crusaders were Western Christians who led organized military expeditions against Muslim rulers in order to control the Holy City of Jerusalem and to give aid to abused fellow Christians in the East. Encyclopedia Britannica, XVth edition, (1982), pp. 297-310. | Back to text

(26) Strayer, J., ed., Dictionary of the Middle Ages, (New York, 1982), vol. 4, p. 30. | Back to text |

(27) Muslims, the Mamluks, literally "owned men" or slaves, established the Mamluk dynasty, which ruled Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517. The Mamluks are hailed for their expulsion of the remaining crusaders from the Levant. Encyclopedia Britannica, p. 399. | Back to text |

(28) Salibi, p. 288, 291; Richard, J. Le conte de Tripoli sou la dynastie Toulousaines, 1102-1187, (Paris, 1945), p. 86; and de Vitry, J. History of Jerusalem, translated by Stewart, A., (London, 1897), p. 79. | Back to text |

(29) Hayton, Receuil des Historiens des Croisades, R. H.C. Armenien, (Paris, 1896), pp. 155-156; and Salibi, p. 294. See also de Tyre, G. A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, translated by Babcock, F., (New York, 1943). | Back to text |

(30) Salibi, p. 294. | Back to text |

(31) Khoury-Harb, The Maronites, (Beirut, 1985), p. 82; and Salibi, p. 295. | Back to text |

(32) Salibi, p. 294; Al-Maqrizy, Kitab as-suluk li-ma'rifat dual al-Muluk, ed., Mustapha Ziada, (Cairo, 1936), p. 566; and Grousset, R. Histoire des Croisades et du Royaume Franc de Jerusalem, (Paris, 1936), p. 640. | Back to text |

(33) Ibn `Abd Al-Zahir, Tasrif al-'usur bi sirat al-Malik al-Mansur, ed., Murad Kamil, (Cairo, 1961), p. 4. Translation mine. Elsewhere, Salibi, K. The Maronite Church in the Middle Ages and its Union with Rome, Oriens Christianus, vol. 40, (1956) p. 98. | Back to text

(34) It is not unusual to write the occurrence of important events in Bibles. An account of the Arab invasion of Palestine, for example, is to be found written on the leaf of a fourth century Gospel manuscript in the British Library. Similarly, a narrative of the massacre of the Syrian Orthodox community in South East Turkey between 1895 and 1896 is found written in one of the Mingana manuscripts. | Back to text

(35) According to Islamic religious law, Aman is a pledge of security and a promise of protection given by Muslim(s) to non-Muslim(s) [Jews and Christians] belonging to dar al-harb [Abode of War] for a specific period of time. Those non-Muslims who belong to dar al-salam [Adobe of Islam] fall under the dhimmi status. The Encyclopedia of Islam, (Leiden, 1960), p. 426.
The dhimmi is a Jew, a Christian, or a Sabian, a person of the "protected people" in the Islamic State. The dhimmi was required to pay a head tax (Jizyah), and an exemption tax (Kharaj), as well as to obey and perform social and religious restrictions which were oppressive at times and moderate at others depending upon the place and the epoch. Glasse, C. The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, (New York, 1989), p. 98. See Ye'or, B. The Dhimmi: Jews and Christians under Islam, (London, 1985). | Back to text |

(36) Duwayhi, I., Patriarch T'arikh al-Azmina, ed., Fahd, B., (Beirut, 1983), p. 261. Translation mine. Elsewhere, Salibi, "Arabica", p. 294-295; and Momies Du Liban, p. 94. | Back to text |

(37) Momies du Liban, pp. 202-204. | Back to text

(38) The Rabbula Gospels: Facsimile Edition of Miniatures of the Syriac Manuscript, in the Medicaen-Laurentian Library, Edited and commanted by Cececelli, C., Fulani, G., and Salmi, M. (Olten and Luasanne, 1959). Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic, became a major vehicle for the expression and transmission of early Christian writing in the Near East. It was the spoken and written language of the Maronite people until the 18th century. It is still been used by the Maronites as a liturgical language. | Back to text

(39) Momies du Liban, pp. 78-80. | Back to text

(40) Momies du Liban, pp. 146-210. | Back to text |

(41) Momies du Liban, p. 215, 240, 245, 251; and `Abd Ar-Raziq, A. La Femme au temps des Mamlouks en Egypte, (Cairo, 1973), pp. 321-322. | Back to text

(42) Momies du Liban, pp. 206-208. | Back to text |

(43) Momies du Liban, pp. 198-201. See Slumberger, G. Numismatique de l'Orient Latin, (Paris, 1878); and Cox, D. The Tripolis Hoard of French Seignorial and Crusader's Coins, (New York, 1933). | Back to text |

(44) I personally observed this practice in the case of my friend, who died in childbirth in Jal-el-Dib, Beirut, Lebanon in 1979. | Back to text

(45) My paternal grandmother explained this process to me when she assisted in the preparation of our neighbor for viewing. | Back to text

(46) Momies du Liban, p. 40. Personal observation of this practice all around Lebanon. | Back to text |

(47) The Book of Protection: Being, a Collection of Charms, translated from Syriac. By Gollancz, H. (London, 1912), pp. lxxxi-lxxxii, ; and Dandini, J. Voyage du Mont Liban. Translated by Pepie, R., (Paris, 1884), p. 127. | Back to text |

(48) Salame-Sarkis, H. Talisman-higab Syriaque Trouve dans la Grotte-Refuge de Hadath al-Gubbeh dans le Liban Nord, "Liban Souterrain", (1989), July No.2, pp. 36-39. | Back to text

(49) Momies du Liban, pp. 46-48. | Back to text

(50) El-Dahdah, F. "National Museum News", First Issue, (London, 1995), p. 9. | Back to text |

(51) An Inert Atmosphere Case, a medium developed by the Getty Conservation Institute (GCI) for the long term preservation of the Egyptian Mummies, is a "hermetically sealed volume that, when flushed with an inert gas such as nitrogen, creates an environment wherein deterioration caused and aided by oxygen can be stopped", El-Dahdah, p. 9. | Back to text

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