Note: 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. According to Ms. Hourani, "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 Prophet.
Where they were 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 1993.
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, 1993.
When were they made
No thorough 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 beliefs.
Scholars 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.
How they were made
These natural mummies were produced by the low humidity of the cave.
How many were found
Eight mummies, a fetus, and a male skull were located.
What's special about them
1. 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."
2. Strikingly, many similarities exist between the burial of the Maronite mummies and some present-day Lebanese burials.
For example, 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.
Similarly, 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 nomads.
Where to see them
At last report, the mummies were 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.
More information about the mummies
The Journal of Maronite Studies (JMS) provided 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.