Spelunking in the Grotto, or a Very Big Cave

I think it’s fair to assume that many people have, at some point in their lives, visited a cave. My first cave was a dark, relatively small one located at Bushkill Falls, Pennsylvania. It was pretty cool. But that was it. There wasn’t much else I took back from this cave, apart from that it was dark, and there may have been some stalactites perniciously eying me from the ceiling.

If you’re a spelunking enthusiast – or even if you’re just aware of caves in general – you know that this planet is home to some really incredible caves: the glowworm caves in New Zealand, Skaftafell ice cave in Iceland, Qumran caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were recovered, the Cave of Altamira in Spain, the cave of wonders (I know, it’s not real, but as far as caves go, it’s still pretty cool).

Located a few miles outside of Beirut and a frightening cab journey up steep, winding roads, Lebanon’s Jeita Grotto, or Jeita Caverns, at least in terms of size, makes these other caves look like they’re unfit to inspire the word ‘cavernous.’

For one, the Jeita Grotto is not simply a cave, but a “cave complex,” as it consists of two levels, with the lower level harboring a river.

It’s also apparently really long. The informational pamphlet distributed at the grotto claims that the lower level is 7800m long, while the upper gallery is 2200m. This is a staggering figure, although compared to the world’s longest cave (Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, a whopping 651.8 kilometers), it doesn’t sound especially unique. What is remarkable about the grotto is the inside: pink limestone, glittering crystal, an underground river, and bulging stalactites and stalagmites that have spent hundreds of years quietly and patiently forming in the dark. There are few things as awesome as observing natural formations that are the product of slow growth over time, whose cores formed during time periods that we can’t even fathom.

A stalagmite-y and very flexible man-statue

A stalagmite-y and very flexible man-statue

Plus, it’s cool that a 32-story building could fit inside the lower grotto, which is a nice reference point when describing to a stranger the level of cavernous-ness the cave possesses.

Imagine, then, stumbling upon the entrance to the lower grotto and having no comparison point to explain to some poor sap exactly how big of a place you’ve just found. This might be how William Thompson, American missionary/cave-finder, felt when he found himself at the entrance to the grotto in 1836. According to the pamphlet, Thompson only wandered in about 50 meters before hesitating. And why shouldn’t he? Who knows what’s in there?

The pamphlet goes on to say that “[Thompson] fired a shot from his gun and found a cavern of major importance.” I’m not sure exactly what the pamphlet is trying to communicate here. It almost sounds as if Thompson’s bullet somehow transcended its limited form and communicated to Thompson that he’d found something quite nifty. Another source elaborates a bit more, saying that he “judged by the echoes that the complex was huge.”

Then he left.

The upper grotto wasn’t even discovered until the late 1950s, the decade in which the lower grotto was first opened to the public. Both were closed in the mid-1970s during the Lebanese civil war, but reopened in 1995. This allowed ample time for the people of the world to slowly become exposed to the cave’s existence, which apparently had a rather inspiring effect on some more than others.

I refer to Raymond Morineau, author of my 1974 Lebanon Today. His book, published before the civil war, depicts a very different Lebanon from the one today, and does so in the most extraordinary language.

Let me preface this by saying that, when Loraine, Laina, Sally, and I entered the upper grotto, we were blown away by the size of the cave. What were especially captivating were the stalagmites, the chunky stacks of mineral rising up from the cave floor. We were not allowed to photograph or touch them, the latter being painfully tantalizing as they looked like waxy clouds and we wondered feverishly whether they were soft or malleable or what, but we were permitted to gawk as much and as often as we liked. Each time we rounded a corner, we saw a new shape: a jellyfish, a chocolate fountain, a broccoli floret, an expanse of cerebral cortex. Roaming the upper grotto is much like watching clouds, in that observers may glimpse different shapes in different stalagmites.

The informational pamphlet very briefly – almost dismissively – sums up the upper grotto in one sentence: “The cavern is so serene that it seems like an enormous cathedral.”

Mr. Morineau, ostensibly entering the grotto on the trippier fumes of the 1960s, seems to have had a slightly more psychedelic experience. He first describes the stalactites, those that grow down from the ceiling, as “vast chandeliers of madmen” before likening the mounds to “a surrealist festival organized by Pluto,” which seems fitting if you’re viewing the cave as a facet of Greek and Roman mythology.

My favorite, however, is his final description of the overall experience:

“The milk-white curve of snowy breasts awakes in the sensual dreamer the ardent peace of fulfilled desires, while a moment later a thousand daggers threaten him as he is watched by monstrous mineral animals. Candlesticks and Mexican phalluses…guide the tourist along this road of dreams.”

I can’t say that any of us felt guided by Mexican phalluses – which are distinguishable from non-Mexican phalluses how, exactly? – but we did find the cavern pretty outstanding, the dripping sculptures more like works of art than haphazardly formed lumps of mineral. The place had a strange, extraterrestrial feel, instilling a sense of otherworldliness that was decidedly likeable.

Once we’d adjusted to the light, we clambered into a small train that took us down to the lower grotto, where we waited in line to board small boats that would take us through the ethereal, underground river. Here, we all thought of the infamous hallucinatory scene in the original version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where Gene Wilder and presumably everyone else involved apparently lost their minds and exposed the children to flashbacks of an acid trip. I was sure that Raymond Morineau would have something along those lines to say of the lower grotto, but I was shocked to find that he was disappointed in his experience, writing, “[the boat guides] go on, unceasingly pointing out the most idiotic of analogies, reducing this place of profound mystery to the puerile level of a Christmas shop-window…but you may be lucky enough to chance on a silent boatman…there are some.”

I’m really not sure what he was on about here. Perhaps the cave once smacked of the “puerile Christmas shop-window,” but it doesn’t anymore. The attitude of the tourists and the guides seemed to be one of unified reverence. I didn’t hear much chatter at all, as heads all seemed to be turned upwards to stare at stalactites dangling way up on the ceiling, 32 stories high. The river itself was startlingly clear – and cold, and beautiful wine bottle green.

Our guide quietly and expertly steered us through narrow straits of river and beneath uncomfortably low archways, out into larger, open pools. It really was breathtaking. Laina even got to steer us to the dock.

Perhaps the cave provides new and different experiences for everyone. Either way, it’s deserving of a visit if you’re in Beirut and is something you will absolutely regret missing.

Cable car to the upper grotto

Cable car to the upper grotto

Some intimate statues in the garden.

Some intimate statues in the garden.

Categories: Lebanon

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