Mummies in Hadeth El-Joubbeh (Shir Al-Assi)
Mysterious  mummies
Helen Khal unravels some of Qadisha's enigmas Mummies
Daily Star Aug 1, 1998

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The natural or artificial preservation of bodies after death. Not a pleasant subject, I admit. But stay with me. The dead do talk, and the simple stories they tell often throw light on some of those alcoves of human history still shrouded in mystery. Consider the 700-year-old mummies of Lebanon ­ three adult females and five infants all naturally and remarkably preserved ­ which were discovered nine years ago in the Assi al-Hadath Grotto, a natural cave situated 700 metres above the dramatic depths of Qadisha Valley in north Lebanon. Eventually, when the bodies, their clothing and the artifacts found with them undergo thorough scientific study, we will gain revealing insight into the cultural and economic aspects of mountain village life in medieval Lebanon. The Qadisha Gorge, holy valley of the Maronites, is an area full of hidden, almost inaccessible caves that most likely hold some fascinating untold tales. Speleologists  became interested in exploring Assi al-Hadath because of a reference advanced by the 17th century Maronite patriarch-historian Estephan Doueihy about its use as a Maronite haven of refuge during the 13th century. The patriarch relates finding a notation in the margins of a bible that records the 1283 assault on the Christians of Mount Lebanon by the ruling Mamlukes. Written by an anonymous person, the notation reads that on August 22, 1283, Mamluke soldiers “headed toward al-Hadath where the inhabitants took refuge in a magnificent and inaccessible grotto called al-Assi. The grotto was besieged for seven years”. The account continues with how the Mamelukes tricked the people into surrender with promises of safe release, then they set fire to the village, killed all the men and took the women and children into captivity.
The eight mummies, buried with clear evidence of traditional rituals, were all females. If patriarch Douiehy’s story is true  ­  then they all must have died and been properly buried during the seven-year siege. But didn’t any men die?
One male skull found at the burial site poses an intriguing question.  Were the unchanging climatic conditions of the grotto peculiarly suited only to the natural mummification of females and not of males? Did the bodies of any males who may have died in the cave dissolve into biblical ashes and disappear into the earth? Or was a tradition of male-female segregation also maintained in burial practices ­ which suggests that in some other corner of the grotto may still be buried a cache of mummified males. Another human interred in the soil was a foetus, perhaps of four or five months’ incubation. A miscarriage, certainly, and buried with respect, though without shroud or ritual.
The first mummy, discovered at 8pm on July 13, 1990 after two years of inch-by-inch exploration of the dark, muddy cave, was a four-month-old infant, who the speleologists impulsively named Yasmine. Fully clothed and interred 40cm below the soil, the child was lying on her back alone in the grave, her head resting on a smooth stone. Beneath her burial shroud she wore three dresses ­ a simple blue robe beneath a beige robe beneath an elaborate dark beige dress embroidered with silk threads. Crowned by a full headdress over a headband made of silk, Yasmine was adorned with one earring and a necklace of glass beads and coins dating to the Mamluke era. Nearby were found a dark lock of human hair, bay leaves, almonds, walnuts, garlic and onion skins. Over the next several months some of the remaining seven mummies were slowly uncovered one by one and painstakingly removed. One of the most provocative details to emerge related to burial customs ­ packed cloth was found stuffed in the vagina and anus of the woman. Inquiry has since revealed that in some areas of Lebanon this is still done. In the Bekaa Valley, for example, cloth is wrapped around a small onion and inserted in the orifices of the dead.
The remarkably preserved bodies and their artifacts promise to reveal much information on the customs, rituals and daily way of life in medieval Mount Lebanon. Among the items collected are fragments of pottery and other household utensils, combs, animal bones and scraps of food, arrows and poles, agricultural tools, oil lamps, coins, leather boots and belts and bits and pieces of manuscript inscribed in old Syriac, some of them bearing 13th century dates. Most beautifully precious of all, however, are the textiles worn by the dead or scattered pell-mell around them. The robes, all identical in their flowing voluminous style and belted in leather, are cut of heavy cotton cloth. Richly embroidered in straight or cross-stitched lines of geometric design ­ squares and diamonds framing motifs of crosses and flowers ­ they bear strong resemblance to the kilim patterns of nomadic Turkish origin.
