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    "Top blog/Renato Obeid's World/Today's pick: This rambling weblog is worth reading not so much for its satirical posts but more for its insight into the minutiae of life in Lebanon, including the etiquette of road accidents and how to hire a taxi.” -Jane Perrone, The Guardian

    Wednesday, September 01, 2004  



    "On that day, the Virgin was proclaimed Sovereign of the mountains and seas, and Queen of Lebanon."
    "...and the queen of the sky rose above Harissa like the cedars of Lebanon"

    -Descriptions of the inauguration in 1908 of Our Lady of Lebanon
    (harissa.info and opuslibani.org respectively)

    Visitors to Lebanon literally can't avoid her - some six hundred meters above the crescent-shaped Jounieh harbor (twenty kilometers north of Beirut), perched atop the highpoint of a mountainous forest, is the two hundred feet high twenty-ton bronze statue of Our Lady Of Lebanon, the centerpiece of the Maronite Catholic* "Vatican".
    Harissa** is a busy tourist and pilgrimage destination (especially during the Catholic Month of Mary when thousands of the faithful perform the pilgrimage on foot, often from as far afield as Beirut), the shrine compound includes a restaurant, souvenir shop and the most recent major addition - the distinctive modernist concrete and glass Maronite cathedral whose ribbed concrete roof is reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House.
    Inaugurated in 1991, the giant one hundred and fifteen meter high, 3500 person capacity cathedral was designed in the style of a Phoenician ship and a cedar tree (the national symbol that adorns the Lebanese flag) and the interior built in a way that attracts one's attention towards the massive windows - through which the whitewashed statue of the Virgin Mary can be seen above, as if suspended in the heavens.
    Unfortunately, there don't appear to be set opening hours for the cathedral but rather it is open or closed according to the events or services being held there.
    Not the end of the world - it's better viewed from the outside as its minimalist interior, in such a large almost cavernous space, gives it a somewhat barren empty aspect on the inside as if all the emphasis had been concentrated on creating that unrivalled view though the windows.
    Much cozier and more convenient (open all day and night like the rest of the place) is the Em el Nour (Mother of Light) Chapel in the twenty meter high base of the statue.
    Look out for the biblical inscription at the entrance that reads (in Latin and Arabic) "I elevated like the Cedars of Lebanon" - a reference to the cedars of Lebanon so abundant and famous in antiquity (commonly called "The Cedars of God" by the Lebanese, they were used to build King Solomon's Temple) yet now so dangerously depleted that the cedar across from the chapel is the only one you'll see unless you trek out to the patchy reserves to the north and south.
    Once you've done the inside, climb the one hundred and four steps up the winding spiral staircase to the statue where you can light a candle or simply take in the magnificent panoramic view - as far south as the southern suburbs of Beirut and as far north as northern Lebanon.
    With an area of only 10,452 square kilometers, Lebanon is a compact patchwork of layers of coast, city and mountain all seemingly stuck together seamlessly and this is by far the most comprehensive and spectacular view of that.
    Religiously minded visitors will liken the trek up the statue, amidst these surroundings, to ascending to heaven, I liken it to the ideal location for chasing a villain up to his last refuge in a James Bond movie (in fact, the whole place has a dramatic Bond movie scene kind of feel about it).
    It's certainly a view to die for.
    Some one hundred meters from the back entrance of the cathedral is the Greek Catholic*** St Paul's Basilica - built in 1947 in the classical Byzantine style it is as traditional as the Maronite cathedral is modern and provides excellent juxtaposition.
    It is open to the public but, once again, doesn't appear to have set hours but monastic daytime hours are a general rule of thumb.
    Bordering the Cathedral grounds (also towards the back entrance) is the Apostolic Nunciature and some four kilometers down the mountain is the 17th Century Patriarchate of the Maronite Church.
    Both are generally accessible to the public but, due to their tight security, not the easiest of places to gain access to.
    The Holy Mountain, as it's understandably often called, is also home to a myriad of churches, convents, monasteries etc.
    Despite its obviously Christian character, Harissa's appeal is by no means restricted to people of that faith - at least half the visitors appear to be Lebanese and other Arab Muslims.
    Attending a mass there recently, I saw a Gulf Arab tourist (in his full national costume) walk in and out a couple of times as if pondering whether to actually attend the mass but then, as if he'd thought the better of it and decided not to get too carried away, leave.

    The most spectacular approach to the "queen of the sky" is the sky route - the cable car (telepherique), caught from its terminus one hundred meters north of Jounieh along the old coastal road, is said to be the world's only urban variety. Delivering passengers through the city, forest and clouds that often shroud the mountain in only ten minutes and for 7, 5000 Lebanese Lira (5 USD) from10.00 am to 11.00pm seven days a week.
    Just as spectacular is the winding mountain road, a service (shared taxi - usually an old Mercedes) can be caught from the Ghadir turnoff (ma'fra' Ghadir, just before Jounieh when coming from Beirut) or the Foad Chehab Municipal Stadium turnoff (ma'fra' Foad Chehab, just after Jounieh) for 2,000 LL.
    10,000LL to have the taxi all to yourself - a taxi fare is usual five times (for the five passengers they cram in) the service price.

    When inter-factional fighting tore apart the until then united Christian community during the latter stages of the Lebanese civil war, it is said that the statue of the Virgin Mary (already built with her arms outstretched by her sides as if in supplication) turned towards Beirut, where the brunt of the fratricidal fighting was occurring, as if beseeching her wayward flock, and stayed in that position to this very day.
    It's a nice story but analysis of before and after pictures does not give credence to this and indicate that she has always been where she is now.

    Visiting Lebanon on a US State Department sponsored regional goodwill tour in 1963, the late jazz legend Duke Ellington was so inspired by Our Lady Of Lebanon and the Holy Mountain that he recorded a composition called "Mount Harissa".
    On the "Far East Suite" album (1966), it is described by reviewers as being "an elegant little six-eight number" and "haunting".
    Prior to Lebanon, the Duke was in Baghdad where his visit happened to coincide with a military coup (his hotel was just across the road from the attacked presidential palace).
    Asked for his assessment of the coup by newsmen in Beirut a few days later he said "those cats were swinging man!"

    *Living mainly in Lebanon and relatively autonomous due to their historical isolation (initially in a proto-Orthodox and now Muslim region) the Maronites are in communion with the Roman Catholic Church and are the majority Lebanese sect according to the last census (conducted in 1932).
    **Meaning "protector" in Arabic, Harissa, the name of the host village, has become synonymous with the shrine.
    ***Another of Lebanon's nineteen officially state-recognized sects - Pope John Paul II, who visited Lebanon and Harissa in 1997, called Lebanon "a message (of coexistence, tolerance etc) not a country".


    1:29 am

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