Friday, November 29, 1996

LebEnv #16


text and photographs by Fareed Abou-Haidar

Karst limestone topography is named after an area of the Dalmatian coast of Croatia, but it occurs in many parts of the world including Lebanon. It is formed when ground water dissolves rock as well as when rainwater percolates through vertical and horizontal cracks, dissolving the rock and widening the cracks. The result is rocky ground, caves, natural bridges, sinkholes, underground rivers and a lack of surface runoff.

Much of Lebanon is made up of limestone that has eroded into karst topography. Some of the most spectacular rock formations occur in the Keserwan area of Mount Lebanon, especially in the areas of Ajeltoun, Rayfoun, Qlaia'at, Ashqout, Faitroun, Hrajel, Wata el-Jouz, Mazra'at Kfar Debian, and areas in between. The rock has weathered into a striking gray color spotted with lichens of various colors. Water erosion has sculpted some of the rock into sharp, thin fins that taper to jagged, knife-sharp edges at the top. Other rocks have rounded tops, like the backs of elephants, with grooves radiating down the sides. Still others have deep vertical grooves. Many of the rocks look like huge pipe organs. Some of the rocks lie in broken jumbles, like pieces of broken ice from a glacier.

Among the rocks are narrow passageways, some more than ten meters deep, where soil has accumulated. Irises, other bulbs, cyclamens, and annual flowers grow in profusion in the spring. Small oak trees soften the harshness of the rocky landscape. In winter, snow covers the rocks, resulting in outstanding scenery.

The area can be a hikers' paradise where one can explore the passageways, climb between rocks "chimney-style", scramble over the rocks to reach the top and sit at the edge to admire the view. I have hiked in such areas, specifically east of Faitroun. There, in April 1983, I got "lost" in a maze of passageways still sheltering some snow. In one such "corridor", a villager from ages past had built a small shelter with a vaulted roof out of stones, perhaps to keep animals in or to spend the nights in. Nearby, an overhang with a bright orange "roof" (protected from weathering) probably provided shelter on rainy days. In the distance, a huge rock outcrop stood like a natural Sphinx. With imagination, it is possible to see camels, human heads, dogs, and other faces and forms in the rocks.

Karst limestone is what makes Lebanon possible. The water, instead of immediately running off, percolates deep into the mountains and comes out as springs. The most famous of these is the one that comes out of Jeita cave and supplies Beirut with water year-round.

In Utah and Arizona in the U.S., two areas with similar features (but of different geologic origins) have been set aside as Bryce Canyon National Park and Chiricahua National Monument, which are visited by tens of thousands of people annually. In Lebanon, our karst limestone areas, had they been elsewhere, would have been set aside for protection.

But, noooooo! We have better uses than just leaving the rocks alone! What was once a scenic drive in the Keserwan has become a heartbreaking example of environmental devastation throughout Lebanon. New buildings line the road and extend away from it into the countryside between the villages. Rock quarries have destroyed entire formations, devouring sculptures and digesting them into gravel and stones for new buildings. These new buildings are placed in new subdivisions where new roads cut through the landscape. The worst example is the Satellity development east of Faitroun. That same day in 1983 when I wandered among the rocks, I also stopped at the entrance from the main road to Satellity. There, a rock formation the size of a house had been beheaded so that a huge sign could be erected. The road had been freshly bulldozed; soil and rocks had been pushed over the edge into one of those fertile passageways mentioned earlier, creating a barren slope of brown soil some 10 or 20 meters long. Advertisements in the newspapers showed a model of the development, which would consist of several high-rise apartment buildings overlooking the valley between Faitroun and Kfar Debian. As the landscape is upset, erosion increases. The water supply of Beirut from the Jeita cave is threatened by silt from a huge complex of rock quarries that have ravaged the foothills of Mount Sannine between Darayya and Hamlaya (in the area of Deir Shamra).

People have been concerned about the destruction of the landscape since the early 1980s when a ban on new construction in the rocky areas near Faitroun was proposed. Judging from what I saw in 1995, it obviously was short-lived, if it was ever implemented. Since there is no available map that shows land ownership in Lebanon, it is hard to tell who owns the land still not developed. In any case, the area (or what remains of it) needs urgent protection. New construction should be banned, and plans made to purchase (or trade) the land from the owners so that it can be protected by the government as a National Park. If some of the land is owned by religious organizations, they should be urged to not sell it. (In a previous LebEnv, I mentioned that a rock quarry below Broummana on the road to Ras el-Maten is on church-owned land.) The argument that people need to live somewhere does not fly here, as most of the offending buildings are for luxury housing that people spend the summer in. Besides, there are many less-sensitive areas to build in, especially empty lots inside existing towns and cities.

Besides protecting scenic values and Beirut's water supply, a large National Park could benefit the economy more than a bunch of concrete buildings ever could. A park with hiking trails, horse or donkey rides, scenic viewpoints, and an educational visitors' center could attract many people, both Lebanese and foreign tourists, just as Jeita Cave does now. People visiting the area would benefit the local economy by staying in hotels, eating at restaurants, and buying souvenirs. Smaller attractions in the area that people might not devote a special trip for would also benefit as visitors lingered on after seeing the park.

The alternative? An industrial wasteland of buildings, factories, gravel pits, and asphalt that wipes out the ecology and history of an area that has endured for millennia.

(See other photographs from some of the areas mentioned above.)



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