Bsharri, the inspiring hometown of Khalil Gibran

Bsharri in northern Lebanon

Mostly known as the birthplace of Leba­non’s famous poet — artist and philosopher Khalil Gibran — Bshar­ri, a quaint and welcoming town nestled in the heart of the Qadisha Valley in northern Lebanon, is rich in history, natural beauty and cul­ture.
Bsharri, 1,500 metres above sea level, is capped by the emblematic millennium cedar forest called Arz el-Rab (Cedars of the Lord) and Qornet el-Sawda, which, at 3,000 metres, is the highest point in Leba­non. The town overlooks the sacred Valley of Qadisha, a UNESCO herit­age site where 17 Christian Maron­ite patriarchs have been buried in natural grottos since the seventh century.
“Bsharri premises extend from 1,000 to 3,000 metres above the sea level. It is known as the town of Gi­bran but throughout history it has been the cradle of resistance against occupiers of Mount Lebanon. It has unique natural beauty and harbours the history of Maronite Christians in Lebanon,” said Bsharri Mayor Fred­dy Kairouz.
“While encouraging tourism, the municipality’s main aim is to preserve the natural and historical wealth of Bsharri from chaotic de­velopment,” Kairouz said, adding that “placing red tiles on rooftops has become mandatory and new sewers were built to preserve the valley and the mountain from pol­lution.”
A visit to the Gibran Museum is an inevitable stop in Bsharri. In keep­ing with his wishes, Gibran (1883- 1931), who immigrated to the Unit­ed States and published his most famous work, “The Prophet,” in 1923, was buried in the 19th-century Mar Sarkis monastery built into the rocky slopes overlooking the town.
The monastery, which has been converted into a museum, houses a large collection of Gibran’s paint­ings, drawings and gouaches, some of his manuscripts and many of his personal belongings, including his library, which were shipped from New York.
“Gibran bought the monastery while he was in America. Obvious­ly, he wanted to return to Lebanon and live and expose his paintings in the monastery but he died before achieving his dream,” said museum Director Joseph Geagea.
Gibran’s National Committee, which was founded in 1932, reno­vated the museum and opened it to the public in 1975. Some 440 of his paintings, including the origi­nal drawings for “The Prophet,” are displayed in addition to letters that Gibran wrote to Mary Haskell, the American teacher who discovered Gibran’s genius and supported him financially, professionally and emo­tionally.
“Many of Gibran’s paintings de­picted women who marked his life,” Geagea said. “There is his mother, Mary Haskell, Emilie Michelle, who was one of his teachers and it is said that he loved her, also Barbara Young, his sister Sultaneh who died at 14, and poet May Ziadeh, who was the platonic love of his life and whom he never met.”
“Our mission is to promote and show Gibran’s art and paintings through exhibitions in different parts of the world. When you say ‘Gibran,’ you always get the same answer, he is the author of ‘The Prophet,’ although he was an artist before being a philosopher and a writer,” Geagea added.
An ecological advantage of Bshar­ri is its proximity to Arz el-Rab. It harbours a modern nursery for ce­dar trees run by the Forest of Leba­non Cedar Friends, a committee set up in 1985 to salvage Lebanon’s millennium cedars from desertifica­tion and vandalism by irresponsible picnickers.
“The Reforestation of the Cedars project started in 1995,” said com­mittee member Joseph Rahme. “We have planted 130,000 cedar trees with funding from companies, banks, associations and individu­als.”
Young trees are planted on land donated by Bsharri municipality near the old forest, the site of 1,700 cedar trees aged 50-2,500 years.
“Our aim is to connect the Ce­dars of the Lord with cedar forests in (nearby) Tannourine and Ehden. We want to recover our peaks and mountains with cedars, the symbol of our country, the same way it was historically,” Rahme said.
For $100, anyone can adopt a ce­dar tree for life. The Forest of Leba­non Cedar Friends will plant the tree and take care of it until it is 18 years old, an age after which the tree can flourish without being tended.
“Each tree will carry the name of its godfather or godmother and their nationality. Sponsors can follow the evolution, growth and health of the tree either in the forest or through the internet. It is a multinational ce­dars forest, the forest of the whole planet,” Rahme said.
Bsharri is a diverse, year-round destination. In winter, skiers slide on the slopes of Lebanon’s oldest ski resort near the cedars. In sum­mer, trekking in the sacred valley and exploring the many ancient monasteries built in the rocks around the valley is a main activity. In all seasons visitors can taste ex­quisite traditional cuisine for which the area is famous.
Samar Kadi
is the Arab Weekly society and travel section editor.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.