Christianity bloomed at its onset in the Cedar Land. Christ performed His first miracle in Qana, south of Lebanon, and Saint Peter established his headquarters in Byblos, the first papacy, along with the first discipleship school.
Studies have shown that Phoenicians were among the very first to adopt Christianity.
Churches and monasteries were built across the land, and many of these ancient priories stand to tell stories of faith, resilience, resistance, survival, heritage, legacy, and even martyrdom.
Here are some of the most remarkable historical monasteries that still exist in Lebanon, noting that the term Deir means monastery, and Mar means Saint.
#1 Mar Antonios, Qozhaya, Qadisha Valley
Dedicated to Saint Anthony the Great, the monastery is commonly called Qozhaya, a Syriac name that means The Treasure of Life.
It is one of the oldest monasteries of the Qadisha valley, known as the Valley of the Saints, with several hermitages attached to it.
It served as the Maronite See in the 12th century and has been in use ever since, passing over in 1708 to the newly formed Lebanese Maronite Order.
By the early 19th century, the monastery was at its pinnacle with over 300 monks.
It hosts the first printing press of the Middle East, dated 1610, as the Monks used to print religious manuscripts.
The monastery is one of the richest of the Maronite Order, owning large properties in the valley, which has allowed it to contribute financially to the maintenance of its less fortunate monasteries.
#2 Deir Saydet Hamatoura, Qadisha
Deir Hamatoura is an Orthodox monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary, in the Valley of the Saints, Qadisha.
Impressively built in a rocky hollow of the mountain wall, its history is ancient, dating back to the 4th and 5th centuries according to popular tradition. However, there is no record to confirm it.
The farthest back in time that can be confirmed is the 13th century: Crusader period (some frescoes and a pointed arch at the church entrance), a 1242 record of an Arab traveler, and an Orthodox liturgical manuscript written in 1250.
In the 14th century, the monastery was attacked by the Mamluks and all its monks, amounting to 200, were massacred.
By the 16th century, the monastery bloomed back again. Then onward, the monks produced one of the largest Orthodox manuscript collections in Lebanon.
In 1885, the monks renovated the site, paved it, and built a road to facilitate access to the monastic mill, wells, and the clerical school.
The monastery suffered again a series of events; a massacre of the monks in 1890 by bandits who vandalized it and stole most of its possessions, including ancient icons and manuscripts, and an earthquake in 1917 that destroyed a big part of it and most of the remaining manuscripts.
Only 47 remained and are currently treasured at the Orthodox Metropolitan See in Broumana. Deir Hamatoura was abandoned for a long time after the earthquake until its revival by 1990.
#3 Deir Mar Elisha, Qadisha Valley
One of the most important monasteries, Deir Elisha was built in 1252 by the valley floor of Qadisha, cut out of the rock face.
It functions today as a museum, treasuring the first books and Bibles printed in Lebanon and sheltering the tomb of Capucin Priest François de Chasteu.
Its vaulted 19th-century church shelters an 8th-century icon of St Elisha. It is in this monastery that the Maronite order of Lebanese monks was founded in 1695.
#4 St John the Baptist Monastery, Deir Al Kalaa, Beit Mery
This Maronite Monastery was built in 1750 over the remains of an ancient Roman temple, maintaining some of the original columns and the Byzantine mosaic flooring.
The monastery was extensively damaged during the civil war and fully restored. It is a working monastery, and its garden site has been a venue for weddings in recent years.
#5 Deir Saydet El-Natour, Anfeh
A Greek Orthodox Monastery, Deir Saydet El-Natour is dedicated to the Virgin Mary, built on the beautiful coast of Anfeh during the Crusades period in the 12th century AD.
The monastery is attached to the Balamand monastery of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate.
The ancient church is beautifully decorated with Byzantine paintings and frescos, the fine work of artists from Odessa.
#6 Deir El-Balamand of the Greek Orthodox, Koura
Dubbed “The Pearl of the East”, the monastery was founded in 1157 in Balamand, which was the Crusader County of Tripoli. Cistercian monks initiated it and maintained it until the Mamluk conquest in 1289.
In 1610, it was reestablished as a monastery by Greek Orthodox monks.
The site is home to an important secular university, founded in 1988 by the Orthodox Patriarch Ignatius IV of Antioch.
#7 Deir Mar Maroun, Hermel
Also called the Cave of the Monks, the Deir is an ancient cavern – used as a Maronite monastery – carved out of solid rock in the side of a cliff, located near the source of the Orontes (Assi) river.
The particularity of this Deir is that it belonged to Mar Maron, the founder of the Maronite Church. It is believed that he built it with his followers as a refuge, and lived and worked there, sometime between the 2nd and 4th century AD.
It is a modest monastery formed of three levels with rock stairways, small cells, and several altars.
The monastery was greatly damaged during the Arab conquest of the region and endured further devastation during the Mamluk and Ottoman periods.
The site has been crumbling without any due attention despite its national importance.
#8 Deir Saydet El-Nourieh, Hamat
A Marian shrine carrying the name of Our lady of Light, it is a popular Christian pilgrimage site in Lebanon atop historic Cape Theoprosopon.
The shrine dates back to the 4th century and was built by two sailors. The story goes that they were lost on a very stormy sea and began praying for the Virgin who appeared to them as a light and guided them to the shore of Theoprosopon (Chekka).
In gratitude, the sailors carved a cave in the cliff and dedicated it to the Virgin Mary, and called it Our Lady of Light.
The story of Our Lady of Light shrine and monastery is celebrated throughout Lebanon, a country where Christianity has existed since Jesus first evangelized in Tyre and Sidon, and therefore, Lebanon is often considered part of the “Holy Land.”
Lebanon – A Holy Land with a message
In the 17th century, a Greek Orthodox monastery was built on the site and hosts today the miraculous icon of the Theotokos. For centuries, the icon has been venerated for having glowed with light to attract wayward ships.
#9 Deir Qannoubin, Qozhaya
Partially cut into a rock, this monastery was founded in 375 AD. It is the oldest of the Maronite monasteries, the first center of eremitic life in Lebanon, and served from 1440 to 1830 as the See of Maronite Patriarch.
The interior of the church has some frescoes from the 17th century that are almost intact.
#10 St. Savior Monastery of the Melkite Catholic Church, Joun
The monastery is home to a large collection of rare old books, and thousands of ancient religious manuscripts, including the oldest Arabic Bible printed in Rome in 1591.
The collection has been handed down by priests from generation to generation.
The monastery was founded in 1711 by Bishop Aftimios Sayfi who started collecting the books from across his diocese, from Tyre in Lebanon, to Houran in Syria and across to Georgia in the Caucasus.
Some of these books date back to 1200 AD, and most are from the 16th and 17th centuries.
There are also Islamic manuscripts and prayer books in Syriac, Turkish, and Arabic, some written in gold calligraphy. The monastery is currently working on digitalizing its precious library.