July 1997: A Visit to the Land 
of the Maronites and Cedars

By Fr. Charles H. Miller, S.M.
Professor of Theology and Archaeology, Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences, St. Mary's University of San Antonio Texas, USA.  
Sister Mary K. Milne, O.S.U. 
Program Director Middle East Study Tours, St. Mary's University of San Antonio Texas, USA.

In this section of the Journal of Maronite Studies (JMS), we bring you travel accounts of past and current travelers who have written about the Maronites and their environments. These accounts represent the views of their author(s).   They may be edited for clarity and style. 

After conducting a month-long biblical and archaeological study tour of Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Turkey, we were invited by the Maronite Lebanese missionaries to spend a week and a half in Lebanon. It was the first visit for Sister Mary K, and the second for Father Charles, who had visited the Marianist Community at Cornet Chahwan in 1964. Since 1972, we two Texas professors have led almost forty study tours and pilgrimages to the Holy Land and to surrounding areas so that several Arab countries are well known to us. 

A tour of Lebanon, which was so wracked by war for seventeen years, and then closed to Americans by a U.S. State Department terribly nervous about Hizballah hostage taking, remained for us just a dream.  In 1995, Father Marwan Tabet, M.L., Pastor of St. George's Maronite Catholic Church in San Antonio, Texas, invited us to come to Lebanon as guests of the Maronite Lebanese Missionaries.  We were delighted to be able to accept the invitation and come in 1997. 

Although both of us had previously traveled in Syria with its omnipresence of placards and billboards of Hafez el Assad, neither of us was quite prepared to see the same image welcoming us as we went through passport control and at every carousel in the baggage area. The message was unmistakable: Assad is in charge here! 40,000 Syrian troops in the country back up that message. 

Fr. Charles Miller (left) along with a friend, Pierre Helou.
Photo courtesy of Fr. Charles Miller and Sister Mary K. Milne (Lebanon, 1997)

Father Marwan, now a pastor in South Africa, happened to be in Lebanon with a group of pilgrims when we arrived on a Friday evening from Istanbul. We were greeted also by Father Sami Btaiche, Principal of the College des Apotres, Jounieh, and two young teachers of the College, Haytham Suleiman and Pierre Helou. The night ride through Beirut to Jounieh along the "Green Line" of civil war days, etched into our memories the large portrait placards of Sheikh Nasrallah, leader of the Hizballah. We later realized that we had seen only placards of el Assad and of the Sheikh, but none of the Lebanese President, the Prime Minister, or other government officials. Some bombed-out buildings were visible even in the darkness; this was the Lebanon we had expected. 

The street itself from the airport through Beirut was an obstacle course of construction barriers, nuisances but symbols of hope of rebuilding. The chaos of the traffic on roads without stoplights seemed at first daunting, but we soon realized that there was a courtesy among the drivers that was so different from our American "road-rage." Father Sami reflected that the courtesy was one good outcome of the war --all had suffered so much that they had learned to exercise patience and tolerance of one another where drivers in more "peaceful" countries often find themselves most short on those virtues. 

At the College we were most warmly received into the quarters of the community. Over the next several days Fathers Marwan and Sami, as well as Pierre, Haytham, and other young faculty, would spend as much time as possible with us, proudly showing us their country from east to west and north to south. The kind of hospitality we had long grown accustomed to in Arab countries seemed, if anything, profoundly intensified in our hosts, so that we wanted for nothing during our stay. 

Next day, Saturday, we visited the Nahr el-Kalb, the Dog River, climbing up the short paths to view inscriptions of past conquerors, ancient and modern, who have come and gone through Lebanon over the centuries. The neglect of the monuments was saddening, but understandable in a country just trying to survive for so many years and now trying to revive itself. When so much of the country's resources and efforts must go into rebuilding and supplying the most basic needs of its people, the care of cultural treasures is often given a lower priority. 

From the coastal area we began our ascent through the forested mountain rises, and had the fascinating experience of somehow moving into cooler air. In no other country in the Middle East had we enjoyed such a pleasant drop of temperature within so few kilometers. 

