Religious anthropologist and researcher, and founder of NEOS Tourism consultancy, Nour Farra-Haddad, takes us on a trip to one of Lebanon’s most important pilgrimage sites, the sanctuary of Saydet El Mantara
In south Lebanon, at the entrance of Maghdouché village, the Greek-Catholic Marian shrine of Saydet El Mantara (Our Lady of Awaiting) is an established national pilgrimage site. Though the site has been recognized by the Ministry of Tourism (MOT) for a number of years, with many travel agencies already having integrated it into their biblical tours, it has only just achieved its status on the world map of religious tourism, which will be marked at the end of May. The move is the result of years of effort from the religious authorities of the sanctuary and the MOT to achieve its international recognition.
The shrine of Saydet El Mantara is a place of pilgrimage shared by all religious communities and one of the major touristic sites in south Lebanon. Many historians believe that the devotion to the Virgin Mary in Lebanon, replaced the worship of the goddess, Astarte, the icon of Phoenician worship. So many of today’s Christian shrines and temples in the country were converted from Astarte places of worship, including the Shrine of Saydet El Mantara. Many years prior to the birth of Christ, the sanctuary’s location was chosen as a watchtower for the priests of the goddess. The traditional tale behind the history of Saydet El Mantara purports that the Virgin Mary, as a Jewish woman, was prohibited access to some cities at the time. Some popular traditions say that the Virgin Mary waited in a cave in Maghdouché during her pregnancy with Jesus and others during the time Jesus Christ was preaching in Sidon.
Traces of a Roman road near the shrine demonstrate that the cave was probably on the road linking Jerusalem to Sidon, via the ancient Roman city Caesarea Philippi and the site Panias, both located at the foot of Mount Hermon. In 324AD, Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine I the Great, built a chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary at the location where the tower currently stands and the chapel was decorated with an icon of St. Luc. Due to religious persecutions taking place in the 8th century, the entrance to the cave was hidden, only to be rediscovered accidentally in 1726 by a shepherd who found an altar and a wooden icon. Since then, it has become a place of pilgrimage, and in 1860, the Greek-Catholic community took ownership of the land and developed it. In the early 1960s, Bishop Basil Khoury had the hexagonal chapel built, along with a 28m high tower topped with the statue named “Madonna and Child,” by Italian artist Pierrotti. A few years ago construction started on a large basilica with a seated capacity of 1,200, which though incomplete is already decorated with beautiful mosaics and colored glass windows.
On 29 May 2016, the Bishop of Sidon, Mgr. Elie Haddad, with the Association “In the footsteps of Jesus Christ” (a team of specialists who trace the pedestrian routes followed by Jesus Christ in south Lebanon), supported by the MOT, will bring together hundreds of religious personalities, politicians, NGOs and tour operators to celebrate the recognition of the Greek-Catholic shrine of Saydet El Mantara (Awaiting Lady) as an international Marian shrine. The sanctuary will be relocated on international maps of religious tourism, with the support of the World Tourism Organization (UNWTO). The General Secretary, Dr Taleb Rifai, will be attending the ceremony with several of the organization’s delegates. Through the event, Minister of Tourism Michel Pharaon wishes to develop religious tourism and promote the thousands of religious sites spread across the country.
For more info contact Rev. Samir Nohra
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How to get there
Just after Sidon, there is a well indicated turn to the east signposted Maqam Saydet El Mantara, just 75m from the vegetable market. The sanctuary is located at the top of a hill, at the entrance to Maghdouché, overlooking the coast and the city of Sidon. The cave and basilica is accessible for the disabled and open throughout the year.
What to see
A long promenade of approximately 4,000m2 separates the chapel and tower. The cave has been restored as a rock chapel and at its entrance is a statue of a Virgin waiting in front of a well. A trail at the sanctuary illustrates the biblical events, which according to oral tradition, are said to have taken place in Lebanon. Along a path lined by rosemary and olive trees, they are commemorated through steles carved in stone. Under the great basilica, a multi-purpose room and hostel have been built. At the entrance of the site there is space for parking and a shop with souvenirs and religious items, a large cafeteria and toilets.
Every year, on 8 September, the birth of the Virgin Mary is celebrated at the sanctuary.The day before, the statue of the Virgin Mary is carried to the sound of hymns and prayers, with a procession of torches from the square of the village to the sanctuary. A torch-lit walk is also organized on the eve of 1 May, attracting thousands of worshippers.