From its source as a spring hidden within a limestone grotto filled with stalactites and stalagmites, to its mouth into the Mediterranean Sea, the Qadisha river has had a dramatic impact on the landscape of Lebanon. As it descends from the rugged mountains 100km north of Beirut, tumbling down waterfalls, rushing through forests and swirling around rocks, the narrow waterway has carved out a meandering gorge that is one of Lebanon’s secret treasures. Trees, wildflowers and animals flourish within the shelter of its cliffs, making it one of the most ecologically diverse places in the Middle East.
Taking its name from the Aramaic word for “holy”, the valley has served as a site of meditation and refuge for millennia, drawing Sufi mystics and Christian ascetics. It was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998 in recognition of the many monasteries and hermitages hewn into its rocky sides or hidden in caves, some of which date back to the earliest centuries of Christianity.
Nestled at the base of the valley below the village of Bsharri (above) is Deir Mar Elisha, one of the few monasteries accessible by car. Pilgrims head there to see the eighth-century icon of St Elisha and the local miracle, a rosary-shaped pattern on the rock walls. The valley’s natural wonders are only really open to those prepared to head out into the wilderness on foot, along 20km of narrow footpaths with spectacular views.
A few kilometres from Deir Mar Elisha is the peaceful Qannoubeen Monastery, with its stone terraces and chapel containing peeling frescoes dating back to the 14th century. Farther on lies Our Lady of Hawqa Monastery, a tiny sanctuary built into a natural cave following a 13th-century Mamluk invasion. Lucky visitors are engaged in conversation by the resident hermit, an 80-something eccentric Maronite Christian from Colombia, who has lived alone in the cave for almost 20 years.