The Qadisha Valley: Lost Paradise

Every once in a while, even the most hardened urbanites start to feel the strain of living in a city as bustling, intensive and undisputedly chaotic as Beirut. As the summer progresses, bringing with it the omnipresent heat and humidity, as well as the hordes of tourists jamming up the city’s already strained infrastructure, more and more people feel the need to get out of town and take refuge in the quiet of the mountains, if only for a while. As isolated places go, few spots in Lebanon can match the quiet and serenity of the Qadisha Valley, one of the country’s most breathtakingly beautiful locations.

Stretching for approximately twenty kilometers between Bsharré, the birthplace of Khalil Gibran, and the village of Tourza, the valley has served as a refuge for those in search of security or solitude since the early centuries of Christianity. In 1998, UNESCO added the valley to the list of World Heritage Sites because of its importance as the site of some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements in the world. Now, however, its place on that list might be threatened. Due to several environmental dangers, the organization has issued a warning to the Lebanese government, saying that it should make an effort to preserve Qadisha’s cleanliness or risk its being declassified.

On either side, the valley is framed by steep cliffs that rise up to a thousand meters on either side. The greater number of monasteries and hermits’ caves that adorn the cliffs are accessible only through a handful of precipitous and risky mountain trails, which made the valley the perfect hiding spot for persecuted minorities. It is on these ancient trails that the visitor can truly get a grasp of the many hardships, but also the simple beauty of life in the mountains. Most tourists, however, prefer to stick to the path that follows the Nahr Qadisha, or Holy River, along the valley’s bottom.

Wherever there are tourists, there are locals trying to make a living of them, and the Holy Valley is no exception. Numerous taxis, vans and minibuses now offer to take weary tourists to the Qannoubine Monastery at the end of the valley in less than ten minutes, and two big restaurants have opened close to it. The combination of the cars’ exhaust fumes and careless littering by tourists is now threatening the once idyllic nature of the place and has called to the government to action.

Now, a petition has been launched to save the valley’s status. The appeal, which was initiated by MTV and demands that the valley be declared a natural reserve, has already been signed by over 6,000 people from across the world. With such prominent signatories as President Michel Sleiman, Culture Minister Salim Warde and Tourism Minister Fadi Abboud, the petition has a chance of success. But it is also up to the citizens of the neighboring villages to ensure that the Holy Valley is preserved as the place of beauty and spirituality that is has been for centuries.