In contrast to the Nahr el Kalb, the Jeita Caverns complex, now restored and in almost full operation, was an excellent example of what can be done with judicious investment of foreign capital and know-how. A German company, in partnership with the Lebanese, has provided the technical facilities for movement of visitors, for lighting and circulation of air in the caverns and for a walkway that seems almost suspended in air. The tasteful and spectacular magnificence of the Upper Cave, the mystical silence of the lower water grottoes, were moments that teased us with their allure of beauty and quiet. The Lebanese appreciation for this extraordinary natural heritage has combined perfectly with German technology to preserve a great treasure while making it genuinely accessible to the world. We are not aware of any comparable site elsewhere in the Middle East. 

But our tour, as we had suggested, was planned more with an eye to archaeological and historical sites, and so we drove up into the mountains above Jounieh to see the ancient temples of Faqra, situated among most unusual weathered limestone outcroppings. Although the main temple and the natural maze of tunnels beside it are fenced off for protection, we regretted to see other structures, including altars and a Roman temple tower, left open to vandals. Perhaps symbolically, one building, originally a temple to the goddess Atargatis, had been converted to a Christian church in antiquity, with a large stone vat brought in to be used as a baptistery. But all is now in ruins. Given the proximity of a ski resort a few kilometers farther up in the mountains, one could hope that in the near future some conservation work will help save what is left of the site and provide guide signs, if not local guides. 

That night and the next we stayed in Mayrouba, where the College des Apotres has a summer camp for its students.  Two Sisters of the Holy Family of 'Ebrin (Sisters of the Maronite Holy Family) welcomed us.  Father Philippe Yasbeck, M.L., Principal of the College Cadmous near Tyre and former superior general of the Maronite Lebanese Missionaries, joined us for a light supper. Sunday was planned as a day of rest in that beautiful area, and we profited from the opportunity to observe the interaction of the young people, students of the College des Apotres and several Belgian scouts who were staying there. That was an education in itself. For decades in other Arab countries, we had become accustomed to seeing a fairly strict separation of the sexes, particularly among teenagers. Suddenly we were surrounded by a co-ed group, both boys and girls wearing shorts, happily enjoying one another's company in a good, healthy way. The situation seemed far more European or American than Middle Eastern, and the contrast with the chador-wearing women of the Shi'a a few kilometers away could not have been more pronounced. But this very contrast put into a far stronger light the radical cultural clash between Christians and Muslims. 

The moon was full our first night in Mayrouba, and the sight of it coming up over the mountains in a cloudless eastern sky just at dusk was glorious! 

On Monday morning, we and our young faculty "bodyguards" (as Sister Mary K called them) braved the Lebanese army, the Syrian army, the Syrian secret police and Hizballah checkpoints (flying yellow flags with an arabesque in the silhouette of a machine gun) to drive into the Beqa'a and all the way to Baalbek. For archaeologists, Baalbek is today a goal of academic pilgrimage, just as it once was that of religious pagans in Roman times. A young local guide named Charbel provided an excellent tour of the site, earning praise from both of us for the accuracy and thoroughness of his presentation of the site and its archaeological and historical background. 

A sign of hope, right under the noses of the Hizballah in their hilltop headquarters a few hundred meters away, was the large number of workmen engaged in preparing the Temple of Bacchus for the Baalbek Festival a week later, its first celebration in over twenty years. The magnificence of the ruins themselves was all that we had anticipated and even more. 

We stopped in Zahle, joined by Father Sami who had come from Jounieh just to be with us, for a delicious and leisurely lunch at a restaurant next to the flowing waters of the Birdawni. Muslim and Christian families seemed to intermingle easily as children ran up and down the river walk pavement. Another ride across the mountains brought us back to Jounieh for the night, with an after dark visit to the mountain top shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon at Harissa. Here we experienced the intensity of the devotion of the Lebanese people to the Mother of God. Many people were there late at night asking Mary's intercession for their needs and concerns. 

On Tuesday, July 22, we were privileged to have a tour of the Lebanese-American University and met with the Vice President for Student Affairs. This institution, originally founded in Beirut in 1929 as a Presbyterian junior college, now has a new and rapidly expanding campus. Some 4,000 students, including many young women, already attend classes on the site, and it is anticipated that the university will eventually accommodate 20,000. There was a palpable spirit of excitement and optimism in the staff, faculty, and students we met, a sense that they have a new opportunity to build not only a university but also their country in new directions. We learned that there are several new universities in the country and wondered aloud if such a small nation could really support so many institutions of higher education. There are now three Catholic, two Protestant, and one Greek Orthodox universities, but no Muslim institutions. The Christians still have a monopoly on university educational institutions, but many Muslims do attend these schools. 

