Lebanon’s Hidden Wonder in Jeita Grotto

Jeita Grotto

Yinka Olatunbosun reports on a spectacular find in Lebanon, which is recognized as one of the UNESCO WorldHeritage sites

The first place of visit during the Study Abroad in Lebanon 2018 was Jeita Grotto, eight kilometres north of the traffic-prone Lebanese capital, Beirut. Our collective curiosity was aroused when Professor Joseph Rahme said the trip to Jeita Grotto would begin with a ride on a cable car.

The prospect of being transported on an endless stretch of cables above rough-edged mountains and deep valleys didn’t seem like a safe vacation idea to a narrow mind. Wild thoughts accompanied by sweaty palms and feet didn’t make it easy to look beyond the faces of the other occupants in the cable car so as to soak in the beauty of the mountainous terrain.

The cable car rose gradually until we couldn’t see the cable car attendant that bade us farewell. We eventually arrived at the upper cave and passed through security screening at the long tunnel.

The “No photography’’ sign was enforced thoroughly. All phones, cameras and other devices were taken into custody at the point of entry and the sight awaiting us left us with huge regrets for not breaking the rule.

Jeita Grotto, an interconnected cave having upper and lower galleries, was one of the 14 finalists in the New Seven Wonders of Nature. The upper galleries were accessed through a wet concrete pavement snaking up the unusual earth forms. Lit by intersecting lights, they are nature’s own sculptures and drip paintings- the world’s largest known stalactite.

We gasped, in complete awe and walked cautiously along the bends which is protected by a series of iron bars. It was a still moment of discovery and utter respect for its invisible creator.

We kept walking far behind our guide who pointed below, asking, “Can you see the water beneath the rocks? That’s the lower cave. We will go there after we are done here,’’ he said. Discovered in 1958 by Lebanese speleologists, the underground river in this magnificent cave is the source of drinking water to over a million Lebanese.

The walkways kept leading us upwards. We learnt as we walked in respectful silence that the cave is closed during winter because the water level rises to unsafe levels. We stood there, staring at the longest cave complex in eastern Mediterranean.

A colourful tourist train took us to the lower cave that we were eager to see. Some electric boats were waiting and our guide, Prof. Rahme, decided that one large boat was ideal for us. The boat man doubled as the security man. He spoke in angry Arabic as he discovered that some of us wanted to capture this amazing spectacle on our hidden devices.

We chose various seats- some were facing the direction we were heading while others had their backs to it.

The danger of belonging to the latter group was that some sharp protruding speleothems were waiting but the fun in the adventure came when the boatman’s yelled, “Stay down’’, and we quickly ducked to avoid designing our skulls with injuries or even disrupting the beautiful natural landscape.

As the electric boat sailed through the calm waters, we were allowed to touch the water and enjoy the therapeutic effect of nature, to prepare us for the rigorous 12-day travelling and study programme. As we took dinner by the cave, many of us were lamenting over the restriction of photography. Prof. Rahme looked at us in mischief, smiled and said, “You are Nigerians. I thought you could use your imagination. A few dollars would have gone a long way, you know.’’

That was our first initiation to Nigerian-Lebanese cultural relations. Obviously, Nigeria and Lebanon had so much in common than we had ever envisaged.

If we were in Nigeria, we would have known that we could easily get the photographs even with the restrictions. But with the security cameras and barking attendants and guides around Jeita Grotto, we thought we could go to prison if we dared to act like typical Nigerians who would attempt to bribe their way through.

Anyway, some Lebanese were offended that our lecturer, Prof Rahme told us about the power situation in Lebanon. Little did they know about where we were coming from: a state of chaotic generator noise whenever there is power outage.

Warmth was everywhere we went. Some Lebanese would pull over and request to take pictures with us, just because we were tourists. Initially, we thought they took us for African-Americans but when we introduced ourselves as Nigerians, we saw that they still loved us, ever more.

Prof. Rahme educated us about how Lebanese see Nigeria- it’s one of their dream places in the search for greener pastures.

When we asked our host Professor why the Jeita Grotto never got enlisted in the seven wonders of the world even though it made it to the finals, he revealed that voting limited Lebanon. Their small population could not pull the required votes.

He asked if Nigerians would support Lebanese by voting next time and our response was emphatic “yes’’.

Our return to Notre Dame University that evening was to read a few more chapters of the recommended text, Peter Frankopan’s “The Silk Roads” but most of us ended up connecting to WiFis and telling our folks about the most captivating sight we witnessed that day.

The SAIL programme is an initiative of the Wole Soyinka Foundation and a programme of the Benedict XVI Endowed Chair of Religious Cultural and Philosophical Studies at Notre Dame University, Louaize in collaboration with the Cedars’ Institute.