Better known as a Tunisian chilli paste, Harissa is also a stunning, moving, fascinating site in Lebanon. In the mountains above Beirut, or to be more precise Jounieh, towers a statue. The statue forms the centre of a marian shrine, a Shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, patron saint of Lebanon.
The statue was made in France, of bronze, then painted in white. Weighing 20 tons, it was erected on the top of the hill 25km from Beirutand , taking seven sections to get the whole thing together. It's so huge that it provides a startling landmark, 650m above sea level, visible from miles around. Inaugurated in 1908, it's been an attraction for generations of pilgrims since. The name Harissa is drawn from the word Haras, meaning a sharp blade, or sheer edge, in Hebrew and Arabic, a reference to the area's precarious position above the sea.
Lebanon is a mainly Muslim country, with a small Christian minority. Our Lady is a patron saint for the whole country, however, and statues of her proliferate across the countryside, watching over every aspect of Lebanese life. Muslim and Christian pilgrims alike stagger to the top, often crawling on their knees in homage, up the circular staircase which winds its way around the base. It's an amazingly unifying place of ecumenical peace and hope. Flowers are left around it, and people have inscribed messages, prayers, around the top. It even attracted the attention of Pope John Paul II, who visited the shrine on 10th May 1997 and said Mass there.
The base is a massive white stone block. In the base of the statue itself is a small, flower-filled chapel. At the bottom is a basilica where there are regular Masses for the Catholic worshippers to attend. There are a number of other smaller chapels and shrines, with a theme, for example, of reconciliation.
A great cedar tree sits in the middle of the area, offering shade to the visitors. There are also further small shrines, such as this one of.
A gift shop offers both standard tourist wares and religious memorabilia. Items are reasonably priced, and it's a great place to find an unusual memento of your trip.
The site is surrounded by places to represent the different Christian groups in Lebanon: the convent of Charfeh, the see of the Syriac Catholic Patriarchate, the Armenian Catholic Patriarchate, the Paulist Greek Melkite Catholic Fathers, the see of the Apostolic (Roman Catholic) Nuntio, and the Patriarchal Maronite see. With such a collection of religious in the area, it's hardly surprising that such a shrine grew up in their midst.
For visiting the statue itself it would be sensible to go appropriately clothed, and thin white shawls are available to borrow at the entrance. This is a magnificent, poignant site and it seems only fitting that even non-believers should take it seriously on its own terms.
You can get a funicular (cable car) from Jounieh for a fairly small charge. It's known as a the gondola lift, or the Téléphérique (remembering that French is a second language in Lebanon). This is open 10-6 during off peak times, and 10-10 at peak times, and the journey takes just nine minutes (on average). You can also walk, if you have the time. It's not a long distance (a couple of kilometres), and offers you the chance to feel that you've made a real pilgrimage. The views across the mountainous landscape and out to the see are breathtaking too.
Jounieh is easy to reach, with a number of public and private buses passing through on their way too and from Beirut. It's better known for its casinos and hotels, but if you find yourself in the vicinity, do take half a day out to experience this wonderful place.