Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Mosque of Fakhreddine (and the Revolution That Failed)

On our last day in Lebanon but one we drive up into the mountains with Sonya’s friend Kanj, owner of a white Mercedes. Deir Al-Qamar is a Druze and Maronite town in one of the most picturesque settings of the Chouf, a mountainous region in the south of Lebanon where we had hiked in a cedar preserve some years ago on our first visit. Spectacularly steep hillsides, some terraced with stone walls straight as lines of type, dividing the gray-leaved olive trees. Farther up, snow appears on the crest of the next range.
We pass from the pale blue water of the Mediterranean on the way to Sidon, banana plantations growing along the highway, to the snow-capped Mount Lebanon range in less than an hour. A few turns later, steep-sided snow-covered massifs appear, looking like the ice crystal palaces of some wintry fantasy tale; or a cautionary nature film with an avalanche due any second.
A few more spectacular vistas later, we arrive at Deir Al-Qamar (don’t pronounce the ‘Q,’ I’m told), a village fed by numerous springs, featuring 17th and 18th century village architecture well preserved. This is the village where we find the Mosque of Fakhreddine, an early 17th century adventurer and “Ottoman gentleman,” according to the guidebooks. He led a rebellion against a vizier based in the North, uniting some of the elements of the Lebanese hills, both Druze and Christians, and had success in drawing in the assistance of the European powers in his revolt against the Ottomans. His rebellion tied together much of what would emerge as modern Lebanon when the Ottoman Empire was finally dismembered after World War I. But his allies went home, sectarian fighting broke out in his own base, and he was eventually captured by the Ottomans, taken to the capital and executed. Instead of being celebrated as the father of his country, his national revolution that failed is generally connected today to the origins of sectarian infighting among the religious groups of his country.
The Mosque of Fakhreddine goes back to 1493, but was restored by Fakhreddine in the style of the Mamluks, the Egyptian dynasty which had begun as a revolt of palace slaves and were his allies during his revolt. Behind the mosque was the souk, where the café now occupies some of an open paved square. Behind it is a palace built for Fakhreddine by an Italian architect in the Renaissance style.
We walk the narrow stone lanes that go up and down hill between the houses and take pictures of the mosque, the palace, the Maronite church on the opposite of the road, the plants the flowers that stick out between the stone walls – well, everything.
Undeterred by the snowy vistas in the distance, we we head to higher elevations in search of a restaurant destination that Sonya and Kanj know at least by reputation. But as we get higher and ask directions, we begin hearing that the road is closed. Still, it’s open where we are, so we push on until the snow banks begin to rise on both sides of the car, and the two older people in the back seat of the car begin to worry whether we’re going to find the space to turn around. The road narrows, the banks climb.
Finally, we run into a huge tractor-plow parked at the end of the cleared strip. The driver is probably surprised to see us, but the Lebanese are unfailingly polite. It’s been a snowy winter, he says, offering Kanj some impossibly high figure for the amount of snow up ahead (7 meters?), and saying, yes, we can turn the car around in the narrow space he’s just cleared. We go back down the mountain and end up at the café beside Fakhreddine’s mosque.