Religious anthropologist, researcher and founder of NEOS Tourism consultancy Nour Farra-Haddad takes us on a trip to the monastery of Saydet Ilige.
The region of Mayfouk is breathtaking, with its stunning mountainous terrain and picture perfect scenery. It is also a place of great religious significance, offering pilgrims the chance to visit a dozen sacred sites, including the monastery of Our Lady of Ilige (Saydet Ilige), one of the oldest seats of the Maronite patriarchate. It has been the residence of the 18 patriarchs for 320 years, seven of whom were buried there.
The historic old church of the monastery was built in 1121 on the ruins of a pagan temple, which are said to be dedicated to the god Il or to Venus-Astarté. Remnants of the temple can be seen in the outdoor walls of the church by the entrance, where a stone resembling the curved head of a bull is visible.
The inscription above the gate reveals that the church and the monastery were not built at the same time. The Syriac words carved on the slab above the lintel of the western door of the monastery indicate that the construction of the church ended in 1277. The church includes a bema (characteristic of the patriarchal churches), with stairs leading to it to the western side of the church.
The monastery suffered a series of attacks and was abandoned for a long period of time. After the church was renovated in 1746 and in 1766, the Maronite Order assumed the affairs of Saydet Ilige. Monks worked hard to rebuild the monastery and more restoration, undertaken by the General Directorate of Antiquities, took place in the 1970s.
Since then, the Lebanese Maronite Order, assisted by the local municipalities, has continued to preserve the monastery’s surrounding. A sanctuary dedicated to Saydet El Hazineh (Our Lady of Sorrows) can be visited via a path to the south side of the monastery.
Saydet Ilige used to hold the oldest Maronite icon in Lebanon, a testimony to its importance to Maronite heritage. The icon was removed for restoration and can now be found in the monastery of Our Lady of Mayfouk.
The village of Mayfouk is located in the caza of Byblos, 70km north of Beirut and 35km northeast of Byblos. The monastery of Saydet Ilige is located 1,000 meters above sea level, in the upper part of Mayfouk village.
Thanks to the new highway connecting Amchit to Mayfouk, the monastery can be reached in about 45 minutes from the coast. Alternatively, head there from Mounsef, passing Maad, Ghalboun and Bejjeh on the way. The site is open throughout the year. It is not recommended for those with walking difficulties due to the vast number of stairs.
There are plenty of religious sites to visit in the area. Be sure to stop by the 19th century monastery of Mar Challita, El Qottara, Mar Antonios, Mar Charbel Hermitage Sanctuary, Saydet El Wardiyah Church (Our Lady of Roses), Mar Saba Church, Mar Jiryes Monastery, Mart Moura Church and Mar Elias Chapel.
SHOP, EAT & SLEEP
A souvenir shop of religious items and local products is located just at the entrance of the site (09 765063). Grab a bite at Nahr El Joz restaurant (09 765766, 70 368402), which serves traditional Lebanese fare.
A traditional house, located a few hundred meters from the monastery, welcomes guests looking to stay the night. For bookings contact Layla Hashach (09 765063).
Celebrations and special events: The Virgin Mary is celebrated on the 15th of August