I am indebted to Guita G. Hourani (Editor-in-Chief of the
Journal of Maronite Studies) for her help and guidance in
preparing this page as well as to the January 6, 1997 issue of the
Journal of Maronite Studies.
Where were they found
A group of natural
mummies was discovered in the 'Asi-al Hadath cave located in the Qadisha
Valley of Lebanon.
The initial discovery of one
infant's mummy took place on July 13, 1990, and was made by a group of
speleologists (members of the Groupe
d'Etudes et de Recherches Souterraines du Liban, GERSL) who had been excavating the cave for
two years. During the
next five months, seven other mummies (four infants and three adult
females), one fetus, and one male skull were uncovered. However, because of the political
situation in Lebanon, the discovery was not announced until
PHOTO of "Yasmine,"
the first mummy discovered.
© GERSL and reprinted with kind permission
from the book: Momies du Liban: Rapport préliminaire
sur la découverte archaéologique de 'Asi-al-Hadat (XIIIe siècle) by Groupe d'Etudes et de Recherches Souterraines
du Liban, France, Édifra,
examination of the mummies has yet been made. However, scholars who have
looked at the mummies and the artifacts that accompanied them (including
twenty manuscripts, wooden combs, coins, and medieval pottery) believe that they
date to about 1283 A.D. when the area around the cave was part of the
County of Tripoli.
At that time, the majority of people living in that
County were Maronites. Beginning in the seventh century A.D., they had sought
refuge in the mountains there to avoid persecution for their religious
believe that the people in the cave died during a siege of the mountainous
area by Mamaluke
soldiers in 1283. According to one historical account, referred to by
author Helen Khal (see below), "the grotto was besieged for seven
years.... [Eventually] 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 people in
this cave may have died during the siege.
These natural mummies were produced by
the low humidity of the cave.
Eight mummies, a fetus, and a male
skull were located.
What's special about them
These are the first (and perhaps the only) mummies of the Maronite people ever
to be discovered. According
to Guita G. Hourani, who has written about the discovery, "the degree of
preservation of some of the mummified bodies" is "astonishing."
Strikingly, many similarities exist between the burial of the Maronite
mummies and some present-day Lebanese burials.
one of the infants had long strands of
its mother's hair between its toes. According to local tradition in some
areas of Lebanon today, a mother whose child dies will pull out her hair
in lamentation while kissing the feet of her deceased child. Clearly this practice seems
to have carried through the centuries.
today in Lebanon, when the last member of a family dies, the key to the
family house is thrown over the roof, indicating that no one will live in
the house again. The presence of a key in the 'Asi-al
Hadath cave may also indicate that the last member of a family had died
there as well.
3. Perhaps the most interesting
artifacts are the textiles. These were not only worn by the mummies, they
were also scattered about the cave. Their robes, made from heavy cotton,
are embroidered with squares and diamonds of crosses and flowers, which
strongly resemble kilim patterns of Turkish
The mummies are on
display at the Lebanese National Museum in Beirut. However, the conditions of
their exhibit are less than ideal and they are in danger of decaying. Scientists
and scholars who know about the mummies hope that funding will be made available
both to preserve and study these remarkable medieval mummies.
Where to find more information about
of Maronite Studies (JMS) on-line at www.mari.org
provides information about the mummies.
The only book
on the subject is Momies
du Liban: Rapport préliminaire sur la découverte archaéologique de 'Asi-al-Hadat
(XIIIe siècle) by
GERSL (France, Édifra , 1993.
are the Maronites? by Guita
- The Maronites,
Eastern Catholics, derive their name from the celebrated Saint Maron
[350-410 A.D.] who lived in Apamea in what is now Syria. There,
leading the life of a hermit, he guided a number of disciples and
many lay followers who embraced his way of life. These followers
came to be called the Maronites. Centered in Lebanon, they are in
ecclesiastical communion with the Roman Pontiff. Maronite
communities also exist in Cyprus, Palestine, Syria, South Africa,
Canada, Australia, the United States, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and
France. One famous Maronite author and painter in the United States
is Gibran Khalil Gibran who wrote the celebrated book: The