At first glance, Lebanon seems entirely turned toward the sea; but its multifaceted nature—lush yet arid, skyward-reaching and subterranean—is a powerful aspect of its identity.
Lebanon’s head is in the clouds. From the two high mountains facing each other north and south, the view sweeps across the valleys. Clouds often settle in, halfway down, blanketing the land below. The birds have it figured out: every year, 246 species migrate between Europe and Africa, flying over Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. The lesser kestrel, eagles, hawks, quail and storks conserve their energy by gliding on the thermal updrafts that form over the Beqaa Valley
during the day. “Lebanon is the world’s second-largest corridor for bird migration,” explains Jacqueline Salloum, a member of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Lebanon (SPNL), an NGO that has been creating hima, conservation areas where migrating birds can rest without danger from hunters, over the past dozen years. “They are endangered by hunters, but also by the use of high-dosage pesticides, the disappearing wetlands and growing urbanization… We are raising awareness about these issues in a dozen regions.”
The cedars are so vast that their branchescan provide shade for the entire herd of skinny black goats grazing on the slope
Beneath a gentle canopy Along with its birds buffeted by warm winds, Lebanon also protects its cedars, which are so beloved that one appears on the country’s flag. Lebanon has even created reserves to defend them against extensive deforestation. The most famous, the Cedars of God Reserve, is in the Bsharri region in the north, at the base of Mount Makmel. It appears when the wind scours the mountain clear, revealing nebulous ocher peaks that look like camels’ humps. The cedars here are so vast their branches can provide shade for an entire herd of skinny black goats grazing on the slope. The ancient trees may be majestic, but the cedars huddle together in a dip in the land, as if trying to keep
warm. To reach these heights from the coast, you’ll have to take the long forest roads of Mount Lebanon. Before reaching the cedars, which only grow above 1,400 meters, travelers pass holm
oaks, conifers and Aleppo pines that are scattered among the limestone outcrops. In many places, terraces climb up the hillsides like an Aztec temple. They are shaded by hundreds of fruit trees—
apple, pear, peach, cherry, walnut and mulberry—that transform this land into a Garden of Eden in springtime, when the trees are in full bloom.
Sacred roots Visitors are generally taken to Bsharri Reserve, as it has a dozen thousand-year-old cedars and has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998. But Salloum and her friend André Béchara, who founded Great Escape (an association specializing in hiking, horseback riding, rural development and environmental awareness-raising tours for school kids) insist that we visit the Al-Shouf Cedar Nature Reserve on Mount Baruk in the south of the country.
It’s harder to reach but larger, stretching over 550 km2, or 5 percent of the surface of Lebanon.
Paths run through the forest, which today look like a battlefield: “Wild boars have ploughed up the earth,” says Béchara, who takes us straight to the royal cedar that enthralled Lamartine 180 years ago and inspired one of his most beautiful poems.
“Lamartine’s cedar is monumental, because it is over 1,500 years old. Here, it is considered a national treasure.” Poetic prints Lebanon’s other source of pride is often less than 10 centimeters long: fossils of fish and shellfish that generations of paleontologists unearth and analyze, thrilled when they find rare specimens like an octopus fossil. Fifteen years ago, a 3.7-meter fossilized shark was dug up, upstaging the shrimp, starfish, squid and sawfish. The excavations took place on two sites, Hgula and Haqil, two mountain villages some 20 kilometers from the coastal city of Byblos, but the fossils are displayed
in a small museum in Byblos itself, run by director Pierre Abi Saad. “This is the only place in the Middle East with fossils from the Cretaceous period,” he explains. “They were brought to the surface 12 million years ago with the formation of the Lebanese mountains. Ancient texts recorded that they
were already admired at the start of our era. During the crusades, the French king Louis IX received one as a gift and said it was one of the most beautiful things he had ever seen.” These precious fossils can be purchased in the museum shop. Says Abi Saad: “We have to keep ten specimens of each species. We can sell the others, so that we can finance new research.” Life in the rock Another type of fossil exists on Mount Lebanon: it often wears shorts and sandals, lives alone and belongs to an extremely rare species commonly known as a hermit.
Only two remain in the Kadisha Valley (kadisha means “holy” in Aramaic), and they both live in caves near the Monastery of Saint Anthony. The anchorite may choose to receive visitors, but always outside his refuge, which he reaches via a tall ladder. Many convents and churches in the valley (there are
over a hundred) are also isolated and carved from the rock, like the Monastery of Saint Elisha among the trees, a 90-minute hike from any road. Walking through the Lebanese mountains means constantly shifting from grandiose views to these refuges, where centuries of memories seem to ooze from the stone; climbing a cliff to discover an abyss 220 meters deep; visiting villages clinging to outcrops, like Douma and Bsharri; and then dropping down into crevices to discover the churning rivers.
From ridge to valley, Lebanon is a land of opposites, both rocky and lush, dry and riddled with waterfalls, panoramic and cloistered.
With its migrating birds and fossilized fish, spectacular Lebanon showcases it all at every hairpin turn: a snow-covered peak, ancient inscriptions, a doe-eyed shepherd. The country remains true to the traditional proverb known to all Lebanese: “What the eye has not yet seen, the mind can imagine.”