Jeita grotto, a monumental underground karstic wonderland and also the water source for over a million citizens of Beirut, is about 18 kilometers north of the Lebanese capital. It is an extraordinary site which could be one of the wonders of the world but remains an intimate experience. It is a system of two separate, but interconnected, karstic limestone caves spanning an overall length of nearly 9 kilometres, making it the longest cave system in the Middle East. The Lower Cave is home to an underground river some 6.2 kilometers long, while the Upper Cave features innumerable dazzling rock formations including one of the largest hanging stalactites in the world, measuring 8.2 metres (27 feet).
We left our car in the parking area, then purchased entry and parking tickets from the ticket office at the base of the complex. The ticket price includes the toy train and cable-car rides, grotto entrance and a 20-minute video presentation about the caves. From here the fun began with a short ride up the mountain in one of four Austrian cable cars.
We took a small trip of ropeway to access the upper region, just outside the entrance of the upper cave. There is a small train also that takes the visitors to the upper cave. The gondola took us over the river called Nahr al-Kalb (or Dog River), through beautiful natural scenery.
Though inhabited in prehistoric times, the lower cave was not rediscovered until 1836 by Reverend William Thomson. The Jeita caves are solutional karst caves which have formed over millions of years due to the dissolution of limestone. The limestone is dissolved by carbonic acid charged rain water and groundwater; when the limestone, which is originally waterproof, contains cracks produced by tectonic forces the water oozes into the rock and starts to widen the cracks and solute caves inside the layers.
Intrigued by the find and suspecting the cave held more to be discovered, Thomson — in remarkably American fashion — pulled out his gun and squeezed off a shot to aurally investigate further. The resulting echo made him believe he’d happened upon something rather impressive. He wasn’t wrong.
The Jeita grotto is located within the Lower-Middle Jurassic strata of Keserouane which has a stratigraphic thickness of 1,000 metres (3,300 ft) and consists of dolostone and micritic limestone. At the Nahr al-Kalb valley, the impervious Upper Jurassic volcanic rocks and Lower Cretaceous sand slant almost vertically forming a hydrogeological barrier and forcing the outlet of the Jeita underground river to the surface.
Jeita, the longest cave complex in the Middle East, sits at 300 metres (980 ft) above sea level and has a height difference of 305 metres (1,001 ft). Geologically, the caves provide a tunnel or escape route for the underground river, which is the principal source of Nahr al-Kalb, a river that provides fresh water to over one million people in Beirut.
The Lower Cave was opened to the public in 1958, at which time the previously unknown Upper Cave was also discovered. Visitor access to the Upper Cave commenced in 1969 with an inauguration ceremony featuring an electronic music concert by François Bayle.
Visitors can tour three chambers in the Upper Cave via platforms and raised walkways that permit exploration without disturbing the natural landscape. The Lower Cave can only be toured by boat.
THE UPPER CAVE
The Jeita upper cave has an overall length of 2,130 metres (6,990 ft) of which only 750 metres (2,460 ft) are accessible to visitors; access to the remainder of the cave was restricted to prevent ecological damage which may occur due to the flocking tourists.
The upper cave contains a great concentration of a variety of crystallized formations such as stalactites, stalagmites, columns, mushrooms, ponds, curtains and draperies.
The grotto has strategically positioned coloured lights that showcase the stalactites and stalagmites in all their crystalline glory.
The first is called White Chamber, the second Red Chamber, due to the colour of the formations. White dripstones are pure calcite without defilement, the red colour is given by iron oxide (rust) in small amounts. In Lebanon iron oxide has a red colour instead of the brown beige colour which is common in northern countries. The reason is a different chemical reaction caused by the high temperature which produces a different kind of iron oxide. The White Chamber is medium-sized, but has the most impressive formations of the cave.
The Red Chamber is up to 106 metres (348 ft) high, and 30 metres (98 ft) to 50 metres (160 ft) wide. The third chamber is the biggest of all three chambers and has a height of more than 120 metres (390 ft). The longest stalactite in the world is located in Jeita’s White Chamber; it measures 8.2 metres (27 ft) long.
THE LOWER CAVE
After the visiting the upper cave, we preferred to walk down to the entrance of the lower cave enjoying the natural beauty.
One of the most enormous and attractive statue found in Lebanon is placed at the entrance of the lower grotto and is called “Guardian of time” heightening 6.6 m and weighting 65 tons.
I asked The Guardian of Time: “What time is it?” And he said: “You still have enough time to enjoy.” There are many statues lying around outside the lower cave.
The lower gallery which has an overall length of 6,200 metres (20,300 ft) is located 60 metres (200 ft) below the upper gallery. It is traversed by a smooth underwater river and a lake (the “Dark Lake”). The river is broken up by several small cataracts and rapids.
The lower cave’s “Thompson’s Cavern”, is a massive hall with impressive speleothems such as the Eagle Obelisk stalagmite. Other halls in the lower gallery include the Pantheon, Grand Chaos and Shangri-la.
To see the lower cave, we took a boat on the crystal-clear underground river, which feels like a fairytale — there is no scale of time or space. It is another territory, a parallel one, similar to the one we seek in art and cinema. I knew I was underground but feel I was also floating in space.
In 2002, then French President Jacques Chirac, the United Nations World Tourism Organization and the World Bank accorded the top Sustainable Development in Tourism prize to MAPAS (the company that manages the site).
Few caverns in the world approach the astounding wealth or the extent of those of Jeita. It’s a popular recreational show cave and a major tourist attraction in Lebanon. It was one of top 14 finalists in the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition.
N.B. There’s no photography allowed inside the caverns. We stowed our camera and mobile phones in lockers placed at the mouth of the caverns. I could not take pictures and hence posted the images of interior of caverns from internet.