Legends, Lore and Holy Places

by Veronica J. Treanor

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Far away from the troubles and turmoil of humanity the sanctuary of Saidet-el-Mantara, Our Lady of Safe Custody, rises above the Mediterranean Sea and Lebanon’s port city of Sidon. In the village of Maghdoushy in June of 1911, the French consul to Lebanon, a priest, a few businessmen and other pilgrims, beheld what they considered a miracle. As they entered the grotto of Mantara a picture of the Virgin appeared to be smiling at them. The phenomenon lasted a full ten minutes, reducing the visitors to amazed tears. Stories of other miracles associated with the site abound, and local people believe it was here that Mary waited for Jesus while he entered the town of Sidon.

Another location rich in tradition is St. Sargius Church in Cairo, Egypt which lies within the old Roman Fortress of Babylon, first constructed by Emperor Trajan in 98 AD. The columns of St. Sargius are designed with capitals peculiar to third or fourth century architecture suggesting that it is one of the churches built by the Romans when the Fortress was remodeled and enlarged in 395 AD under the Christian Roman Emperor Arcadius.

Beneath the choir and sanctuary, and predating the main church by centuries, is a small, dark, subterranean crypt.

Legend has it that the holy family rested in this place when they first arrived in Egypt, having fled Bethlehem because King Herod was determined to slay the child he’d been told was “the infant king of the Jews.” The spot has been walled, protected, and kept sacred since Christianity in Egypt first began.

Both sites, Saidet-el-Mantara in Lebanon and St. Sargius in old Cairo, are replete with history, and are characterized by many legends and reports of miracles. To visit either of them is to travel back in time thousands of years.

The hill on which the sanctuary of Saidet-el-Mantara is located offers a view of the south shore of Lebanon which is magnificent. From the north of the grotto one can see the entire city of Sidon and the mountain called Barouk. Scattered over the surface of the hill are ruins which archaeologists have identified as the remains of Franche Grade, an old castle which dates back to the time of the Crusades.

Other ruins nearer to the grotto are said to be those of a sanctuary built by the ancient cult of the Canaanites. Known as traders and the originators of the alphabet, the Canaanites inhabited Palestine, lower Syria and what is now Lebanon from the Middle to the Late Bronze Age, or roughly 2000-1200 BC. In the south they became displaced by the Israelites and the Philistines, while in the north they became known as Phoenicians from the Greek word for purple because they were famous for a purple dye which they obtained from shellfish.

Sidon itself was the most ancient city of Phoenicia. From here and from Tyre, 22 miles to the south along the coast of Lebanon, Phoenician fleets set sail carrying vast amounts of timber cargo from Lebanon’s well-wooded slopes to the carpenters of Egypt. Today Sidon is still an important port and center of trade.

Although the origins of the legend that Mary rested at the hill overlooking Sidon while her Son visited the port are now lost in obscurity, the tradition remains very much alive. The name “Mantara” itself means lookout or place of waiting, and many people have claimed they were cured of various afflictions while visiting the hillside shrine.

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Tags: Lebanon Pilgrimage/pilgrims Historical site/city