May, being the month of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic and Maronite churches, is a 31-day period of special devotion to the mother of Christ. What this means in Lebanon is that Christians around the country make a special effort to visit the area of Harissa during this month. Many walk to the mountain top from as far as Beirut (a 45-minute trip by car), while others park in Jounieh (a 15-minute car ride) and walk up along a mountain path where special stations have been set where readings are read and prayers are said before continuing the journey up to the top.
On our way up to Daraoun on the mountain highway at midnight on Saturday, there were many, many people making their way up the exhausting highway by foot in the darkness. My pilgrimage was relatively less physically taxing - it was actually the lazy person's pilgrimage, but not as lazy as those who opt to take the scenic teleferique (cable car) from Jounieh. I slept in our village home in Daraoun on Saturday night, the village adjacent to Harissa, and took a 15-minute walk to Harissa on Sunday morning.
Walking past many of the shrines built outside people's homes, I noticed that many have been dedicated to Mary. What I also noticed when I arrived at Harissa, is that it's not only Christians who were visiting this popular Lebanese site - there were many Muslims visiting too. Apparently Mary is very important in Islam too, and no other woman is given as much mention as her in the Quran.
Mary of Harissa, Notre Dame du Liban, is a towering white statue standing with her arms outstretched, as if she were welcoming all towards her, or showing off the beautiful country below her. She stands on the top of a beautiful chapel and is reached by means of a staircase around the chapel's circumference - all built in 1908. Even for those with no interest in religion, the short walk to the top is worth it, if only for the magnificent views of this part of the Lebanese coast below.
Many people left their shoes at the bottom of the staircase before making their way up - something I'd never seen at Harissa before. But then again, I'd never seen the site as crowded as this, although I can imagine it hit record numbers when Pope John Paul II visited in 1997. As well as there being a sense of spiritual meditation, I also felt a great spirit of camaraderie between the people. Just the right combination for a Sunday.
Some of the shrines along the way of my mini pilgrimage.
Notre Dame du Liban with the Maronite Basilica to the left. I actually attended Mass there for the first time on Sunday. It feels more like a hall than a church though.
One of the amazing views from the top of Harissa.