Exploring the hidden treasures of Hermel is a treat best enjoyed by early risers. Nestled in the northeast of the Bekaa Valley, less than fifteen kilometers from the Syrian border, Hermel is a nearly three-hour drive from Beirut. On the road, it is highly recommended to stop and enjoy a tannour man’oucheh, a flat bread usually baked in clay ovens found in most traditional houses around Hermel, to fuel you with the energy needed to explore and take in the village’s charms. Choose the kechek filling when ordering your man’oucheh, a dried cheese made with fermented yogurt mixed with bourghul, one of the area’s culinary specialties.
Hermel's mysterious Qamoua, a massive carved stone tower with its pyramids and rectangles, is visible from afar. Today, it serves to announce your arrival to the village, just as it did centuries ago, when it served as a landmark for trading caravans, and for the disciples of St. Maron, who fled Apamea in Syria after his death in 410.
There are several accounts regarding Qamoua’s origins. The most far-fetched story suggests that this 27-meter structure was built by Ramses II after his self-proclaimed victory over the Hittites during the Battle of Qadesh (near modern day Hermel) in 1274 BC. Others believe the construction took place much later, around the year 332 BC on the order of Alexander the Great after he consolidated his control over the whole of ancient Phoenicia, while others think it was a mausoleum for a Syrian prince of the 1st or 2nd century BC.
One thing is certain, though: the structure was restored in 1931 under the French Mandate, leaving a difference in hue between the original stones and those added during the restoration. The inscriptions, hunting scenes are still visible on three of the structure’s four facades, were also cleaned during this period. However, with no conservation measures in the intervening years, the monument has been vandalized and is now covered by all sorts of graffiti.
This historic site offers the best vantage point to observe the village of Hermel. Beyond the lazzab, the thousand-year-old junipers, symbols of this oasis in the middle of this desertic plain, one can see the Assi river, the name of which means ‘rebel’ in Arabic, flowing in in the village. Generous and certainly rebellious, this body of water with its powerful flow attracts both nature lovers and history enthusiasts.
The Assi originates in Ain ez-Zarqa, near the entrance of the village, before it makes its way into Syria, through Homs and Hama, it then crosses over to Antioch in Turkey, towards Lake Ammiq, before ultimately reaching the Mediterranean. Graceful, pure and cool, the river’s water is always drinkable when collected at the source. It is certainly for this reason that Zenobia, the queen of Palmyra, is said to have built a 90-kilometer channel, more than 35 meters deep, in order to bring water from the Assi’s source to Palmyra during her brief reign (267-373).
The first monastery in Lebanon
Two centuries later, the disciples of Saint Maron took refuge in a cave, invisible from the outside, and transformed it into the first Maronite monastery in Lebanon. They dug a well, 90 meters deep, to draw from the water of the Assi. The well, which still exists, is currently being restored, along with the entire three-story cave, after the maronite patriarchate managed to reclaim the land following decades of legal disputes with prominent figures from Hermel, then with the State. Mass is held at the site every Sunday morning, a tradition that started about a year ago.
If difficult to visit all of the village’s archaeological and historical sites in one day, Hermel offers a relaxing setting to reconnect with nature and experience a quieter life, including taking refuge in the surrounding hills. The village is also the perfect spot for lovers of ecotourism and canoeing. All along the river, restaurants and ecolodges offer activities for children and adults. The village has recently been hosting youth and student groups who come to enjoy canoeing, zip lining, camping and bonfires.
Lovers of nature and history can round out their visit with a sumptuous meal on the banks of the Assi. Most of the many riverside restaurants offer trout dishes with various sauces : a must when in the village. And as a dessert, one can enjoy seasonal fruits, such as watermelons, cherries or apricots picked directly from the village’s orchards. A real treat!
Fact sheet :
Population : 65,000 residents in the area under the jurisdiction of the municipality of Hermel, both in summer and winter.
Mayor : Sobhi Sakr
Prominent figures from the village : former Speaker of the House Sabri Hamade (1902-1976), who held this post several times between 1943 and 1970; the former president of the Union of Lebanese Press Editors and journalist Riad Taha, born in 1927 in Hermel.
Accommodation options : The Oronte Club offers a choice between private cabins or tents, including a large tent that can accommodate groups of twenty people (70-802748); the Lazord Hotel (3 stars), has a swimming pool, a restaurant and a playground for children (03-686747). There are also several ecolodges in the Hermel Jurd: al-Kwakh Ecolodge (03-454996 / 70-359659); al-Jord (03-458702 / 03-958094); Lazzab Club and Lodge (03-797569 / 71-146915)
Restaurants : several restaurants overlook the Assi River and all are famed for their freshly caught trout: al-Gandoul (76-715129 / 03-617737); Samaket el-Truite (08-200874 / 03-883024); Rawdet el-Assi (03-723933); Rotana (03-357602). The only restaurant offering alcoholic beverages is Jaziret el-Ferdaous (03-988114 / 08-200685). At the source of the Assi, the restaurant Nabeh el-Assi (70-097984) offers visitors the choice of an à la carte menu or the ability to rent tables and barbecues, allowing guests to bring their own food.
Culinary specialties : kechek, the dried cheese made from fermented yogurt mixed with bourghul is one of Hermel's best-known specialties, as is makdous, which consists of small eggplants stuffed with nuts, garlic and chilli, which are then pickled. Tannour bread is also a specialty of Hermel. As for traditional dishes not easily found in restaurants, Hermel is best known for dfin, a mixture of bourghul with chickpeas, and for kecheck aa lahme, meat cooked in kechek.
Activities : religious, cultural and sports tourism: rafting and kayaking, hiking (organized in particular by Vamos Todos 09-635145, www.vamos-todos.com), zip lining.
Altitude : 700 meters.
Climate : semi-arid; it is very cold in winter, and very hot in summer due to a hot and dry wind.
Not to be missed
* The Hermel Pyramid (Qamoua), 6 kilometers south of the village.
* The Monastery of St. Maron, a cave where the disciples of the Syriac priest found refuge in the fifth century. Mass is held there every Sunday.
* The Assi river: Enjoy rafting activities, a spring of flowing blue, fresh drinking water, and delicious trout. With a stay at club l’Oronte ($70 per person) you will be entitled to full board service, an overnight stay, a morning of canoeing and an evening around the bonfire.
* The ruins of the Byzantine church and the inscriptions of Nebuchadnezzar in Brissa.
* The falls of Dardara and Hira.
* The mill of al-Amriya, an architectural masterpiece at the Syrian border.
How to get there
From Beirut, take the Damascus highway towards Zahle, once at Zahle take the Baalbeck road, then the Ras Baalbeck-Hermel road. It takes two and a half hours to three hours to reach Hermel from Beirut.