With 18 recognized religious sects, Lebanon is rich in diversity. With the support of the Lebanese Ministry of Tourism, we wander around 11 impressive, lesser-known pilgrimage sites.
In the East
The Shrine of Syeda Khawla
Getting there: Baalbek, 85 km northeast of Beirut, via the Damascus Road.
The striking mosque with its blue mosaic minarets, and an interior filled with mirrored tiles and a gilded mausoleum is worth the trip alone. The story goes that Syeda Khawla, the daughter of Imam Hussein, was somewhere between a newborn and two years old when she accompanied the caravan of women and children taken from Karbala to Damascus. She died en route in Baalbek and was buried there by her brother, Iman Zainul Abideed. A tree was planted beside her grave.
Three hundred years ago, Syeda Khawla spoke to a member of the Motada family in a dream, asking him to divert a stream away from her deceased body. The dream occurred numerous times. The family excavated the site and discovered Syeda Khawla’s grave. A small shrine was built at that location in her honor. In 2005, the spectacular new shrine and the mosque seen today took its place, though the original cypress tree is still intact.
Discretion: Dress respectfully. Women are advised to wear loose fitting clothes that cover arms and legs, as well as a headscarf.
Out & About You can’t go to Baalbek without visiting some of the largest and best-preserved Roman ruins in the world.
Shrine of Prophet Noah (Nuh)
Getting there: Zahle, 55 km east of the capital, via the Damascus Road.
In the village of Karak, near the city of Zahlé, is, according to local tradition, the grave of Prophet Noah. Yes, the one who saved all the animals in his ark when God flooded the Earth. It seems that the village mosque was built from the ruins of a Roman aqueduct, of which some arches remain, and the tomb of Noah, which is around 30 meters in length, is covered by prayer mats and located in a room adjacent to the mosque.
Discretion: Dress respectfully. Women must wear loose fitting clothes and a headscarf.
Out & About Zahlé is famous for its wineries and Arak. Visit Chateau Ksara, Massaya, Domaine Wardy, Chateau Khoury or Al Karram Arak. Try the local ice cream – traditional, handmade Arabic ice cream with miskeh (anis seed), sahlab (a starch based beverage) and cream, otherwise known as Ashta, from Khalaf or Abou Sleiman.
Getting there: 105 km from Beirut, and just 20 km northwest of Baalbek, between Deir el-Ahmar and Barqa.
The village of Beshwet is at the center of all pilgrimage sites, visited by tens of thousands of believers every year. In 1880 the people of Beshwet wanted a special statue dedicated to the Virgin Mary. A Jesuit priest was able to construct a copy of Our Lady of Pontmain in her golden crown and blue star-spangled robe for the villagers. It is believed that invalids have been cured with prayer at the site. The Virgin has also appeared to a boy named Mohammed, telling him not to be afraid. He later claimed that he witnessed the statue move. Today, Saydit Beshwet is a popular pilgrimage site for people from all faiths around the world.
Out & About Oyoun Orghosh is a must! The springs are replenished by melting snow from the peaks of Jabal al Mekmel and Qornet al Sawda. They form a small natural lake surrounded with a number of cafes.
In the South
Our Lady of Mantara (meaning awaiting)
Getting there: Maghdouche, 50 km south of Beirut and 8 km southeast of Saida.
The ‘water into wine’ miracle in Qana is well known. Less known is the cave above Sidon, where the Virgin Mary rested as Jesus preached in the city below. A shrine, cemetery and a church mark the spot of the sacred cave. The remains of a shrine to the goddess Astarte (once worshipped by the Phoenicians) can also be found. On a neighboring hilltop is where Jesus and Mary once stood.
Out & About Sidon has an ancient port, sea castle and labyrinth-like souks. The beautifully restored Soap Museum is a must, as is the last Phoenician glassblowers in nearby Sarafand.
The shrine of Prophet Jonah (Younes)
Getting there: 27 km south of Beirut and 10 km north of Sidon.
Today, Jiyeh in south Lebanon is known for its pristine beaches. It was once however, famous for a whale and a prophet. Jonah failed to follow God’s orders and tried to escape by boat. Facing the wrath of God, Jonah was tossed from his boat and swallowed by a whale. He spent three days repenting, before God ordered the whale to vomit Jonah onto dry land, at the ancient city of Porphyreon (present day Jiyeh). Today a temple stands in Jonah’s honor.
Out & About Jiyeh’s coast is home to some of the best private beach resorts in the country.
Getting there: Near Hasbaya, south Lebanon, 114 km from Beirut.
This is the principle sanctuary of the Druze, consisting of 40 hermitages of Khalwat, where thousands of initiates come each Thursday on spiritual retreats.
Discretion: Visitors should request permission from the resident sheikh before venturing around the site. Women are asked to wear headscarves.
Out & About Hasbaya’s huge citadel is its primary touristic site, owned by the Chehab emirs. On the banks of the Hasbani River is a scattering of outdoor restaurants that serve deliciously prepared trout.
In the North
Shrine of prophet Joshua (Yusha’ bin Nu)
Getting there: 70 km north of Beirut.
The Shrine of Prophet Joshua in El-Menyeh, Tripoli is said to have been the site of a number of miracles for the sick. The tomb is in a cave with a depth of over 15 meters. Water is said to drip down onto the tomb in order to quench the prophet’s thirst, since according to locals he died thirsty.
Out & About Wander around the old souks of El-Mina, the port area of the city. Or, satisfy your sweet tooth with a visit to Abdul Rahman Hallab and Son, who have been making traditional Arabic sweets since 1881.
Getting there: Head north to Chekka (20 km south of Tripoli), turn right and head into the mountains Qadisha or the Holy Valley is a UNESCO listed world heritage site. You could literally spend weeks here discovering the scattering of cave chapels, hermitages and monasteries that have been cut from rock, where generations of monks, hermits, ascetics and anchorites found asylum.
Out & About: Visit the Qannubine Monastery on the northeast side of the Qadisha Valley. Said to be the oldest of the Maronite monasteries, its foundation is often attributed to the Emperor Theodosius the Great in 375AD. Cut into the rock cliff side, there are monastic cells, church, cloister, and accommodation for travelers.