A Cedar Pilgrimage




Angelina Saule


 
© Copyright 2021 by Angelina Saule




Photo of a cedar in Lebanon.

We’ve made it,’ breathes my mother. With our heads bobbing somewhere above numerous peaks, with a carpet of thick white cloud approaching, we’ve finally come to the Tomb of Job (‘Maqam Nabi Ayoub’ in Arabic). The massive checkerboard of negotiations crisscrossing the mountain ranges are behind us or below us, which, depending upon the perspective, seems to have dwarfed the daily human activity of the town Jezzine, where we had just stopped by a friend’s for a robust coffee.

The Tomb of Job is a holy place for Christians, Muslims, for the local Druze and even the Bahai (although that doesn’t seem to explain the Hindi script decorating certain exhibits). In terms of Christian pilgrimage sites, the Tomb of the prophet Job is considered to be one of hundreds of pilgrimage sites in Lebanon, although the Tomb itself is contested in the Christian world (the other proposed destinations of his resting place being Palestine and Oman). Despite its rhizomatic disposition, the site has been selected as one of 83 historical religious sites in Lebanon to feature in a new impressive coffee table book, published by the government for its cultural religious tourism project. The book’s title Lebanon: Celebrating Our Diversity is itself a message, an ode to the variety of Lebanon’s religious landscape.

This is all swimming in my mind as I surprisingly scan the Druze star here, proudly sitting upon the cupola of the main building - my father comes from this religious minority, meaning that inevitably my Lebanese papers state that I do as well. The Druze are an anomaly among the anomaly: a religion made up of Greek, Hindi, Persian, Islamic and other influences with its peculiarities, including reincarnation, the practice of ‘taqiyya’, or ‘hiding one’s faith’, and a reverence for Plato. Their presence in the region for at least the last 1,000 years has intrigued and outraged many writers: from Islamic or Arab scholars such as Al-Suyouti to Maroun Abboud, to the Orientalist writings of Alphonse de Lamertine, Gertrude Bell and Antoine de Sacy. I hadn’t expected this religious anomaly, which I have a love-hate relationship with, to be the caretakers of a Christian site: the “Druzification” of the site, including the infamous star and austerity of white stonework with green balustrades and metal green doors I associate with a very secluded and specific part of Lebanese society and oddly, a place that has become my third home.

As we are exclaiming over the views, the oak trees below and the inconsistencies of the Druze, I spy my mother walking up to the cave across from the fenced territory of the Tomb itself. The cave is decked out with candles, a shrine squatting in a murky corner of the cave, as it is believed that Job lived here with his family. My mother plants herself across from the candles on some damp stones, a tranquil look coming over her. I should point out that except for a few gold Russian Orthodox icons from my great-grandmother, scattered along a bookshelf at home in Melbourne, my mother is anything but religious. Yet on discussing her first trip to Lebanon (the country of my father), my mother’s requests include visiting numerous Biblical places of interest. As I have lived abroad for many years and worry about my mother’s health from afar, this pilgrimage is more about me fulfilling my mother’s desires rather than a need to follow the footsteps of biblical figures. Inching inside the cold clammy cave of Job, I am shrunk into silence by the chill in the cave. Isolation and utter solitude seem to weep from the cramped walls. The name of the place, Niha Shouf, in Arabic means calm or peaceful. I feel even more startled by the peace coming over my mother. Could this be real healing, I wonder? Is this the peace that most pilgrims seek during these religious journeys? I actually do feel exalted but lacking religious sentiment, I seem to put it down to the geographical location, the altitude of the site, the air, my low blood-pressure, a broken-heart. It is a feeling that has crashed over me quite often over the years in the Shouf region of Lebanon. Could the mountains possess some compound, explaining why so many figures from various religions experienced epiphanies or are believed to have performed miracles here in the Levant?

I take pictures of my mother from various angles, trying to capture the humble and sweet smile on her face I’ve never seen before till now. ‘He was here,’ she says emphatically, ‘You can feel his presence and peace here.’

Finally, we approach the gates and walk in what appears to be more of a Druze temple, or ‘khalwa’, rather than the Christian shrine I had expected. The Druze strictly avoid iconography and only use five colors called ‘khams hudoud’, that is, the ‘five limits’, as a religious symbol for the five-pointed star as well as the flag. Each colour (green, red, yellow, blue, and white) represents a metaphysical force or principle, and can be seen in Druze districts in the Levant over shops, in homes and adorning various paraphernalia. In quite bad taste I’ve joked to a few relatives that we are the first rainbow people of the world, a reference to the uncanny similarity between the ‘khams hudoud’ of the Druze to the LGBT flag. My idea of humor on part of the murky and multiple explanations forming Druze identity is of course giggled at by some and admonished by others.