The textiles, still amazingly sturdy, have been washed back into their original resplendent colours. Against the rough natural ecru of the cloth, the silken embroidery glows in linear waves of indigo blue, red, maroon, brown and black. Significantly in this obviously Christian community, there is no yellow ­ traditionally Jewish ­ nor green ­ traditionally Islamic. In contrast to the wealth of embroidery, the jewelry of the women is quite humble and of little interest. Simple rings and bracelets made of copper, bronze and other cheap metals; necklaces of glass beads and coins strung on strips of leather. A small mother-of-pearl cross perhaps, but not one iota of gold or silver anywhere. Study of the textiles combined with historical research tells us that the cotton was planted on the terraced slopes of Hadath, woven into cloth in Baalbeck and transported back and forth by caravan along the ancient silk route that passed nearby on its path between Tripoli, Baalbeck and Damascus. This particular type of cotton textile, in fact, was known as Baalbaki cloth and for centuries was used extensively throughout the eastern Mediterranean basin.
Exploration of the grotto by a team of amateur speleologists from Groupe d’Etudes et de Recherches Souterraines du Liban  (Gersl) began in 1988 and continued for three years of almost continuous three-day weekends spent in the cave. It is, by any measure, a captivating saga of adventure and discovery undertaken by a daring group of men addicted to caves. Among those who stayed with the expedition from beginning to end were Fadi Baroudy, a chemist; Paul Khawaja, commercial attaché at the British embassy; Pierre Abi-Aoun, an archaeology student; Alain Maroun, a hydro-engineer; and Dr Chafic Ghazali, a dentist. All but Abi-Aoun were married and had to deal with the threats of unhappy wives left husbandless at home every weekend. “My wife almost divorced me,” says Khawaja. With the country at war at the time, exploring the cave and protecting and transporting the mummies became a downright hazardous business. To ward off the war-heightened suspicions of villagers and militias alike, each man would arrive and descend into the valley alone. This involved an hour’s arduous hike ­ first 40 metres down the crevassed mountainside, then a tricky 30-metre climb with ropes and pitons up to the cave. Three days later, they would depart in the same casual manner. But when the mummies were discovered and had to be carefully carried away, the route of return shifted away from the village of Hadath above and became a long tortuous trek of 700 metres down the valley and across the Qadisha River below. There, waiting for them with the cars was a friendly monk who had dedicated himself to helping the team smuggle its valuable cargo undetected through all the military checkpoints along the way. For several years, the mummies and their artefacts remained carefully protected under the optimum cave conditions of low humidity and constant temperature in Fadi Baroudy’s basement, waiting for the National museum to resume its operations and take them into its care. They were turned over to the museum in 1995 and are now there safely encased in airtight plexiglass. (The museum is closed for repairs over the next four or five months, so don’t expect to have a look at them until it reopens).
Meanwhile, news of the Assi al-Hadath find has attracted the overwhelming attention of international mummy experts, who regard the discovery of naturally preserved mummies as a rare phenomenon of great importance to the world. Their interest was initiated by a young Lebanese woman, Guita Hourani, who travelled to Chile last May to speak before the Third World Congress on Mummy Studies on the existence of the mummies in Lebanon. Hourani, who is the chairperson of the Maronite research institute, has what could be called a “religious attachment” to the mummies. She and many others of similar concern are anxious to learn more about the significance of these 700-year-old creatures in Marinate history. The key, of course, lies in their extensive microscopic study by mummy specialists. The Lebanese government now has in hand a petition signed by 50 scientists at the congress requesting the opportunity to assist in the research. They have yet to receive our government’s response.