It’s not the most obvious best-seller but it makes a compelling story: the last stand against foreign invaders of an isolated community ruled by priests, mummies hidden in caves, and their discovery by some friends trying to escape the modern war around them.
A recently published book, La Memoire des Tissus (The Memory of Cloth), reveals the extraordinary story of an archeological find with all the romantic fascination of the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls by Bedouin shepherds 53 years ago.
These fragments of the past, however, were not documents but clothes, found on eight bodies, perfectly preserved for seven centuries by the dry, even climate of a cave in the Qadisha Valley.
The book, by Gerard Figuie and Oussama Kallab, details the painstaking task of weaving together strands of these women and children’s lives from the clothes they left behind. And these unearthed bodies may help bury one of the lingering myths of extreme-right wing Christians in Lebanon namely that the Maronites were distinct from the Arabs around them.
The story starts in 1989, when Lebanon’s war had flared up again and a group of speleologists explored a cave near Hadath al-Jibbe, looking for remains of the 13th century Hadath patriarchate. They’d found mention of the cave a great rip in the rock-face 40 meters up a cliff in old records. A 17th-century Maronite historian called Douiehy, and a secretary of the Mamluk sultan in Cairo, writing contemporaneously, both described the cave’s violent story.
“It’s a big cave and we don’t usually find one so dry,” says Kallab. It was so dry the seven cavers spent the night there: “We did not know we were sleeping on bodies.
“Digging a hole for a fire, we realized that the ground of the cave was full of human bones some were even lying on the surface,” she said. Eventually, they found eight women and children who had died there during the siege.
The cave’s extraordinarily dry atmosphere meant that the bodies had been naturally mummified, cured like a Parma ham. Equally well preserved were their clothes. After smuggling the mummies through checkpoints on the way back to Beirut, the co-authors dedicated themselves to restoring the clothes, and documenting the find.
These long-dead Maronites had been members of an isolated Christian sect, following an obscure dogma put forward as a failed Byzantine compromise to bridge the widening doctrinal rift between the eastern and western churches. Finding themselves the only adherents of monotheism, the Maronites were denounced as heretics and took to the mountains to escape persecution from Byzantine orthodoxy.
In 1180, the Maronites allied themselves with the Crusaders and accepted Catholic doctrine and papal supremacy but, like many eastern churches, the Maronite church wanted to preserve its own customs, liturgy and religious law. Furthermore, many Maronites viewed both the Crusaders and the Mamluks as invaders.
In 1282, Luqa al-Bahrani became the patriarch of this mountain community, refusing to recognize a rival Maronite leader based in Tripoli.
The Qadisha valley forms a natural trade route between Tripoli and Baalbek, so control of this lucrative source of revenue was added to the political and theological reasons for getting rid of the troublesome prelate. Unfortunately for the Maronites, the Franj and the Mamluks had agreed on a truce the year before.
Al-Bahrani heard of the planned attack and sought refuge in the caves with women and children. After a siege of 40 days, according to the Mamluk chronicler, or an unlikely seven years if Douiehy is to be believed, the patriarch finally surrendered.
Douiehy wrote that the Mamluks built a siege engine for a final assault on the stronghold but offered safe passage if the Maronites surrendered. They came out of the cave and were put to death.
“All the people of Hadath were killed,” said Kallab. “The local people knew about the cave but didn’t know the history; there was no popular memory of the patriarchate. A shepherd climbed up much more easily than us! and asked what we were doing.
“From the cave,” she remembers, “you could hear the sounds of the villages. We heard the bells of a church, and women wailing for a young man killed in the war it seemed like they were mourning those who died in the cave and had never been buried. One time we slept there, a monk celebrated mass in the cave.”
For Kallab, the most exciting moment was discovering the body of one girl she nicknamed Yasmine.
“It was a very emotional moment when we unwrapped the shroud,” she said. “This child was buried 700 years ago. You could see the mark of the cloth on her skin, her hair, her nails. ‘This cloth is a second skin,’ I thought.”
With the corpses were found the stuff of daily life: boots, a basin to collect spring water, wooden spoons, a grindstone, pieces of bowls, and Mamluk copper coins.
They also found an amulet with a talismanic manuscript in Syriac and fragments of a contract in Arabic. “The superstitious things were written in Syriac; Arabic was the language of business,” said Kallab.
She believes that these finds could help dispel the notion of some Christian Lebanese that their ancestors were somehow ethnically distinct from their neighbors: “The manuscripts in Arabic that we found with those bodies challenge the notion of extreme-right wing Christians that we’re not Arabs ‘we are Syriac,’ ‘we are Phoenicians.’ They were speaking Arabic here 1,000 years ago so they were Arabs.”
Kallab was fascinated by the glimpse of these long-dead people provided by their clothes probably the oldest existing examples in the Levant. Clothes, especially marriage robes, captured the embroidering talent of women and, by extension, their families. She put her architectural career on hold to learn restoration techniques at the International Center for the Study of Ancient Textiles in Lyons.
“The discovery made me drop my work and dedicate myself to it,” she said. “It’s important because it’s given us a vision of the historical context: a 13th century dress in good condition, the dress of ordinary women, functional and in popular fashion.”
The researchers were able to identify the motifs, weaving techniques and dyes of the 14th century. The dresses used indigo, grown in Lebanon since the Phoenicians for shades of blue, the madderwort plant for red, and walnut juice for brown. Motifs include crosses, herring-bone, and what seem like the stylized dragons seen in many Central Asian rugs. Triangles, polygons and diamonds form patterns as abstract as anything modern.
The designs compare closely to those found in Asia Minor and Palestine during this period and even show the influence of Turkoman nomads who passed along this trade route, said Kallab.
Kallab’s co-author was Gerard Figuie, a former colonel on the UN Armistice Commission here who married a Lebanese woman. After retiring as the defense attache at the French Embassy, he pursued his hobby of archeology.
“We started this book in 1990,” he said. “It took years to check dates and learn how to clean the fabric, then two years to restore and analyze them. We cleaned them in my flat there was a terrible smell after smuggling the bodies past militia and Syrian checkpoints.
“We had problems publishing the book we needed eight years to get government approval,” said Figuie, who is particularly proud that the preface was written by French Academician Alain Decaux.
“We did all this with our own money,” Kallab pointed out. “It cost me and the colonel a lot, but it was a passion we didn’t think about the cost until we’d published.” All profits from the privately-published book go to charities for the elderly and the young.
Unfortunately, the spectacular finds the first in Lebanon are sitting in the bowels of the National Museum and have yet to be seen by more than a handful of people in the country of their origin. Although one piece of clothing was shown at the Arab Cultural Center in Paris in 1998, it seems even discoveries such as these cannot command the necessary funds from a cash-strapped government.
A curator at the National Museum said the mummies and their clothes were not yet ready to be put on public view.
“They are very important finds and we’re carrying out further tests, like carbon dating,” said the curator. “We’re preparing a display but we need more money.”
Hani Abdul Nur, a biology lecturer at the Lebanese University, was one of the first potholers to explore the caves and remains fascinated by their secrets.
“Each year we find new things,” he said. “Last year we found a cave with strata from the medieval to prehistoric. We found 18th century Ethiopian scriptures in another.”
Abdul Nur admits that the civil war allowed greater freedom for the enthusiastic amateur but recognizes that those anarchistic days are gone.
“During the war we could dig but now it’s forbidden. We don’t publicize our finds now because every amateur archeologist will dig and destroy the findings,” he said, with no apparent sense of irony.
For Figuie, the romance of the discovery still lingers: “This book proves that even in this century, you can still find adventure.”