To differentiate between the two saints, I wrote St Charbil of Edessa with an “I” and St Charbel Makhlouf with an “E”.
My first visit ever to Mayfouk was three years ago, precisely on the 24th of November 2013. We were hiking and test shooting the trail from Mayfouk to Qattara, when suddenly the guide stopped and said: “ If you are interested to visit an old temple transformed into a sanctuary for St Charbil – not our own St Charbel – please follow me… “St Charbel Makhlouf used to come here and pray for the old St Charbil”. We were wondering what he was talking about, as if his memory failed him. I told Roy the presenter to tell the story as is, and after shooting inside the temple/sanctuary, we continued our hike to Qattara. “El Hosar” is the name of the region where the sanctuary is located and it’s 0,5 km away from Mayfouk convent.
Click on the link to watch the video.
Three years later – on the 10th of July 2016 – my friend Nisrine G came from Dubai to spend her vacation in Lebanon and told me that every year she and her family members who all live abroad tour around Lebanon and they wanted to visit new areas, so I suggested that we go to Arez Jaj (Jaj Cedars). We were more than 40 persons in the bus when the driver lost direction. I found myself in Mayfouk and I told Nisrine to ask her family if they were interested to visit St Charbil’s sanctuary because her family is a religious melting pot (Druze, Shiaa and Christians…) and they liked the idea. The driver stopped the bus and while they were taking pictures, I tried to explain to them that this sanctuary belongs to St Charbil, not our St Charbel Makhlouf but another St Charbil who was crucified almost 2000 years ago. I felt that I couldn’t convince them because I myself wasn’t convinced with what I was saying.
Back from that trip I decided to start my research, especially that I have been working on my thesis and it’s about Nation Branding. I discovered that there is a church in Maad that belongs to St Charbil of Edessa (Al Ruha in Arabic). Out of curiosity I decided to visit Maad but instead of taking “Monsef” exit, I took “Eddeh” exit and found myself once again in Annaya close enough to the convent of St Maron. I usually never lose direction, but it was as if St Charbel Makhlouf wanted me to visit him before I go to Maad.
On my way back to Jbeil I stopped my car and asked an old man for directions to Maad: “Go to Jbeil then exit at “Mounsef””.
I finally arrived to Maad around four PM. I noticed a beautiful old house and decided to take some pictures of it, then I said to myself it’s about time to go and discover St Charbil church but I had no clue which direction to take, so I stopped a car and asked the driver for directions. The old man replied: “You go straight, at your left there is a house, the balcony of which is kind of bridging the road. Go through this “tunnel” and you will reach the church. But it is always closed, so you have to take the keys from Ghalia”.
The old man: Yes.
Me: so the password is Ghalia!
On my way to the church I said to myself let’s see if it is open, if it’s closed I will go back and bring the keys from Ghalia.
I reached my destination. A picture of Mother Teresa is hanging on the wall of the church, the main door was open, so I entered just the ray of light, which was infiltrating through the door! At my left I was mesmerized by the scenic vaults, the sun was lighting up the only crusader tomb found in Lebanon where “Anne Boulanger” was buried in 1243, I was alone in the church, feasting my eyes on the beautiful paintings adorning the ceiling; the colons of the temple were rebuilt in a chaotic way, behind the altar there is a beautiful fresco depicting from right to left St Marc, St Luca, St Paul, and it represents in its middle Jesus Christ, and while some say it might not be Jesus, but St John Maron, the first Maronite Patriarch, others say it might be St Charbil of Edessa. Next to him in the fresco are St Peter, St Mathew and St John. I decided to turn on the light, when suddenly a woman rushed inside the church and asked me if I got the keys from Ghalia, so I replied: “ no, I just arrived and the church was open”. I asked her if she knows how to turn the lights on.
The woman: Yes sure. You did not enter the old church?
The woman: “follow me”.
Once you step into the small church at the right of the altar, you will notice a fresco painted on the right wall and representing “ the Dormition of Virgin Mary” where Mary is surrounded by the apostles. On the left wall there is another amazing fresco, and in front of it yet another fresco.
I asked the woman (Naouma) whether she has any information regarding the connection between St Charbil of Edessa and St Charbel Makhlouf.
The woman: I am not sure but my son is a priest and he wrote a book about St Charbil of Edessa Maad.
Me: Do you have any copy of the book? The woman: Actually you can get the book from Ghalia, but she told me last time that she was running out of copies…I should drop her some copies, but for the moment I have to leave and I need to close the church because last time some thieves tried to steal it!
Me: Please, I need to take your number and Ghalia’s number to see when I can come back another day to take the book”.
Now that my first visit was over, I left Maad but had plenty of questions going on in my mind: Who was St Charbil of Edessa? Who built the church in Maad and how? Last but not least, where is the location of Edessa, and are the two Saints Charbel and Charbil connected?
For me St Charbil Church in Maad is a real artistic masterpiece worthy of the importance of the Louvres and Moma museums.
St Charbil of Edessa was a pagan high priest who converted to Christianity after he was greatly inspired by the teachings of Christian Bishop Barsamya of Edessa. He converted to Christianity and was baptized at the same time with his sister Bebaia. St Charbil was killed during the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Trajan; he was thrown into a well, to be crucified later. He died in 107 AD, and became a Christian martyr. He is venerated by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches.
After she was decapitated, his sister Bebaia became herself a martyr just like her brother. She was persecuted in 121 AD. After their deaths, the bodies of Charbil and his sister would later be stolen from the executioners by a group of men. They say that the relic of St Charbil of Edessa was placed in the little window inside the Dormition of Virgin Mary’s room, which was stolen again by a tourist (Book Maad club,page 79).
