In a region completed dominated by non-Christians, the Statue and Basilica of Our Lady of Lebanon stand as a defiant reminder of Lebanon’s Catholic history. Outside of Israel and Palestine, it is probably the most popular Christian shrine between Europe and India. It is also one of the most visually stunning Christian sites in the Middle East. In addition to the many Maronite Caatholic pilgrims who make their way to the shrine every year, it is also popular with the region’s other Christians, as well as local Muslims and Druze who hold the Virgin Mary in very high regard. Other visitors come for the fantastic view of the ancient Phoenician coast.
The Christian community of Lebanon is one of the oldest, most curious and most tenacious in the world. Dating from Biblical times, Christianity was probably established here by Paul after his flight from Damascus. The Christians of Lebanon became known as Maronites after a monk named Maron, who helped to preserve the local Christian community as orthodox-catholic in the face of heresy in the 4th and 5th centuries. Although clearly under the patriarchal jurisdiction of either Antioch or Jerusalem, the Maronite Christians seem to have remained independent of the traditional Church heirarchies.
This was especially true after the Muslim conquests of the 7th century. While the Maronites maintained relations with both Greek-speaking Constantinople and Latin-speaking Rome, the Syriac-speaking Christians of Lebanon were essentially on their own throughout the early Middle Ages. This changed dramatically in the 12th century, when hordes of Catholic crusaders arrived from Europe in an effort to liberate the Holy Land from Islamic rule.
Although clearly located in the Eastern Orthodox territory, the Maronites gave their allegiance to the Papacy, and aided the crusaders in their efforts. The majority of the Christians of Lebanon have been Catholic ever since. Although the crusaders were eventually forced to withdraw, the Maronites stood their ground, surviving many turbulent centuries under Ottoman rule. When the Ottoman Empire collapsed, and France took over Lebanon as a protectorate, the local Christian communities were among the largest and strongest in the Middle East.
In the early 1900s, the Maronite Catholic Patriarch Elias Hoyek established a new shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Lebanon. The statue, as well as the first church, were completed and dedicated in 1908, more than two decades prior to the completion of its more famous counterpart in Rio De Janeiro. It went on to become a symbol and rallying point of the Christian community during the brutal war years that wracked Lebanon at the end of the 20th century. The shrine survived even this, and remains to this day a primary focal point of Catholicism in the Middle East.
The Statue of Our Lady of Lebanon is one of the most visually stunning and memorable Catholic religions sites in the entire Middle East. Erected in 1908, this magnificent icon towers over the city of Harissa and the Bay of Jounieh. Including the base, the entire structure soars more than a hundred feet from the top of a hill which is itself nearly half a mile above sea level. The statue, while appearing to be marble, is in fact cast bronze painted white. A golden crown rests elegantly on her head. There is a small chapel located at the statue’s base.
Next to the statue is the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon, an immense modern structure of concrete and glass which is surprisingly aesthetic if a bit out of place for the region. It appears somewhat like a huge circus tent that has been sliced down the middle and replaced with a giant glass wall. For pilgrims worshipping inside this wall perfectly frames the statue outside. After the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, this is the largest Catholic church in the Middle East that is still in use.
Our Lady of Lebanon crowns a great hill just to the south of the city of Harissa, a little less than ten miles north along the coast from Beirut. It is accessible by gondola lift as well as by a long, winding road. As of this writing no visitor information was available. Web: www.harissa.info (official website)
Harissa is an important center of Catholicism in Lebanon, and is home to several sites of interest, including the Basilica of St. Paul and the Papal Embassy. Nearby in Beirut is the Cathedral of St. George, one of the oldest Catholic churches in continual use in the Middle East.