We stopped that day also at the shrine of St. Charbel in Aanaya, at the monastery where the saint passed all of his adult life, laboring in a little garden and praying in his hermitage. Born in 1828 at Becharreh in the mountains, Charbel left home and family, walking across the mountains to join the monastery in Aanaya, never looking back. After his death in 1898, a series of miracles drew pilgrims to his resting place at the monastery.  He was canonized by Pope Paul VI in 1977. Although little known outside Lebanon except in Maronite communities, St. Charbel continues to draw crowds of prayerful pilgrims daily to his shrine. The deep devotion and prayerfulness of the pilgrims was immediately evident to us, and we both found ourselves caught up in prayer to the saint. Father Charles purchased a small relic not just as a souvenir, but much more as a promise to return to Lebanon in the future, insh'Allah. Both of us found this visit to St. Charbel to be one of the most deeply moving moments of our tour of Lebanon. 

From Aanaya we descended to Byblos, one of the oldest continually occupied cities in the world, with its neolithic settlement, Bronze Age temples, its Crusader castle, and its Roman ruins. The medieval church of St. John was particularly striking, as were the aquatic fossils in the shops in the old market. Father Charles bought a 100 million-year-old fossil of two small fish for the Geology Department at St. Mary's University. We purchased "shawarma" for all and sat on the steps of the Mexican consulate as we enjoyed our lunch. That evening we were treated by Father Sami Btaiche to an outstanding seafood meal in Jounieh at his namesake restaurant, Chez Sami. The company of Father Marwan and several young faculty members of the College des Apotres, as well as Marlene, the wife of Pierre Helou, made for a delightful evening at our table beside the sea. 

Sister Mary K. Milne in front of the Arz Al Rabb (The Cedars fo the Lord), Lebanon.
Photo courtesy of Fr. Charles Miller and Sister Mary K. Milne (Lebanon, 1997)

On Wednesday, July 23, we left for the north, driving up to Becharreh to visit the birthplace of St. Charbel and the tomb of Khalil Gibran with his collection of paintings. In response to a question from Sister Mary K, a docent at the Gibran museum spoke to us at length about Gibran's philosophy, his mysticism, and his life. From there we ascended to the grove of Cedars, had lunch at a restaurant almost on top of the world, and then walked leisurely down through the trees to meet the cars. It was easy to see why the Bible names these beautiful and stately trees Arz Al Rabb, the "cedars of God." 

Visit and dinner with the Maronite Patriarch.
From left to right: Haython Suleiman, Pierre Helou, Sister Milne, Fr. Charles H. Miller
His Beatitude Mar Nasrallah Peter Sfeir,
Fr. Marwan Taber, Father Sami Btaiche.
Photo courtesy of Fr. Charles Miller and Sister Mary K. Milne (Lebanon, 1997)

Our next stop was Diman, the summer residence of the Patriarch, Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir. There we were ushered into the typical Middle Eastern reception room to meet the Patriarch. He was most gracious, inquiring about our impression of Lebanon. The conversation was conducted in French, but Sister Mary K was able to pick up on most of it. When Father Sami intervened in Arabic with a polite offer to leave, since we had already surpassed our allotted time for the audience, the Patriarch preferred to continue the conversation for a while longer. It was easy to understand the great reverence and affection in which he is held by the Maronite people. 

From Diman we drove back around the Holy Valley to St. Antoine Qozhaya Monastery to attend Vespers with the monks of the Lebanese Order. This monastery had been the home of the Maronite Patriarchs, and remains by tradition their burial place. The Vespers service was beautiful and prayerful, a fitting end to a marvelous day. 

For dinner that evening we were guests in a nearby village of a family whose son attended the College des Apotres.  They were very generous and hospitable hosts indeed. We experienced the darkness of the electrical power problems that have plagued Lebanon for years, apparently due to the Syrians' hooking up the Lebanon power grid with their own inferior one. For the night we stayed at a hotel in Ehden. 

