Did Christ Visit Maghdouche's al-Mantara Cave Chapel?

Bruce Condè, 1955 and 1960

The modern tower of the Saydi from the road approaching Maghdouche. © Børre Ludvigsen, 1995
Helena-Empress-Mother of the Romans, leaned forward with quickening interest as her son's humble Sidonian subject, looking straight into her eyes, told his guileless tale of Jesus' visit to Sidon.

"And when Our Lord had finished teaching the multitude in Sidon. He ascended the mountain to rejoin His Mother, who was waiting"

"Go on," said the Empress, gently.

"And after resting there for the night, the Holy Personages returned on the morrow to Galilee. Thus spoke our fathers and our fathers' fathers, admonishing us always to hold sacred that spot."

"Thank you, my son. You have come a long way to bring us this news which we sought. Await us without, and we shall give our answer to your elders."

The Phoenician peasant kissed his Empress' extended hand and withdrew in awe.

"It is preposterous, Your Majesty", cried the Keeper of the Privy Purse. "If you continue to listen to everyone who comes to you from the Holy Land and to endow every spot for which they advance any kind of fantastic claim, the treasury will soon be bankrupt. All students of the holy writings know that Our Lord's mission was in Galilee and Judea, not in Pheonicia."

"Patience, patience. It was I who sent for this man, on hearing from the superintendent in charge of building the nearby, signal fire tower that the simple Christian folk of Maghdoushe village so venerated this spot. Do you see any guile in this man? When the village elders heard why I had sent for him, they asked that I join them in convincing their Bishop that a little chapel should be consecrated at this holiest place in Phoenicia. That is why I have summoned our Lord Bishop of Tyre." She motioned to a chamberlain who conducted the Tyrian prelate to the council chamber.

The building outside the cave. © Børre Ludvigsen, 1995
Scriptural Proof

"What is your opinion of this matter, good Father" asked the Empress, after explaining the villagers' tradition to him.

"It is possible, Your Majesty, that the references which St. Mark makes in III, 8 and VII, 24-31, could be interpreted to mean that Our Lord's mission in Upper Galilee also extended to the southern cities of Phoenicia, within our own see of Tyre and Sidon. Thus far, no miracle has ever been reported at this spot, and we have no records, other than verbal tradition, to indicate its holiness, only.. "

"Only what, good Father ?"

"Your Majesty, these are good and honest folk. They have no doubt been Christians since the time ol Our Lord, or certainly since St. Paul's ministry among them. They keep faith with God and with man. There is no reason why they should try to deceive us in this matter, and our Holy Mother the Church teaches us that sacred tradition can have the weight of scripture in certain cases. They ask for nothing but that I consecrate tne spot for holy worship, to keep faith with their fathers' pious tradition. They ask for no church, only for the blessing of the cave as a little chapel in honor of the visit of the Holy Family. Till now I have hesitated, doubting my capacity to so judge tradition, and for want of records or of a miraculous happening, but... "

"But if we endow a little chapel there, and provide it with a suitable ikon, what harm is done ? If miracles be needed, God will provide them in His good time ".

"Then Your Majesty will sponsor this undertaking ? "

"It is our wish. Let us summon the villager and give him our answer ".

The cave interior with the ikon on the far wall. © Børre Ludvigsen, 1995
Empress Orders Shrine

When the Sidonian stood before her, the Empress spoke to him softly. "Our good Bishop has consented to consecrate the holy place, and we shall send you an ikon and some altar furnish- ings for the new chapel, in token of our esteem. What ao your people call the spot today ?"

"We call it the "Place of the Awaiting", Great Lady, for it was there that Our Blessed Mother awaited her Son ", answered the peasant.

" Good. Do you, Lord Bishop, consecrate it to " Our Lady of the Awaiting", and we shall provide for it a likeness of the blessed Mother, and other suitable objects, and the wherewithal to provide lamps and oil, and other necessities, that our own faith be not less than that of our good villagers of Maghdoushe".

And so it was.

At a date which could not be far from the year 326, the Empress Helena forwarded to the religious authorities of the province of Phoenicia Prima, an ikon of the Virgin and Child, which, like so many other holy pictures known to have been the gifts of Byzantine royalty, eventually came to be regarded as miraculous, and was said to have been painted by the hand of St. Luke himself. Funds were provided from the imperial purse for the upkeep of the chapel during the remaining three centuries of Byzantine rule in Phoenicia. The little shrine was known and visited by the Phoenician Christians, but being overshadowed by the proximity of the major Holy Places in Palestine, does not seem to have attracted foreign pilgrims or undue fame.

The area outside the cave with the modern tower with the statue of the Saidy. © Børre Ludvigsen, 1995
Heraclius' Farewell

In 636, Phcenicia's last Byzantine sovereign, Emperor Heraclius, recoverer of the True Cross from the Persians, was decisively beaten at the Battle of the Yarmuk by Arab Generalissimo Khalid ibn al-Walid.