Today Edessa is a city in Turkey but 2000 years ago it was a city in Upper Mesopotamia, also known as Antiochia from the 2nd century BC; in Arabic it is (Ar Ruha). The Syriac reached this area; this is why they call the Maronite Patriarch “Patriarch of Antiochia and sa2er el machrek” (Patriarch of Antiochia and All the East).
What makes Edessa or Ar Ruha an important city? In his book “St Charbil the martyr”, Father George El Hajj mentions that Abgar V the Black or Abgarus V of Edessa was the king who exchanged letters with Jesus. King Abgar V of Edessa wrote to Jesus, asking him to come and cure him from an illness, either gout or leprosy. Abgar got a letter in which Jesus was declining the invitation, but promising him a future visit by one of his disciples.
Maad is one of the most beautiful villages in Lebanon; it is one of the rarest villages to have preserved the Lebanese heritage.
St Charbil Church was built on a hill on an archeological site rich with monuments and history. “Maad” comes from a Phoenician word and it means, “meeting place.” It was indeed a meeting point for convoys that used to ship cedar trees from the famous Cedars of Jaj all the way to Egypt, and this region lived its Phoenician glory between the years (1800-1300 BC) as mentioned in the book (Maad 1984- p79).
In the year 300, it is said that a rich Syriac man from Edessa decided to consecrate this temple (St Charbil Maad) in the name of the saint (St Charbil). He bought St Charbil’s relic, which was stolen later by a tourist. (Page 79 Maad club).
St Charbil Maad church and ruins are a melting pot of the Roman, Byzantine, and Crusader eras.
My second visit was well organized; I knew which road to take, where I was going, what I had to shoot, and Ghalia was waiting for me … The target is clear and it was to get Father George El Hajj’s book about St Charbil Maad, and later to read and find out if there is any connection between the two Saints.
In Maad, an old smiling lady was waiting for me. Once under her balcony I called her to tell her I was there.
Ghalia: come up!
She took the church keys, gave me the book, and we walked together till the church, which is 100 meters away from her house. Once inside the church, she invited me to discover the Eucharist and showed me the old temple’s main entrance, then we moved to the Dormition of Virgin Mary’s room. There she showed me how she and her cousins used to peel the paint when she was three years old.
Ghalia: we didn’t know the value of this church, we were kids…if you want to sue me …sue me!
I laughed and I asked her about the opposite wall, precisely about the man kneeing under the small window.
Ghalia: they say this is the donor who offered the painting, the lady holding a cross is a saint; some say that the priest with a crown on his head is St John Maron with martyr St Marguerite. Others say it is the Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena is holding the cross. The last information says that it might be St Bebaia of Edessa, St Charbil’s sister with Barsamya, the priest who baptized them. Over the small window there was an angel wearing white he might be St Michael.
As it was mentioned in Father George El Hajj ‘s book on page 126, this room played an important role as a Byzantine church and as a cemetery in the crusaders’ era. The frescoes were painted half of the 13th century as per Dr Nada Helo, and the saint was executed during the crusaders’ stay in Lebanon.
Ghalia is a positive woman full of energy. They say if you want to discover the history or the story of a location you should ask the locals, so I asked her if there is any connection between St Charbel Makhlouf and St Charbil of Edessa Maad.
Ghalia: I don’t know if it is true or false… they say that when he was a novice during his first year in Mayfouk, St Charbel Makhlouf saw a light coming out of St Charbil of Edessa Maad, so he decided to take the name of Charbel after St CharbiI. I don’t know if it’s true, but what is for sure is that St Rafka spent seven years in Maad where she used to be a teacher (1864-1871).
One week later I decided to send an e-mail to Father George El Hajj, asking him the never ending question: Is there any connection between the two Saints? Did St Charbel Makhlouf pray to St Charbil of Edessa in el Hosar grotto in Mayfouk?
There are no clear answers to all these questions, but we know for sure that since the beginning and in order to pray and meditate, St Charbel Makhlouf used to isolate himself in El Hosar Grotto in Mayfouk because it is too close to Mayfouk convent.
According to Father George El Hajj, we cannot assume anything and have the right and final answer regarding the source of Saint Charbel Makhlouf’s name and whether the grotto of El Hosar in Mayfouk was a sanctuary for Saint Charbil of Edessa, and if St Charbel used to address St Charbil in his prayers… But what we know for sure is that in Lebanon we have great treasures and amazing archeological sites, whether historical or religious, and it is our duty to highlight them and preserve them for the next generation.
-Before you visit St Charbil of Edessa Maad make sure to call Ghalia Srour on 09 750 139 to check whether she’s available or not.
-Take Mounsef exit.
-The feast of St Charbil of Edessa is celebrated on the 5th of September.
Photography, Video and script by Sabine K.Sebaali
Correction by Michelle Lahoud Abou Khalil and Joelle Yacoub
Feature image and logo created by Varoujan Torikian
Video Presenter Roy Abi Karam
A Special Thanks to:
Joelle Yacoub, Michelle Lahoud Abou Khalil , Varoujan Torikian, Fr George el Hajj, Ghalia Srour, Lamis Chkeir, Najat El Hokayem, Karla Bedran Karkinli, Naouma El Hajj, Ursula El Hajj, Dr Souaad Najem Tabchi, Fr Youhana Maroun Moufarrej, Semaan Najem ,and Ebrine Sisters.