Summer came again, as it does every year for so many years now. I packed my suitcases and drove out of boring Zgharta, our winter village, and headed toward the mountains. On each turn along the ascending road, a mysterious mountain of pyramid shape always caught my sight and imagination. On top of the mountain rose the Cathedral of Saydet al-Hosn, a new church overshadowing a small old one.
It was like a mysterious power mesmerized my eyes and pulled me up along the road. Time seemed to loose its ticking until I passed the pyramid shaped mountain and reached my home in Ehden. Within a few days, Ehden was crowded with people inhabiting their summer homes. And the road directly up to the Cathedral of Saydet al-Hosn swelled with cars. Crowds of pedestrians took short cuts off the road to walk directly up the sacred mountain.
A weird phenomenon captivated our souls and opened up our minds, as we approached the Cathedral. The air changed, allowing a more subtle breathing as it entered our realms and elevated our spirits. We were like pilgrims; we still are now, generation after generation, performing the same rites, over and over again, summer after summer, while the passing moments on the peak of that mountain are eternal.
I looked at the faces around me, they were full of expressions, as if all people were taken by the beautiful statue of the “White Lady” rising on the top of the Cathedral, opening her arms, and blessing all space around her. You don’t have to be religious to feel the importance of the place, but seeking through its tremendous history would enable one to understand its secrets, feel its power, and listen to its rhythmical melody.
I’m not a religious person, but I bore witness in front of the living Truth as the summer ended, uttering in a loud, but serene voice: “There is something mysterious and spiritual happening over that mountain, a real presence of the unknown, a voice which is still echoing from the days of the ancients, and it has whispered in my ears a tender blow, enticing me to invite you for a trip in time, where we will discover the strange legacy of the Lady of the Fortress.”
Back in the old days, the Canaanites, ancient natives or settlers of Mt. Lebanon, consecrated this pyramid shaped mountain to their goddess “Anat” (Astarte), a daughter and a wife of the God the Most High, “Al-Elyon.” Anat was the virgin Lady, the queen of Heaven, and part of the Canaanite Holy Trinity. She also represented the principle female, the personage second in importance after “Al.” With Al, Anat bore a son, Baal (Adonis). On the mountain, the Canaanites built a temple to Anat.
Sometimes they called “Anat” a warrior, only because they looked at her as their protector, just as they looked at her son as their savoir. This temple was most likely built in a circular shape, shrouded in the mists of antiquity, erected ‘on Mt. Anat’ as called by the Ancients. It overlooked the plains down below from all directions. It was a custom for the ancient Canaanites to build their temples for their highest deities on top of mountains.
When the Son of Christianity rose from the southern regions of Canaan-Phoenicia, around Mt. Carmel, a new era began to mark history. Later, when that same Son sunk in Jerusalem at Golgotha, then rose again, a new spirit was diffused bit by bit throughout all the Holy Land. Early in the 6th century A.D., the Temple to Anat was destroyed at the time when the Canaanite religion faded away in the northern mountains of Lebanon.
The Canaanites, whose ruins scattered all over the plains of the great past, and whose broken columns and stones lay obscured on the top of that mountain, gave a place for a new generation of inhabitants, the Ehdenites, to prosper.
Toward the end of the 9th century, the Ehdenites (Maronite Christians) endeavored to build a church on the same spot where the Temple to Anat once stood, using the same stones for its foundation. In place of Anat, they venerated the Virgin Lady Mary. Whether or not the Virgin Lady Mary could be considered a projection from the past Canaanite goddess “Anat,” the similarities between both remain striking.
The Ehdenites, who took the Christian Lady as their patron, built a fortress around the church in defense against military aggression. They took refuge inside the fortress whenever invasions and wars were launched. From behind the wall of stones, they paralyzed the forces of their enemies. From that time on, the Christian Church of Mary took a new name as the “Lady of the Fortress”, and Mt. Anat became the ‘Mountain of the Lady of the Fortress.’
It became known in the minds of the inhabitants that the Lady of the Citadel was always helping them in their defense against incursions. A great faith, in miracles enacted by the Christian Lady in moments of despair, created in the believers not only a tremendous feeling of adoration, but also a belief in friendship or familiar ties with that Mysterious Lady who became known in popular language as “Our Lady of Al-Hosn.”
The church, which had been damaged many times in history, was always re-erected by a work of restoration. They never gave up, as she never gave up too, on them.
Then, around the year 1283 AD, the Mameluk army who had already crawled through the Northern Mountains, besieged Ehden for about 40 days. The Ehdenites who couldn’t resist the siege fell and the Mameluks killed, looted and destroyed everything, demolishing the Citadel and the Church.
After 3 years, still in the Mameluk era, the Ehdenites rebuilt the church. But in the year 1705, an earthquake hit the mountain, causing damage to the church. By that time, however, the mountain and the church became the place of pilgrimage for all Maronite Christians in Northern Lebanon and the cult of Mary radiated from the mountain around neighboring regions.
In the year 1935, the Ehdenites raised a cross on the top of the mountain, near the church. They began performing a religious rite, in memory of the elevation of the sacred cross. On Sept. 14th of each year, the Ehdenites celebrate what they call the “Day of the Cross,” and in Sept. 8th, they celebrate the birthday of “Our Lady of Al-Hosn.”
A few years ago, a cathedral was built beside the old church. A beautiful work of masonry revealed a complex, geometrical and modern form of architecture. Today a white statue of Mary rises above the cathedral overlooking the Northern shore of Lebanon.
The mountain and its two churches stand like two witnesses of a splendid history. They have become a popular sanctuary. It is a center for tourism and religious celebrations, a place where people visit to enjoy the archeological and historical importance. They also come to pray and attend wedding ceremonies. As Anat was the Canaanite goddess of fertility, so is Mary to the Ehdenites a divine witness over their marriages.
History reveals strange events that happen within a loop of similar shapes; a cycle that never ends but keeps on turning endlessly.
[For more information on Karim El-Koussa, his books and publications, please visit his web site: http://www.el-koussa.com]