You can glimpse the divine in a carpet as in a cave

The rugs had blossoms and birds, leaves, deer, vast medallions and quotations from Hafiz

Robert Fisk

12 December 2009

Last time I visited the Jeita caves, the long pre-stressed concrete tunnels that lead to them were stacked with ammunition. Rocket-propelled grenades, 155mm shells, howitzer platforms, 7.62 ammunition; all packaged up and safe for the Christians of Lebanon to fire at their Muslim and Palestinian brothers. Until 1995, they stayed there, at which point the Phalangists decided the war was over and handed the lot to the Lebanese army after flogging much of it to the Catholic thugs of Croatia. The Serbs waylaid them at sea and later sent the Phalange a bill for storage. The Hizbollah wisely kept their own weapons in Lebanon -- where their presence now makes and unmakes governments. But back to Jeita.

It is the work of God. If you believe in that sort of thing. Gallery after gallery of stalagmites and stalactites, cave after cave of dripping karstic limestone deep inside the Kesrwan hills north of Lebanon, almost six miles of them, some as high as 390ft, lit by concealed blue, green and yellow lamps. Monks might haunt this place -- the Reverend William Thompson of America rediscovered the lower cave in 1836 by firing his rifle at the mouth -- although last week I noticed more Saudis and other Gulf folk than I did Lebanese. Below, they sat in flat electric boats to be taken across the underground waters of the Nahr el-Kelb -- the Dog River, the River Lycus of antiquity -- which rise so high in winter that the cave floods. "Hell's rapids", they call them; Jeita means "roaring water" in the Aramaic language, although I prefer the more modern construction, the Dark Lake.

And yes, it is tempting to "read" into the cave roofs. Surely this stalagmite looks like an eagle; this the Pantheon or Shangri-La. It is a magnificent cathedral, but mightier and -- while the medieval architects celebrated God with man-made buildings -- this is the real thing, "Throughout history even to the present day," Vatican II said in generosity towards the Muslim world in 1996 -- before the present weird incumbent took over at Saint Peter's -- "there is found among different peoples a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature... At times there is present even a recognition of a supreme being... The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions."

So could that "awareness of a hidden power" be present at Jeita? Or do we have to dress it up to understand what is "behind the course of nature"? In 1969, the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen gave a concert in the caves and classical music was performed there only last year by the Lebanese-Armenian composer Guy Manoukian. Right now, the Lebanese government is vying to make Jeita one of the new seventh wonders of nature. But this is Disney World stuff, another title to add to the Dark Lake, something already shaded out of history by the great steles carved into the stone wall of the Dog River where it reaches the Mediterranean. Egyptians and Romans -- Caracalla carved his inscription here along with that of the disgraced Third Roman Legion -- and Ramses the Second and the Assyrians and the Brits when they captured Damascus, Homs and Aleppo from the Ottomans in 1918 -- not to mention the 21st British Corps when it captured Jerusalem in October of 1918, and then the entry of General Henri Gouraud into Damascus on 25 July 1920. Gouraud had just executed the Syrian defence minister after the battle of the Maysaloon Pass -- French tanks had attacked Syrian cavalry in a grim portent of another conflict in Poland 19 years later -- and marched up to Saladin's tomb and announced: "Saladin, we have returned."

But these are merely pygmies of history against the prehistoric origins of Jeita. Did ancient swordsmen also wander here -- by the light of burning torches, no doubt -- to marvel at a power outside themselves? Or does the answer lie 10 miles away in Beirut where, quite by chance last week, I went to an Iranian carpet exhibition of such stunning beauty that, well, perhaps I came to the conclusion that man can outdo God.

In fact, I should say "girls" -- yes, Ahmadinejad got them pensions because they cannot fit their fingers through the thread after the age of 18 -- but there lay the glistening silks from Qom and Afshar sheep's wool and all the colours of Kerman. Blossoms and birds, leaves, deer, waterfalls and rivers, vast medallions, a hundred cathedral rose windows upon which Sassanid soldiers and Persian kings vie with ducks and quotations from Hafiz ("When you grow old, leave childishness behind, playing and growing up is for the young") and bright roses from Isfahan.

The carpet-sellers were bazaris, of course, the supporters of Ahmadinejad, shiny-jacketed with cheap shoes and rather a lot of Christian rugs with the Last Supper and -- not, surely, for sale in Tehran -- bare-breasted ladies courting princes quaffing wine. "Appreciate the excitement of youth because the water passing in the river does not return," says one Farsi legend in blue. As I've noted before, the Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski once described how Persian carpets were gardens to be laid in the desert. And I rather think that their creation says more about God than Jeita.

Artists, as the Iranian carpet-merchants would be the first to point out, are merely a creation of divinity -- without God, they could not make their carpets -- but then you might say that without God, the Egyptians and the Romans and the Brits and the French wouldn't have turned up at the Dog River to boast of their military prowess as they trekked through Lebanon. Nor could the Phalange have packed the Jeita tunnels with ammunition. Poor old God, you've got to conclude, he has to fight a tough battle to win against his human enemies.

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