Arabic original here.
The Monastery of Our Lady of Hamatoura: Firm as an Icon in the Heart of Nature
by Fadia Daboul
The Orthodox monastery of Our Lady of Hamatoura enjoys an outstanding location among the rocks on a mountain overlooking Kousba, standing out like an icon in the heart of nature. It draws the faithful in for prayer and pilgrimage and explorers to immerse themselves in its history, despite the difficulties faced by one aiming to go up the steep trail leading up the mountain.
The monastery's history goes back to the fifth Christian century. It has remained firm despite the persecutions it has faced in different periods, especially during the Mamluk and Ottoman eras. In the days of the Mamluks, armies plundered the monastery's products and tormented and brutalized its monks. Families from neighboring villages would sneak in young men seeking shelter in the monastery and some families gathered around it and worked with the monks to found the village of Karbaraya, though in the past half-century its residents have moved to neighboring villages for work and education.
In addition to human violence, the monastery has been subject to a number of difficult natural circumstances, including a number of earthquakes, the most famous of which was in 1600, although monks remained there until 1917, when Lebanon was struck by a great earthquake that buried a large part of the monastery. Continuous efforts up to today have only managed to restore ten percent of the monastery's historical size.
Manuscripts, the oldest of which goes back to the tenth century, testify to the monastery's deep history. A manuscript by a Russian traveller who visited the monasteries of Lebanon affirms that the monastery covered the entire mountain, according to its detailed description of it. The icons on its walls go back to different periods of history. Some are from the fifth and sixth century, but most of them were painted in the tenth century, after the conflict over iconoclasm, which began when the emperor at the time issued an order forbidding icons from being venerated in churches and sent his soldiers to damage and destroy them by various means.
The Monastery of Our Lady of Hamatoura resembles some monasteries in Turkey and others in Palestine with regard to its location and its extent over the entire mountain. From another perspective, it resembles Greek and Russian monasteries which, beside the main monastery, include a number of hermitages, small monasteries, and churches dependent on the one large monastery. Besides the Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos of Hamatoura, it includes a hermitage dedicated to Mar Elias and another to St John the Baptist, a church of St Michael, and a monastery of St George dependent on the abbot of the monastery, Archimandrite Pandeleimon Farah.
The number of monks in the monastery approached two hundred, but the number quickly fell following successive periods of persecution. Today there are ten monks. In 1992 a monk came to the monastery from Mount Athos in Greece who attempted to revive it, but he was unable to bear the difficulties of living in it in its ruined state, in addition to its location and the rugged path up to it, transporting things to it on foot or on the back of a donkey. In 1994 Archimandrite Pandeleimon Farah arrived there following a fire caused by candles lit by some of the faithful. He worked to restore it, which has led to the uncovering of icons from the sixth century. The monks had been unable to restore them following attacks by the Ottomans when they were destroyed in 1770, so they covered them with plaster, which cracked due to the heat from the fire.
In 2008, as the monks were completing a restoration project, they came across four bodies buried in the ground. It was clear that they belonged to martyrs who had been beaten, as their bones were broken. The head of one of the bodies was cut off, and it was surrounded by a layer of lime. According to scientists, the presence of a layer of lime on a body can be due to one of two factors-- First, the nature of the soil in which the body is buried, which may include lime. This is not the case with the soil under the church. The second is for bodies to be burned. Thus the monks were sure that one of the bodies belonged to Saint Jacob of Hamatoura, on account of the bodies' presence corresponding to the miraculous appearance of the saint, and the precise history of the martyrdom of the saint, who re-founded monasticism at the monastery during the time of the Mamluks.