Early the next morning, July 24, Father Marwan, Pierre Helou, and Haytham Suleiman picked us up to begin our trek through the Holy Valley. At the village of Hawka we were joined by Father Marwan's nephew Tony and two long-time explorer-guides for the descent into the Valley. Fadi Baroody, a cosmetic chemist, and Paul Khawaja, an attaché at the British Embassy in Lebanon, who are Members of the Groupe d'Etudes et de Recherches Souterraines du Liban (GERSL) have been exploring the cliffs of the Valley for ten years. They have found, in the caves once inhabited by monastic hermits, the remains of mosaics, frescos, chapels, and even some medieval mummies. As we climbed down the rocky path into the Valley, they explained its history and pointed out the more visible locations of hermitages. As we went along, we understood both its eremetical appeal of solitude, but also its defensive value in times of enemy siege with weapons a bit more primitive than nuclear bombs or Cobra helicopters. 

At the Qannoubine Monastery in the middle of the Valley, we found two sisters of the Lebanese Maronite Order which gave to the world Blessed Rafka (a Maronite nun on the way to be canonized).  Their order is committed to preserving and restoring this shrine which had sheltered patriarchs in time of siege and which remains the most striking ruin in the Valley. The Sisters have converted the ruins into a pleasant little retreat house, but much still remains to be done, both in excavation and in preservation. During the remainder of the hike out of the Valley, we encountered several groups of modern-day pilgrims picnicking along the banks of the stream. The litter left by such groups struck us as almost a desecration of the area that is such a central symbol of Maronite identity.

That evening we returned to Jounieh, and met with travel agents in view of bringing future tours to Lebanon. 

Fr. Charles Miller with the Helou family.
Photo courtesy of Fr. Charles Miller and Sister Mary K. Milne (Lebanon, 1997)

On Friday morning, July 25, we had the pleasure of encountering officials of the University of the Holy Spirit in Kaslik, the intellectual powerhouse of the Maronites in Lebanon. The stained-glass window laboratory was particularly interesting for us who had never seen this kind of work done before. From the university we went to the home of Pierre Helou to meet his family.  This included his well-behaved and very cute four-year-old twin boys, his wife, his brother Roland (whom we already knew) and his mother. Here we talked about Pierre's upcoming stay at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, and we assured his family that he would be well cared for.

Today we headed south, visiting the Sea Castle of Sidon, and the shrine of Mary at Magdouchi (where tradition says she waited for Jesus during his ministry of Tyre and Sidon). As we drove into Tyre at lunch time, we looked for an appropriate restaurant, finally spotting one with an Almaza beer sign, a sure indication of Christian owners. Sure enough, the Tanit Restaurant-Pub turned out to have not only good cold beer on draft, but excellent food. As we were leaving, the owner presented a beautiful, juglet to Sister Mary K. Just beside the port and not many meters from the principal ruins of the ancient city, Tanit caters to U.N. personnel stationed in the area. It is definitely on our list as a future tour stop and an outstanding example of Lebanese hospitality. 

The ruins of Tyre are magnificent, both those of the peninsula and those of the Hippodrome area. We discovered that the supervisor of the guards, Ahmad Ali Mohe Din, and we have some mutual friends in Pierre and Patricia Bikai, archaeologists who had worked here at Tyre in the past. As we left Tyre, we proceeded to the Lebanese Missionaries' College Cadmous just outside the city. Here a handful of priests and sisters run a school in which all students are Muslim, a testimony both to the quality of Catholic education in Lebanon and to the courage of these religious in the heart of Shi'a country. When one of the priests was killed by Shi'a extremists, the order sent three priests to replace him. The Muslim parents begged the religious not to abandon the school. It was a delight to see again the principal, Father Philippe Yasbeck, whom we had met our first day in Lebanon at Mayrouba. 

Next morning, Father Marwan, Pierre, and Haytham drove us back towards Beirut via the Shouf region in the mountains. After a stop at Moussa's Museum, a slightly eccentric but valuable lifetime project of a man committed to preserving memories of Lebanon's past folk traditions, we drove through the beautiful Shouf region.  We stopped in Deir el Qamar and at Beit el Dine, palace of Fakr el Din and later of the Druze Jumblatt family. The museum includes mementos of Walid Jumblatt, as well as several ancient mosaic floors brought here for "safekeeping."  We drove through a series of villages which our guides pointed out to us were alternately Christian and Druze.  Here the people were caught up in the madness of the war and had turned on nearby villages of other faiths to try to destroy them. All now seemed quite peaceful, yet the original inhabitants of most of the Christian Villages have not been allowed to return. 

