Nestled between Bcharreh and Tourza, Wadi Qadisha is a deep gorge with steep parallel stratum sides and unique vegetation. The surrounding landscape is full of contrasts, with the arid planes of Qornet Es-sawda giving way to the greenery of nearby valleys, home to long-lived cedar trees, green oak, juniper, and Mediterranean shrubs. The Naher Qadisha River runs through the area, carrying water from the small valleys and eventually flowing out to the sea through Tripoli. This river is responsible for giving the region its nickname "the Holy Valley," as the Semitic roots of the name Qadisha refer to the concept of holiness.Located 85 km from Beirut and 18 km from Tripoli, the Wadi Qadisha valley stretches from Kousba and is split into two branches starting from Tourza, each named after a monastery. The first branch, Wadi Qozhaya, reaches Ehden, while the second, Wadi Qannoubine, covers Hadath El-jebbe in the south up to the Cedars. This awe-inspiring valley owes its current splendor to an impressive geological process caused by the gradual erosion of the river, which created a deep gorge and caverns.
The most significant outcome of this valley's natural formation is the emergence of these sacred and refuge grottos. The grottoes are a treasure of the valley, formed from underground karstic erosion, and some are dotted with stalactites, stalagmites, calcareous concretions, and other natural features. They also conceal antiquities, flowing springs, and elaborately carved rocks that run in various colors.
For instance, the Qadisha grotto under Bcharreh village stretches over 778 meters, while the Dilmass grotto, located on a strategic site, was used as a lookout through its small facade openings. The El Houriyyeh grotto witnessed a civilization that practiced precise funerary rituals, and all these caves offer explorers a captivating view.
From prehistoric times through the Roman era and into the early days of Christianity, people have inhabited these grottos. However, during the rise of Christianity and its accompanying doctrinal debates, these grottos were transformed into chapels, monasteries, and hermitages where generations of monks, hermits, and ascetics lived. Accessible grottos, which had previously been used as refuges, numbered in the hundreds and were linked to the larger monasteries in the valley. These monasteries were self-governing, and the monks who lived there did not take vows but rather assumed official roles while living an ascetic life in extreme poverty. Some even became true hermits.
Numerous traveler accounts exist of this exemplary monastic way of life, characterized by precise prayers, simple meals, and manual labor. It is worth noting that prayers could be heard in the valley in a variety of languages, including Greek, Syriac, Ethiopian, and Arabic. Even some Muslim solitaries sought refuge in these grottos, and according to the well-known tales of the Andalusian traveler Ibn Joubeir, Muslim recluses and the Christian population coexisted peacefully at that time.
The exact origins of Christianity in this region still remain a mystery, as there is very little information available. It is known, however, that small temples had existed in the mountains for a long time, and that villages had developed around these places of worship. After the recognition of Christianity as an official religion, the ancient worship places were systematically destroyed. However, there are still some places that bear witness to the period before Christianity. For instance, the Saint Roman church (Mar Romanos) in Hadchit appears to have been built on top of an archaeological temple.
In Bcharre, under Saint-Serge (Mar Sarkis) Convent, there is an archeological grave dominated by a natural obelisk overhanging the valley. The valley bears many indications of the influence of Roman traditions, as Christianity was introduced relatively late in Qadisha compared to coastal villages.
Qadisha valley is a rich repository of diverse cultures and civilizations that have traversed it over time. It bears witness to the evolution of religious values, including the profound influence of Christianity on the region. During the Crusades, the "Valley of the Saints" served as both a sanctuary and a site of conflict, as Christian mountain dwellers joined forces with Muslim armies to overthrow the Franks protected by the Tripoli earldom. In the 13th century, the Mamelukes took power and launched incursions into the valley, leading to the massacre of the patriarchs and their followers. The local residents sought refuge in hard-to-reach grottos such as the "Aassi al-Hadath" grotto.
In 1440, Qadisha provided sanctuary for Patriarch Youhanna al-Jaji who was persecuted by the Governor of Tripoli. Over the course of four centuries, from the 15th to the 19th century, Qannoubine became the primary location of the Maronite Patriarchate with 76 patriarchs succeeding him. The valley's protective nature and the religious beliefs of its inhabitants made it an ideal location for the Maronite Patriarchate. During this time, the Patriarchate faced numerous enemies, and the monasteries and religious figures were often forced to seek refuge in the remote areas of the valley to escape the Ottoman Pasha of Tripoli. As a result, the Patriarchate maintained strong ties with Rome and Europe, receiving protection from King Louis XIV of France. These relationships with Europe led to many exchanges and achievements, such as the nine-year seminar held by Capuchin priests under the guidance of Pope Urban VIII at Haouqa monastery, which saw only 15 students registered. The most promising students were later chosen by the Patriarch to further their education at the Maronite college in Rome.
Qozhayya Monastery, one of the largest monasteries in the valley, features a small printing museum. As early as the 16th century, the monastery owned mobile printing machines imported from Europe, and eventually acquired an ancient printing press from Rome.
In 1694, the organization of monastic life with rules and hierarchy took shape, and the first Maronite order was established at Deir Mar Licha, adopting the rule of solemn vow profession. The order is attached to the patriarch and is also an institution of pontifical law, so the autonomous convent followed this regulation.
The most famous monasteries in the valley today are Qozhaya, Saydet Haouqa, Qannoubine, and Mar Licha. This is why the French name "Wadi Qadisha" or "the Saint valley" and the English name "Valley of the Christians" are so fitting.
Additionally, it's important to note that this valley has produced notable individuals such as Saint Charbel Makhlouf, Francois de Chasteuil, Patriarch Douihy, and Mgr Joseph-Simon Assemani, as well as Gebran Khalil Gebran whose name was given to Mar Sarkis Convent in Bcharre, which has since been turned into a museum.
Qadisha Valley boasts a lush greenery that includes an abundance of natural sources. Its terraced slopes allow for the cultivation of cereals, fruit trees, and vines at the bottom. Due to efficient water sources and river canalization, the valley has been able to grow many vegetables, and its natural irrigation system enables healthy agriculture.
However, pollution has started to invade on this precious gift of nature. The preservation of the valley's sites is being considered by the Committee for Safeguarding the Valley and Friends of Bcharre Cedar Forest. However, adequate funds must be provided to implement the recommended solutions.
Qadisha Valley's natural and cultural wealth has earned it a place on the UNESCO list of International Patrimony as number 850. It is our duty to protect and preserve this treasure of rock vestiges and exceptional nature for future generations.