Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Church and The Cave

Along with the monastery, there is also a church and a cave that have significance at Qozhaya.
The church is fascinating and awesome just in its architecture. It was literally built into the side of the mountain, so that half of the ceiling in the chapel is actually the rock of the hillside. Little prayer rooms off the main sanctuary also have this rock as their ceilings and walls. There is a large Maronite influence in this area, which is the kind of religion practiced in this church. I have never been one who feels completely comfortable in Catholic churches, for whatever reason, but I will admit that the architecture is beautiful and I do appreciate that.
If the church was uncomfortable, the cave was downright creepy. This large cavern with massive door to close it off from the rest of the world was a place where the 'possessed' were held while St Anthony was praying for their deliverance. [A note on 'possessed': mentally handicapped people are not very accepted in Lebanese society. Much of the time they are 'sent away' and live somewhere else. We all couldn't help but wonder how many of the prisoners of the cave might have just been mentally handicapped and not really possessed by a demon. Imagining the torture they endured was gut-churning.] The original chains were still attached to the large rock we faced as we entered, and stairs led up to an upper cavern. Landon climbed the stairs and said it went on for a while, though without a flash light he couldn't tell just how far. As I said before, if something makes me uncomfortable I'm going to do it just to conquer that fear. Well, this cave was a step above making me uncomfortable. It was one of those places that when you enter immediately the air feels thicker somehow, your little wispy neck hairs stand straight up, and you just know you're not the only 'being' in the room. I lasted about ten minutes, and then something dropped from the ceiling behind me and I was out. (Wow. Even typing about it makes my heart rate quicken.) Some bad stuff happened inside that place, and a lot of that bad is still there.

St Anthony's Monastery

The first night of our road trip we stayed at Qozhaya, the active monastery of St. Anthony, hidden back in the terraced slopes of the Qadisha Valley. Established some time in the forth century, this place has a rich and interesting history. As well as the monks who live there and cultivate the acres and acres of fruit trees and other agricultural products, the place also hosts group retreats so had a sort of hostel feel to it. My sister had seen it on a hike through the valley but had never stayed there.After we had been shown to our room and set our things down we decided to go on a hike to a water pipeline that offered an incredible view back down the valley. It was on this hike that I snapped this photo. The gate was the entrance into an orchard filled with olive, persimmon, apple and countless other fruit trees. And the monastery is captured above. The sheer size of the place was incredible.
On this hike I also had my first taste of a raw olive. It was harvesting season while we were there, so the olive I snagged off a tree was totally ready to be eaten. Ready except for the fact that it had not been cured. So. Gross. It turns out that the curing process is really important. I literally could taste the bitter olive taste the entire hike. It even seemed to 'burn' the back of my throat. Not a recommended snack.
Here's a link if you want to read more about where we stayed.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Elias, the Jeweler

My sister pointed out a little shop to us as we walked briskly by the evening before: "This is a cool artisan shop. You might stop in there for handmade jewelry." Ok, I thought, and then continued to focus on not tripping over all the objects littering the somewhat dark sidewalk.
Well, the next day we went back to the artisan shop. We walked in the open door and the shop owner stood up, nodding his head to us in welcome. His mouth was full of grapes, or else he probably would have said hello. We nodded and muttered a hello as we gazed at the wall of handmade bracelets, earrings and necklaces. As he cleared his mouth he offered us some grapes. Initially I refused, not wanting to take someones lunch, but as he insisted we both acquiesced. We began chatting with him, and fairly soon: would you like some coffee? Yes, thank you. Sweetened? No, thank you. We were offered seats, and soon enough we were having a conversation with Elias. Our conversation bounced from topic to topic, each participant listening hard to try to decipher what was being communicated through the foreign accents. We learned that our new friend made the jewelry with his son, who at the time was visiting his sister in the U.S. She's going to university in Philadelphia and has been there studying film for the past three years. Elias was close to 70 years old, but we wouldn't have guessed that. We spoke about the civil war, about other jobs he's had, how he takes his coffee and how much we had enjoyed the city so far.
This picture, to me, signifies hospitality. I think we lose it in the U.S. Some people know how to welcome others, but as a general rule, we're really good at keeping our distance from strangers. Elias showed us the epitome of Lebanese hospitality. And the jewelry we bought is gorgeous to boot!