To the left of the entrance hang white gauzy scarves for women (the ‘mandil’), which are worn by sheikhas in the religion (unlike other religions, a Druze woman can become a part of the inner spiritual elite ‘al-Uqqaal’ – ‘the enlightened’- and even lead the Thursday prayers). My mother of Russian Orthodox occasionally-pagan stock smiles at me in a slightly unorthodox manner, as if to say like an obedient Soviet pioneer, “I am ready.” She heads off in the direction of the tomb with friends, leaving me to look askance at my mother’s covered head, now an enigma thanks to the ‘mandil’ enveloping her almost completely, trailing behind her wistfully. Could she be appropriating my father’s religion after all these years, and even enjoying it, all in the name of a Biblical figure?

In front of the main building to the side is a large terrace offering panoramic views – yet the clouds are creeping up higher, inching towards our shrouded heads. We ascend the steps, leaving our shoes by the door along with other pilgrims. The tomb is settled in the centre of the room on a stone platform, underneath a chandelier. As we walk around the tomb, entranced by its grace, light pours out on us from the leadlights along the walls close to the ceiling. The leadlights, almost appearing to be slightly Christian in origin here, seem to be yet another architectural feature for the ‘khams hudud’ to be represented. Thin cushioned mattresses line the walls as is the custom for the Druze: worshippers and visitors alike can spread out, chat, relax, text. One friend has even said that he has done his homework in the ‘khalwa’ close to our village on the mattresses.

Perching on the cushions, we watch people walk up to the Tomb of Job. In deep reverence people bow their head to the stone or even kiss the Druze holy book (Rasa'il al-Hikma or Kitabu el-Hikma), which is perched on a book stand with the Druze flag underneath it. A couple of young men are wearing the Druze skull-cap, while most are in modern clothes. Some people are speaking different languages, yet my mother is peacefully silent, watching the people come and go.

There is an annex which has rooms available for pilgrims who wish to sleep in the maqam. As certain Druze believe that they exist all over the world but with different names (not just ‘Druze’ or ‘Muwahiddeen’ meaning Unitarians), it could be assumed that this is an offer to all. This may also explain the signs in Hindi, which two sheikhs later on in Niha Shouf were rather reluctant to comment on directly. Locals claim that the old arbutus tree behind the area cured Job of skin disease. As we drove past on our way out to the Cedars, colored string could be seen hanging from the branches.

Winding our way around the mountains to the cedars of Barouk, the clouds seem to be receding to the bottom of the mountain. Dusk is approaching like a steady chill with each lurch of our car, and my mother seems to be in silent awe of Job’s cave and the tomb. Having made it to the top, as it seems that my mother and I are rather struck by mixed feelings: I’m rather confused, while my mother radiates with serenity. Obviously, the pilgrimage has worked for one of us.

Some Druze sheikhs and sheikhas are taking pictures with children near the gates, their ‘mandil’ and ‘shirwal’ (baggy, fishermen-like pants that Druze sheikhs wear) add a bit of an old-world feel to the age of i-phones. We also pose, trying to snap the clouds flooring the land below us, the scenery punctuated by the stoic form of the cedar and its branches pointing upward as if in prayer. Breathing in the unforgiving yet hospitable aroma of the cedars, my mother reminds me of some Biblical passages referring to the cedars, about the righteous growing like a cedar in Lebanon (Psalms 92: 12-15). I can feel the air moving inside me and between the clouds below and the cedars ahead, reminding me of a sign I had seen in Latinized Arabic on the walls of the Lebanese Ministry of Culture: ‘Allah – jabal’ (‘God is the mountain’). In the dying light of the Eastern Mediterranean, despite the flourishing of shrines, asceticism and encounters with the absolute in the name of the world’s great monotheistic religions, I seem to find spiritual peace on the soil of the cedars before we descend the mountain back home.

From the north of Lebanon to the south, from the Mediterranean to the valleys and mountains of the Bekaa, there are Christian places of worship scattered throughout the country. Churches, monasteries, sanctuaries and countless shrines and places of worship are modestly carved into the stones of the most impressive valleys or perched on the heights of the mountains with breathtaking views. On the other hand, there are lavish churches of various denominations bespattered about the country, although the most impressive Christian shrine being Our Lady of Lebanon, perched on a hill some 600 metres above sea level. This blessed virgin has become a symbol of unity in Lebanon, drawing visitors from all faiths to her, somewhat akin in stature to the Christ the Redeemer statues in Rio de Janeiro.

To satisfy my mother’s desires to retrace biblical figures, we have decided to go to the Qana Grotto, which according to the Gospel of John, is the place where Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle of turning water into wine. Some Christians believe Qana to have been the actual location of this event, although like all religious pilgrimage sites, the area is contested. However, it is believed that proof of Qana’s authenticity includes Eusibius of Caesaria, the church historian who lived in the third century, locating Qana in the land of Asher near Tyre in his Onomasticon. Locals also refer to the rock-carved sculptures symbolic of Jesus and the Twelve Apostles near the grotto, believing this to be further proof of the early presence of Christianity in the region.