"Farewell, O Syria, and what an excellent land thou art for the enemy !" exclaimed the Basilios, on being forced to abandon the eastern provinces of his empire to the Caliph. The latter, Omar, a pious and humble man, spared Christendom's holiest shrines, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, and showed an inclination toward tolerance in dealing with his new Christian subjects.

Alas, it was not so with Phoenicia, Prima. Less tolerant administrators laid heavy hands on the Christian maritime cities of Tyre, Sidon, Beirut, Byblos, Tripoli, Latakia and even holy Antioch, where the very name "Christian" had first been used.

A hard decision now lay before the elders of Maghdoushe.

"It is not that we object to being the Arab caliph's subjects", they reasoned, "for our fathers had begun to speak Arabic and to adopt Arab customs long before ibn al-Walid's Moslem armies swept over our land. But our faith will be cha]lenged if we remain here in the foothills of Sidon. Already most of the Sidonians have become Moslems, to enjoy privileges and immunities. They will tempt our sons and daughters".

The modern tower of the Saidy, built in the late 1960's and damaged during the war between Israel and the PLO in 1982.
© Børre Ludvigsen, 1995
Exodus to Zahle

The younger men argued that the hills and valleys of Sidon were rich and fruitful. To withdraw into the inhospitable fastnesses of Mount Lebanon, to abandon their sacred shrine, where the Holy Family had honored their village alone of all Phoenicia would be cowardice. The chapel itself would be their talisman and safeguard.

"Nay. These are evil days. There will come fanatics who will seek out our holiest shrines to destroy them. The good Omar spared Jerusalem, but those who followed him grow more bold and arrogant daily, and only God knows what may some day happen to the Holy Sepulchre itself. It is best that we conceal the place of Our Lady in Maghdoushe and go to the land of Christians, in the interior, keeping the secret and our faith in our hearts until we return here in better days".

According to the patriarchal custom of the Arabs and of Mount Lebanon, the will of the elders prevailed. Carefully they concealed the entrance to the ancient grotto with stones, earth and vines. Little by little they sent their herds and most prescious possessions back through obscure mountain paths to the strongholds of Christian Lebanon. When the decided-upon day arrived, the entire populace fled en-masse to the towns of Zahle and Zouk, from whose secure heights strong Christian bands were successfully maintaining themselves. Eventually the caliphal governors, wearying, of incessant and fruitless punitive expeditions. advised the imperial court in Damascus that the best way to control these stubborn "People of the Book" would be to recognize them as autonomous communities, paying a fixed tax, under their own religious leaders. It was thus that the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch and of all the Orient became a virtual Prince-Bishop of Mount Lebanon. The Greek Catholic followers of the Byzantine rite, to which the Maghdoushe villagers adhered, were placed beneath the rule of their owm metropolitans and of the Melkite Patriarch of Antioch. As long as they stayed in their new mountain retreats they were unmolested, but return to Maghdoushe they dared not.

The legend of Sayidet al-Mantara as Our Lady of the Awaiting is called in Arabic continued to be passed down among the exiled Maghdoushians for the next thousand years. It grew dim, but it persisted.

The community could have returned in Crusader times, some half-thousand years later, save for a new factor. The Crusaders, it so happened, were all of the Latin rite, and although the Maronites and many of the Greek Catholics were also in communion with Rome, they clung to their Oriental usage and to their Syriac and Greek liturgies, refusing to subordinate themselves to the Latin customs of the Franks, which the latter tried to impose throughout their dominions. For their part, the Crusaders of Sidon, or La Sagette, as they called it, spent most of the 12th and 13th Centuries in the shadow of al-Mantara without ever suspecting the grotto chapel's existence. In fact, they built a small castle, called La Franche Garde, on top of the ruins of Empress Helena's tower, within a stone's throw of the hidden entrance to the cave, without ever finding it.

The view south from Magdouche. © Børre Ludvigsen, 1995
Return Under Fakhreddin

Rediscovery of al-Mantara had to await the reign of Lebanon's greatest ruler of all times, the Druze prince, Fakhreddin II "the Great" (1572-1635), in the early 17th Century. The diminutive mountaineer, paramount prince of the followers of a secret Oriental religion which believes in strict unitarianism and in the transmigration of souls, was perhaps the most tolerant and enlightened Arab ruler of his day and age. With a Christian (Maronite) Prime Minister, a Moslem Minister of the Interior, a Druze army commander and a Jewish Finance Minister, it was not surprising that his non-sectarian state, where all religions flourished under the princely patronage, soon became the most contented and prosperous principality in the Ottoman empire.

