Jeita Grotto

I went to visit the natural wonders at Jeita grottos yesterday from Beirut.  Jeita is about 18 kilometers north of the Lebanese capital Beirut. It is an extraordinary site which could be one of the wonders of the world but remains an intimate experience. It comprises two interconnecting karstic limestone caves.

A small trip of ropeway takes you to 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 takes the visitors over the river called Nahr al-Kalb, through beautiful natural scenery.

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.

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. Jeita is the longest cave complex in the Middle East; it 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.

There is unique sculpture near the upper cave entrance.

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 via a specially conceived walkway; 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 part accessible by visitors has three huge chambers. 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.

After the visiting the upper cave, we walked down to the entrance of the lower cave.

Road from upper cave to lower cave of Jeita grotto. The track is to help the toy train for visitors to move up.

There is another sculpture – The Guardian of Time at the entrance of the lower cave.

The Guardian of Time

There are many sculptures lying around.

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.

Though inhabited in prehistoric times, the lower cave was not rediscovered until 1836 by Reverend William Thomson.

After many years of exploration, speleologists have penetrated about 6,200 metres (20,300 ft) from the entry point of the lower grotto to the far end of the underground river and about 2,130 metres (6,990 ft) of the upper galleries.

Photography inside the caves is banned. The visitors have to leave their cameras and mobile phones outside before entering the caves.

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.

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).

The Jeita Grotto is a candidate for the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition. It was selected as one of 28 finalists and is the only cave to be selected among the nominees. The New 7 Wonders Foundation is to announce the new wonders of nature in 2011. I have voted for it.

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