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Piously Poised on a Precarious Perch

Tucked away in the hills of Lebanon, the sisters of Deir Nourieyyeh insist on a life of seclusion and piety including no photographs.

text and photographs by Marilyn Raschka

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The Lebanese village of Hamat is a traveler’s dream. The tiny Greek Orthodox village sits on a high plateau with plunging precipices that look down on both manmade and natural wonders: A medieval Arab castle, a Crusader town, the churning waters of the Mediterranean and a naturally formed face on a cliff that still carries its ancient name: Theouprosopon, “the Face of God.”

In the far north lies the sprawling city of Tripoli, once a Crusader town and still home to an impressive Crusader castle. To the east lie the Lebanon Mountains, which shelter an ancient grove of cedars dating back to the time of Christ.

Physically, Hamat survived the Lebanese civil war intact. But the universal disruption in the flow of Lebanese life sent many of its sons and daughters out of the country in pursuit of security and employment.

High achievers these Hamatis – they are doctors, engineers, technicians, computer programmers. Many made their way and fortune in oil-rich Arab countries and in the United States, Canada and Australia. Many return annually to oversee the building and then enjoy new homes that reflect their success.

With such natural beauty and vivid human life, tradition has it that that Hamat was named after a donkey, and a dead one at that.

A man and his donkey were passing through the land where Hamat now stands. The way was steep and the donkey was less than enthusiastic about the climb. The man urged his beast on, crying out, “Ha! Ha!” – a kind of donkey “Giddy up!” This poor old donkey had heard one too many “ha’” in his lifetime and as he approached the top he fell to the ground and died. The donkey did not have a name so the man referred to him simply as Ha. And Ha had died. In Arabic, this was “Ha maat.”

In sharp contrast to the ill-named but truly lively Hamat is the quiet convent called Deir Nourieyyeh, named for Our Lady of the Light and located about a mile from the village. A miracle occurred here in the early fourth century and pilgrimage to the area hasn’t stopped since. The present Greek Orthodox convent, or deir, is a white limestone building shaded by green cypress trees. The courtyard provides seclusion from the outside world but frames the heavens and maintains the focus of the convent and its nuns.

Built in the late 19th century as a monastery, the structure was soon abandoned and fell into disrepair. In the 1970’s Greek Orthodox nuns reinhabited the buildings and repairs began.

The priest who celebrates Divine Liturgy is from a neighboring town. While at the convent he keeps in touch with his home base by cellular phone rather than trust the unreliable local telephone line.

The keepers of the convent are the nuns themselves. Clad in black, they appear and disappear among the arches, corridors and rooms of the convent. Sister Mounira is a self-appointed spokesperson for the sisters. She reviews the rules and routine with me. Only for extreme medical reasons do the nuns leave the convent. None of them drive.

“Not nice to have a nun drive,” Sister Mounira states with conviction. When necessary, they depend on the priest for transportation. Family members visit occasionally but are asked to keep their visits short. No newspaper, television or radio interrupts the nuns’ routine.

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