As with the Tomb of Job in Druze territory, the Qana Grotto is in a Shia district of the South which is littered with Christian Maronite villages. Contrary to stereotypes places of worship besides Shia mosques are well taken of, as there are still many Christian villages in this area. The upkeep and maintenance of the site attest to the sincerity of the local authorities to assert the claim that this is the real Qana, although ecclesiastic authorities in Rome have still hesitated on identifying the location of Qana being either in Lebanon or Israel and the Occupied Territories.

It is already the middle of the day by the time we arrive at the gravel path to the entry of Qana and the day is becoming unreasonably dry. Unlike the tomb, which seemed to engage with the power of ascending, to get to the Grotto we have to descend deep back into the earth, or so it seems. Before we walk down my mother, Loulou and I survey the religious souvenirs: from icons, candles and rosary beads to postcards and wooden blocks of Christ, Mary and a plethora of other biblical figures; my mother makes a point of buying branches with ‘Qana, Lebanon’ written grandiosely under the cross. ‘Isn’t Lebanon mentioned in the Bible over 50 times,’ I respond. ‘More,’ answers my mother.

The walk down is slightly troubling, facing the rocky hillsides on the other side of a valley, lacking sound or air. Lined by pockets of cacti, several yellow types of dandelions, and Egyptian campion, the heat of August has brought the golden thistle into bloom. Nevertheless, we make our way along the wooden path and steps, contemplating the heaving valley. From time to time we stop, as some of us are melting while my mother is limping. There are ceremonial pieces of strings hanging from various branches along the way, confirming the presence of other pilgrims and their belief in miracles. Finally, having come down to what I feel is the intestines of the earth, we are met by a cold shuddering cave. Candles and wreaths are placed on the stones, which are a kind of ground layer for half the size of the cave. Looking out from the cave, one can’t but help admire the peace and tranquility evoked in these biblical surroundings. Perhaps this is why and how such stories were composed, close to a feeling of pristine simplicity? Each of us crouches somewhat in various parts of the cave, taken by the silent landscape, although I feel a bit haunted as my mother says to me how this place is full of spiritual power.

Close by are six large stone basins, believed to be the same basins used by Christ to turn the water into wine. The others take photos, but instead I behold the aridity of the hills, somewhat snubbing our presence and immune to our plight. In return, my cynicism starts to weigh in and I wish to yell at the aridity that if this was a place for Christians to escape persecution, then its indifference would be a good hiding place. Instead, I walk over to my mother somewhat weak under the sun and hug her. “It’s beautiful, better than I had expected”, she murmurs, trancelike.

As we leave, we ask for directions to Beaufort Castle, which served as a command post for Babylonians, Assyrians, Romans and Crusaders alike. Connected with a rather different part of Christian history in the area, the Crusades, we decide to try and visit this strategic military outpost in Lebanon with breathtaking views overlooking Palestine, the Golan Heights, the Litani river and the slopes of Mount Hermon, as well as sparkling seductive tints of the Mediterranean. While driving about and getting lost at one point, it’s difficult not to notice that the streets are cleaner than other parts of the country, while their youth is one of the most educated minorities in the country.

Despite all of this, Beaufort seems to be a testament to the other side of what religion can build: an endless labyrinth of arsenal rooms, sniper hideouts, hidden tunnels and lavish arches. Several hours of wandering around was not enough to take in the glory of the castle. In the descending chill of dusk approaching, skirting the borders of Israel in search of a restaurant deeper in the South, we manage to tune into the airwaves of some Russian chanson from across the Israeli border (to my mother’s delight). My mother comments that there should be more tourists flocking to Lebanon to experience this: ‘Why are there so many misconceptions about the region? It’s Biblical land, there should be more tourists,’ she asserts. Until now there seems to be a lack of knowledge among many Christians that various events of the Bible are entwined with a country they know very little about. It is a problem summed up by Khalil Gibran in the lines, ‘You have your Lebanon and its dilemma. I have my Lebanon and its beauty.’


Angelina Saule, originally from Melbourne, Australia, undertook her doctoral studies at Saint Petersburg State University, in erotic desire and comparative poetics (Anglo-American, Russian and Arabic) at the Faculty of Philosophy. Her former research area was in Russian Futurism and Orientalism, and she has published essays for several journals and newspapers around the world on these topics, as well as giving papers at international conferences.

In addition, she has published poems in several Australian, Mexican and Russian journals, as well as translations, and was formerly a poetry event organizer in St. Petersburg, Russia. She is currently living in Germany, teaching at TU Dresden, undertaking her PhD at Sydney University and writing her first verse-novel.

For links to academic articles articles, publications and poems: https://angelinasaule.wordpress.com/



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