The Choir of Hamatoura Monastery
In addition to prayer, the monks have numerous activities including making icons, candles and incense, recording Byzantine chants, translating spiritual books and publishing a number of them.
Approaching the village of Kousba in the district of al-Kura, one may descend left to a hydroelectric station at the bottom of the Qadisha Valley, cross a footbridge over the fast-flowing river and climb a steep, winding path up the opposite slope. After forty minutes of strenuous walking, the visitor will reach the monastery of Our Lady of Hamatoura, perched on a great escarpment several hundred meters above the valley floor.
In Syriac, Hamatoura means 'fountain of the mountain' or ‘mountain of fervour’. Monks used to come to the monastery to take their vows and observe asceticism. Among the peaceful refuges of the valley, Hamatoura is one of the largest and most ancient. In this remote site, far from the dangers and temptations of the world, generations of Christian monks and hermits have lived in solitude, meditation and prayer.
Manuscripts, the oldest of which goes back to the tenth century, testify to the monastery's deep history. A manuscript by a Russian traveller who visited the monasteries of Lebanon affirms that the monastery covered the entire mountain, according to its detailed description of it.
The church is the most ancient part of the monastery, belonging to the 4th century. Near the monastery are two venerable churches, one dedicated to Saint Michael and the other to Saint John the Baptist. On the top of the hill, one can see the church of St. George. Close by the monastery is a rocky cave where one may perceive the base of a stalagmite, where barren women come to pray in the hope of bearing a child, for this grotto was dedicated to the pagan goddess of fecundity.
Late in the 13th century, Saint Jacob began his ascetic life. Later, when Mamelukes destroyed the monastery, he reestablished monasticism along the perimeter of the ruined monastery. In time, he rebuilt the monastery, regenerating and giving renewed vigour to monastic life in the area. His spiritual briskness, vivacity, and popularity among believers drew the attention of the Mamelukes. They dragged Saint Jacob, along with a number of monks and laymen, from Saint George's Monastery, situated atop Mount Hamatoura, to Tripoli City and handed him to the ruler (”wali” in Arabic). Finally, as was their custom in punishing their enemies, on October 13, Saint Jacob was beheaded. In addition, the Mamelukes burned his body to ensure the Church will not give him an honourable burial as a martyr, a burial befitting a saint. On third of July 2008, while renewing the church floor, the Holy Relics of St. Jacob the Hieromartyr and those with him were found buried.
In 1973, Father Phillips Atallah, known as Archimandrite Isaac the Athonite of Kapsala, was the monastery’s abbot and tried to bring back monastic life to Mount Hamatoura. He succeeded in that endeavour, and so he was joined by a number of novices and brothers seeking an ascetic life. Among his students was the monastery’s current abbot, Archimandrite Panteleimon Farah.
Because of war in 1975, Father Phillips was forced to leave the monastery and head to Mount Athos in Greece where he became a hermit. He was tonsured into the Great Schema with the name of Isaac, and spent his days at the Stavronikita, then at the Kalyva of the Resurrection of Christ in Kapsala. He reposed there in 1998 and was eager to see monastic life restored to this ancient mountain famous for its hesychasm.
In 1992, following a fire caused by candles lit by some of the faithful, Metropolitan Georges (Khodr) tasked Archimandrite Panteleimon with restoring the monastery, which uncovered beautiful frescoes from the sixth century. The monks had been unable to restore them following attacks by the Ottomans when they were destroyed in 1770, so they covered them with plaster, which cracked due to the heat from the fire.
There are currently 18 monks at the monastery living a cenobitic life of prayers, fasts, meditation and work, and supplicate to the Theotokos for everyone’s salvation. Young believers visit the monastery to pray, confess, attend all-night vigils and take a spiritual retreat.