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Lebanonwire, May 24, 2003

The Daily Star

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Jeita Grotto awes even the most skeptical of visitors
President of company charged with site’s reconstruction confident of caverns’ ability to impress

Ramsay Short
Daily Star staff

Wondrous, magical, elegant, regal, alien and fantastical are all adjectives that have been used to describe the ancient grottoes of Jeita at the source of the Nahr al-Kalb (Dog River) beneath Mount Lebanon on the way to Jounieh.
Is it even worth another story on their wonder and the feelings they inspire?
Nabil Haddad certainly thinks so.
The president of Mapas Lebanon, the German company commissioned to rebuild and maintain the tourist site at Jeita after its destruction by militia groups during the civil war, recently invited the Lebanese press on a tour to promote the coming tourist season.
Initial skepticism gave way to awe as the realization dawned that of all the natural wonders of Lebanon, Jeita is perhaps the most magnificent, worthy of two if not three visits.
Haddad insisted that the Jeita caves should be seen as symbol of the magic of Lebanon, marking his words with the unveiling of a huge sculpture, The Guardian of Time.
The huge palatial vaults stretching for thousands of meters underneath the mountain, filled with gleaming white stalactites and stalagmites, are the relics of the Dwarves’ civilization from Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings come to life with an added Elfin touch.
But however romantic such fantasies, the grottoes were carved by neither dwarf nor elf, nor any other four-limbed being. The power that carved them is “softer and weaker than any tool of man but unstoppable in the way it attacks hardness,” the documentary on show at the cave complex revealed.
The grottoes’ story is a case study of the interaction of water, rock and time.
A drop of water seeps through fissures in the earth, dissolving a tiny part of the rock as it goes and carrying it with it.
Years pass and other drops follow the same path through the same crack, dissolving more rock, widening the crack, deepening it, carving a path through it. When the water cannot go through rock that is too hard to dissolve, it finds another way, cutting a new path around, over or under. In time, a deep channel is cut through the rock into the earth.
This process repeats itself over millennia. The water slowly carves out a labyrinth of channels and tunnels into the earth which join to form caverns and grottoes, subterranean lakes and streams, waterfalls in stone. Stalactites form like icicles where the calcium-rich water drips from the ceiling and stalagmites form under them when drops of water deposit their minerals on the ground.
Over more time, stalactites and stalagmites grow together in pillars or a delicate lacework of white stone. Other deposits, rich in iron, copper or sulfur, are tinted red, green or yellow. The water finally finds an exit and comes out, pure and cool, the source of the Nahr al- Kalb.
The caverns of Jeita are a sight to behold.
The caverns are arranged on two levels. The lower galleries, discovered in 1836 and opened to the public in 1958, can be visited by boat. The temperature is 16 C all year, but of the 6,200 meters so far explored the public can visit just 450. The upper galleries, where the temperature is a cool 22 degrees stable, were discovered in 1958 and opened to the public in January 1969. Some 750 meters of the 2,200 meters explored can be viewed on foot, after entering through a 120-meter concrete tunnel.
The upper gallery, formed several million years before the lower caverns, shows what the entire cave system was like before geological conditions displaced the subterranean river to its present level.
The most dramatic sights are the yawning canyons and sinkholes, some over a 100 meters deep.
Almost as fascinating as the rock formations and frozen white waterfalls is the history of the caves themselves.
The modern discovery of the underground river in 1836 is attributed to Revered William Thompson, an American missionary. He ventured barely 50 meters inside the caves then fired his gun, realizing from the echo that the cavern was huge.
In 1873 W. J. Maxwell and H. G. Huxley, engineers with the Beirut Water Company, and their friend Reverend Daniel Bliss, President of the Syrian Protestant College (later the American University of Beirut) went exploring. In two expeditions carried out in 1873 and 1874 they penetrated 1,060 meters into the lower grotto but were stopped by the “Hell’s Rapids,” where the river flows in torrents over razor-sharp rocks. Around 200 meters further on they recorded details of their expedition on paper, sealed it in a bottle and left it on top of a stalagmite. It is still there, stuck to the stone by the calcium-rich water. Like countless explorers before them, they recorded their names and the year on a great limestone pillar, which still bears Maxwell’s name.
Between 1892 and 1940 mostly English, American or French explorers carried out further expeditions. These efforts took them to a depth of 1,750 meters inside the cave system.
Since the 1940s, members of the Speleo-Club of Lebanon, founded by Lionel Ghorra, the first Lebanese speleologist, pushed deeper and deeper into the caves.
Their methodical exploration revealed the great underground system of the upper and lower galleries that is on view today, and in the name of discovery, their explorations continue.
The Jeita Grotto is open for the summer season until October from 9am to 6pm. The complex contains restaurants, a cable-car system, a small zoo, souvenir shops and a miniature traditional mountain village.

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