Biodiversity conservationist Elsa Sattout reflects on the emotional connection we can have to a place through the village of Aito.
A daylong hike through heavenly views can take you far away, through memories of time and history. A journey through nature invites you to dwell on the historical richness of a country and the religious icons imprinted on its landscapes. In fact, we rarely realize the value in the hidden beauty of places until we long for spaces remembered from childhood and hold onto the memories of trees whispering about their magic.
“To be human is to live in a world that is filled with significant places,” and it is well known that “significant places provide stability and security. They act as anchors,” and a “symbolic life line,” and become “fields of care,” say Shampa Mazumdar and Sanjoy Mazumdar in “Religion and place attachment: A study of sacred places” (Journal of Environmental Psychology, 2004).
For many, the north Lebanon village Aito is one of these “significant places,” that brings a deep attachment. Throughout history, the whispers of trees echoing in the ears of solo hikers have seemed somehow engraved in the mosaic patches of the landscapes that reflects the past uses of land resources and social dynamics in this village.
Lying on four mountains located at 900 and 1,300m altitude, nature lovers and hikers will be enchanted by the panoramic view from Aito which overlooks the hills of El Qarn, El Alama, Dnit, and Kanissa. Here it’s easy to reflect on the connection we have to nature and our attachment to places. Though the meaning of the village’s name in Syriac is “Summer Resort,” the dense silent pine and oak forests are a big pull during all seasons. The sleepy village of no more than 200 houses is a site of pilgrimage (St Rafqa) and has more than four ancient churches dating back to the early 18th Century. Even with the sounds of cracking rocks while overcoming frosty winters on the hills and pinecones opening in the warm days of early spring, silence is the loudest language in Aito.
During a silent walk, oak trees whisper that cedar trees once thrived among them giving a famous reputation to the community in ancient times, as revealed by the hieroglyphic inscription that can be found in the Beirut National Museum. It was during the 2nd Century BC that Pharaoh Pepi II requested “trees from the woods of the God Aito,” from one of the kings of Byblos. The resin was extracted and used by Egyptians for embalmment.
We sometimes wonder if it is nostalgia or the orderliness we create in our minds for familiar places that shapes our identity and connects us to a place. Or is it the magic that transforms our hearts through silent walks and talks. I used to believe that once we can enjoy nature’s beauty and leave it behind us for the next highland trek, without holding any of its traces, then we would be heading towards a better state of mind. In Aito village, a highland trek takes you on a tour through pine forests, or traversing agricultural terraces and orchards, or on the road leading to old convents dating back to the early 18th Century that reveal that the Phoenician worshiped this space in time.
Is it because Aito encompasses these significant places that “are invested with deep emotional meaning, so much so that collective sentiments strongly resist any attempt to alter the setting” (Firey in Mazumdar and Mazumdar, 1945/1961) that keeps villagers, summer dwellers and visitors attached to this place?
During dusk in Aito, while you run to embrace the sun before it dips into the valley, you may forget that the intense Milky Way will replace a shiny blue sky. It’s the perfect reminder that we are just eternal travellers in this tiny world.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Beirut take the highway towards Tripoli, passing Chekka, Koura, Kosba, Torza, Ser’el, Ishaya, Ijbe’e and down to Aito. If you choose to pass through Tripoli, pass Abou Samra, St Gilles Castle, Nahr Abou Ali, Mejdlaya, Zghorta, Sebe’l and Aito. The village is located 113 km from Beirut; 27 km from Tripoli.
WHERE TO SLEEP
Spend a tranquil night in the Convent of St Simeon Al Amoudi (06 575401).
WHERE TO EAT
Close by to Aito is Ehden the perfect lunch stop after a hike around Aito, known for its kibbeh. Al Ferdos Restaurant (06 560605) has a great reputation for food and the mountain views to match.
WHAT TO SEE
Religious sites of interest include the Church of the Virgin Mary
of Aito, Saint Simeon Al Amoudi dating back to 1808, St Simeon El Sheikh dating back to 1909 and also St Rafqa, St Chalita in Dnit, St Bakhos and Peter. The old ruins of Aito are also unmissable, including an old tower and temple close to St Simeon El AMoudi and the sarcophagus on the road leading to El Qarn.