Openly making treaties with Tuscany, other Italian states, Spain and France, opening his ports to foreign trade, welcoming Jesuit missionaries to open educational missions in Mount Lebanon, Fakhreddin the Great created, for the first time in a thousand years, the conditions of freedom and security which alone could induce Maghdoushe's sons to return to their ancestral home.

Again the elders announced their decision. Again the young men drove the flocks and herds over mountain trails back to the pleasant rolling hilltops above Sidon.

But they could not locate Sayidet al-Mantara, now only a dim, half-forgotten tradition, even though for years they worked almost daily within a few yards of the hidden grotto, as they pulled down La Franche Garde, stone by stone, for building material for their new homes.

View of Saida from Magdhouche, with the Ain el Helwe refugee camp in the foreground. © Børre Ludvigsen, 1995
Rediscovered by Lad

One day, as a village lad was tending his goats in a bramble thicket near the ruined castle, one of the kids fell down a chimney-like opening in the porous limestone rocks typical of Mount Lebanon. He could hear the little goat bleating, still alive, in some recess, far below. Good goatherd that he was, the boy made a rope of vines, tied it to a small tree, and descended, somewhat fearfully, into the black depths. Just before he reached the spot where the goat was, his rope broker and he tumbled onto a flat rock floor, but the little goat scrambled happily into his arms. When his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, the lad was startled to see before him what appeared to be a rock-cut altar, from whose niche came the faint glow of a golden object Approaching it, the boy saw that it was a holy ikon. Without touching it, he piled some nearby stones on the floor beneath the hole through which he had fallen, and worked his way back up the fissure, the little kid securely tied into his clothing. Running to the village, he told the people of his discovery.

The next day a man was let down into the cave with a torch. He found tha walled-up entranceway and led a party to open it. The elders solemnly assured the younger generation that this was indeed the holy spot of their ancestors, whose memory had been one of the community's strong,est bonds of solidarity while they were in exile.

"The ikon is ours, given to us by Saint Helena. Let us enshrine it in our new church", they said, sending a courier to the Bishop of Sidon to advise the prelate of the momentous discovery. The holy picture was carried with reverence to the towering new church of Crusader masonry in the center of the town and placed on the sanctuary screen.

But when the Bishop arrived, a day later, the ikon was missing from the church. Nevertheless, His Excellency went to see the holy cave. There, on the rock-cut altar, was the ikon !

"Strange," said the Bishop, "but take it back to the church."

That night they put a guard around the church, but in the morning the ikon was back in the cave.

© Børre Ludvigsen, 1995
The Reluctant Ikon

"Enough", observed His Excellency, "it is clear that Our Lady does not wish the holy ikon to leave the grotto. According to tradition, the cave has already been dedicated as a place of worship, and this is substantiated by the altar-stone. Therefore, we hereby rededicate it as the Church of Sayidet al-Mantara and we order that the ikon remain perpetually on its altar."

And thus it remains today. A few pointed masonry arches were later built as a simple porch for the church, whose main room is the chapel, with the contiguous grotto chambers used for storage. The adjacent hilltop has now been converted into Sidon's Greek Catholic cemetery, where Catholic Sidonians, and others of their rite throughout Lebanon, may be buried near the spot where they believe that Jesus and Mary once stood, looking down upon Phoenicia's Queen of Clities, in the early days of the Roman empire.

The ikon itself, which has never left the sanctuary since the 17th Century, is faded and worn, with metallic haloes of gold and with silver hands affixed to the wood over their painted sors. A leg of the Child, also of silver, has been misplaced too far to the left, and the entire picture is now encased in glass and almost impossible to photograph satisfactorily. Under the circumstances, the painting has never been studied thoroughly by competent experts, but those who have examined it superficially agree that it seems to be of the early Byzantine type, if not older. The metallic additions are modern, not antedating the 17th Century.

  Crusader Ruins Buried

On the point of the hill, where the shell of a World War II guard post obscures the site of the castle's ruins, visitors now go to get a sweeping panorama view of Sidon. During the late Ottoman period, workmen discovered the door to an underground vault of the castle, but the village priest, on instructions from his bishop, ordered it sealed and reburied for fear that a Turkish expedition might come looking for treasure, with dire results for both Sayidet al-Mantara and the villagers of Maghdoushe.

Renan, in 1860, found one course of masonry still above the ground, but today ever, that has disappeared. There are traces, however, of the rock-cut stairway, 100 yards long and three to four in with that ran up the hill from the west to an esplanade in front of (south of) the castle, although the modern highway now cuts through a large section of this grand staircase.

To reach al-Mantara one may take a "service" taxi near the south end of Sidon's main street (for 50 piasters, to Maghdoushe) asking to be let out at Sayidet al-Mantara, or, if driving, follow the coast highway about 4 kilometers south (across the river Saitaniq), turning left, (inland) on the branch paved road for an additional three kilometers or so.

From See Lebanon, Bruce Condè, second edition, Harb Bijjani Press, Beirut, 1960



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