At Chaufasa, Father Marwan's hometown, many buildings remained in dangerous condition after being gutted during the war. Yet massive sums of Saudi money are now pouring into the reconstruction of Chaufasa, but only for mosques, and schools and shelters for homeless Muslim children. The Christians are being forced out economically in a way that not even the best politicians can prevent. What was not accomplished in war, has now become the purpose of peace: ousting Christians economically. Overlooking Beirut, the town presents a microcosm of today's Lebanon: bombed out apartments a few meters from expensive new mosques, a setting of extraordinary beauty nesting in a landscape still showing the scars. 

After a sandwich at an American-style fast food place in the outskirts of the capital, Pierre drove us through downtown Beirut for a quick overview of the archaeological excavations taking place there. Having grown accustomed to both Lebanese and Syrian army checkpoints on the roads throughout the country, we were nonetheless quite surprised to see a Syrian checkpoint right on General de Gaulle Blvd. The checkpoints are a reminder that the forces which tried to destroy Lebanon over the past two decades are not gone, but merely employing the Syrian-enforced quiet for the moment to catch their breath and regroup. 

That evening, our last in Lebanon, Father Marwan took us to see the Maronite Patriarch's winter palace above Jounieh. He encapsulated for us the last several centuries of Maronite history as we moved through the great hallway under the portraits of past patriarchs. We then rendezvoused with Father Sami Btaiche, Pierre and Haytham at an American-style open-air restaurant, giving us a splendid view of the Bay of Jounieh as we enjoyed steaks and the company of families there for a night out. 

And on Sunday morning, after Mass at the college, we drove to the airport to say our good-byes to Father Sami, to Haytham and to Pierre and his twins, Roland and Charbel. In the airport we picked up a bottle of arak to take home and a book on Maronite history --a sure sign that we shall return. 


One wonders if Lebanon's last two decades might not be what the Spanish Civil War was to World War II: a prelude and first test of strength for the West (represented by the Maronites) and the Muslim world (here the Shi'a/Hizbullah). Although split within itself, the Muslim world harbors deep resentment and anger against the West, going back to the time of Crusades and intensified in this century by Western colonialism. The economic imperialism of present-day Islam, based upon oil fortunes, and the increasing immigration of Muslims into Western Europe and the U.S. tends to intensify clashes. It is only a matter of time until there is an "Islamic bomb," if Pakistan does not already have it, and Iraq apparently has been able to conceal its arsenal of chemical and biological weapons. The constant irritant of Israel's presence and strength, not to mention its current humiliation of the Palestinian peace-seekers, provides a convenient whipping-boy for Islamic leaders in the region to divert attention from the critical problems of their own peoples. 

The Maronites, and to a somewhat lesser extent, other Arab Christian communities, represent another serious challenge to Arab/Muslim identity. For many Muslims, it is inconceivable that anyone of good will could reject the Qur'an and Islam; yet the Maronites have done so for 14 centuries. In that respect they are an embarrassment to Islam, a living contradiction in the heart of Dar el-Islam, a witness to Jesus the Jew who once walked this land. The Christians, moreover, look towards the West, which is considered so morally corrupt and offensive by faithful Shi'a Muslims. But the toll that living in such tension takes is enormous. So many Maronites were killed in the war, so many more fled the country to take their families to safety and to places where they could live in peace and security. The temptation to leave Lebanon is very strong, just as the many Lebanese communities across the world are reminders of earlier hardship that led to emigration. We admired the efforts being made to restore not only a superficial cease-fire, but a genuinely peaceful way of life and mutual understanding between Christians and Muslims of good will, like the College Cadmous near Tyre. In our conversations, we could feel the pessimism about the future that pulls young Maronites to emigrate, but we also saw the conscious efforts to attract much more attention and involvement on the part of Lebanese expatriates around the world. The lifting of the travel ban for U.S. citizens will, we hope, further this effort to reconnect the diaspora with the mother church in Lebanon and its extraordinary history of fidelity to Church and people. 

November 3, 1997

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