By the edge of Kaftoun you turn right towards the Walnut River (Nahr el Jaouz) valley; on your right a vast expanse of olive groves and on your left the el Majdel Mountain dressed in its majestic green cover of scrub oak. As you approach a small pine forest perched above the river valley, turn left down the steep and winding road descending towards the river. On a spring morning you can observe the dawn mist lifting itself from the river as the sun's rays stream down gloriously from behind the majestic Lebanon mountain peaks. As the cool mist rises from the river you are engulfed by the aromatic fragrances it caries with it from the flowering orange trees in the valley below. The gushing waters of the el Jaouz River break over the large boulders in the valley on their final journey to the Mediterranean. They cry, as if lamenting their inevitable fate, their cries and moans amplified by the echo of the river valley. As you are mesmerized by the sights, smells and sounds of the river you become totally unaware of your purpose, savoring every moment, oblivious of what lies ahead. But then, suddenly, there it is! The Greek Orthodox Theotokos Monastery, nestled by the river's edge, a jewel of spirituality! Adorned and perfectly set within the red limestone cliff above, protected from prying eyes and sheltered from the elements. What a sight! What a find! You rush towards it with adoration and disbelief. Your sanctity restored!
The Kaftoun monastery superbly established within the red limestone hollow cliff is in obvious contradiction with the majority of monasteries and convents in the Levant which are usually perched on top of hills or mountains. The monastery, dedicated to the mother of God, is managed by a group of about fifteen Greek-orthodox nuns, of the order of Our-Lady of Kaftoun (IX century). The monastery houses a priceless and unique double-faced Byzantine icon (1.11 meters in height and 80 centimeters in width) of hieratic style and dating from XI century. It contains inscriptions in the three languages: Arabic, Greek and Syriac. The front side has a representation of the Mother of Hodigitria God with the infant Jesus and the reverse side depicts the baptism of Jesus. The two angels in medallions in the right and left upper corners on the front face of the icon are in the same style as the reverse side depicting the baptism of Jesus in a style pertaining to XIII and XIV centuries. This leads curators to conclude that they were added on the principal face two centuries later. The course of this Kaftoun icon is rather fuzzy. Although on the one hand, some historians indicate that emperors had a habit of offering gifts with their ambassadors, on the other hand, such icons were sometimes painted locally. The biography of this icon remains anonymous, yet it bares curious similarities to finds in the churches of Turkey dating from the same era. Bilateral icons, such as this one, were sometimes carried in procession, but most of the time had their place in the inner sanctum of the church. A face turned towards the faithful to see and another turned inward and visible only from within the interior sanctuary.
This icon was illegally lifted out of the monastery twice before. The first time was in the summer of 1972. By the grace of God and the collaboration of the Interpol it was found in London and returned to its rightful place. The second time was in 1977; it was returned by the robber, after a dream during which a vision of the Virgin Mary appeared to him and made him become aware of the consequences of his action. Damaged by these successive flights, the Icon was sent to France for restoration by the presiding custodian Bishop George Khodr. Two patrons of the arts: the town of Paris and a Lebanese patron Mr. Chukri Chammas, one of the three founders of the CAT Company, financed the restoration. The icon remained in France for nine years during which it was exhibited many times. These exhibitions were organized by the town hall of the 5th district of Paris and the Arts centre of the Pantheon and sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture. The icon was returned to Lebanon, in 1998, and turned over to the monastery of Kaftoun. It is now exhibited in a special vault, under glass, within the confines of the church monastery to be admired on both sides by the faithful. The glass, under which it is mounted, is specially treated to deflect light from camera flashes that could damage or alter the icon. As an additional precaution, the nuns in the convent also forbid the use of cameras within the confines of the monastery and the convent.
Located opposite to the monastery and just a few feet away from the banks of the el Jaouz River is the basilica of Saint Sergius and Bacchus (Mar-Sarkis) which dates from the century of their life or a century thereafter (VI century). It stood unused in recent centuries, in utter neglect and unprotected from the occasional flooding of the Jaouz River. Shortly after Our-Lady of Kaftoun nuns took residence in the adjacent monastery, they became interested in restoring and utilizing it. In1985 they had an initial objective of fixing the roof which did not materialize due to the then ongoing Lebanese Civil War. Unhindered, in 1993 they started a collection box to fund a more extensive restoration. They were able through their own efforts to clear the shrubbery and the outgrowth from around the basilica and open it to the public in 1995. When I visited it in 1996 it still had its floor completely covered with thick mud from previous overflows of the Jaouz River. At that time you can faintly see the foot of a horse painted on one of the side walls. Recent excavations have shown that this basilica is particularly rich at the archaeological level. Although these recent excavations did not concentrate on the side walls, they gave some telling signs that one of the side walls could carry a fresco of Saint Sergius on horseback while the other could similarly carry a fresco of Saint Bacchus on horseback. These two saints who were loved by their cult followers in the east for over 1000 years were usually depicted on horseback because they were officers of the roman army, as well as friends, when they became Christians. The basilica of Saint Sergius and Bacchus (Mar-Sarkis) originally had three naves; unfortunately now the one to left appears to be entirely destroyed.
Within ten years, from 1993 to 2003, the collection box set up by the nuns grew to (US) $10,000. With matching funds provided by Bishop George Khodr, excavation and restoration of the basilica were started by the nuns on May 13, 2003. In August of 2004, with funding from the church and under the direction of the Lebanese Department of Antiquities, a group of Polish restorers established residence on the site and started work in earnest. After a period of one month and a total cost of 80 Million Lebanese Liras they come to discover several frescos on the roof and walls of the basilica, including a monumental fresco known as the Annunciation, dating from XIII century.
Photos of discovered frescos