It is the oldest church in Maad, it is closed and visitors have to ask for the key at Mrs. Ghalieh Issa’s house. It was built in the 12th century on the foothills above Byblos, with a fine view of the coast. It is the highest hill in Maad after the main hill, and from the north side, it overlooks the Valley of Harba, which was the most important center for monastic life.
The church was dedicated to St. Charbel Al Rahawi or Charbeel “the martyr”, and not for the famous Lebanese St. Charbel. Considered one of the first Christians martyrs, he was a priest coming from the city of Al Raha in Turkey who converted to Christianity with his sister Barabia and was then martyred during the reign of Roman Emperor Decius (236-250), with great and long suffering.
He was beheaded by sword and followed in martyrdom by his sister on September 5. In Syriac, charb is “news” and eel is “God”, so his name means “the news of God”. The original church, which may date to the 6th century, was built on the foundations of a Roman temple, as attested by objects found two meters underground like presses and stone tiles. Many architectural elements and columns originally belonging to the temple are inside the church or scattered around the site.
The church is decorated with Byzantine-style frescos from the pre-Crusader and Crusader eras. Note the two layers of the frescoes representing the Dormition (death) of the Virgin. The Crusader tomb in the church probably belongs to a Frankish lady, Anne Boulanger, who died in 1243. Ernest Renan pointed out the frescos of medieval church. He discovered Greek inscriptions dating to the year 8 BC in the original temple, sent it to Paris, and found that the temple was built by Emperor Septimus Severus between 198 and 211 AD, before his son Marcus Aurelius became Caesar. The key is with Mrs. Ghalyeh Issa (09/ 750 139).
Basilica: central cave + 2 aisles
The columns are unmatched with the temple colonnade section, with 6 reused capitals: 4 ionic, 1 Doric, and 1 reused column base. The others are in the entrance area with Greek inscriptions.
On the right:
An altar for small sacrifices (Roman period), a column base (Roman period), a capital with local face relief (late Roman or early Christian period), a cippe or funeral stella, a stone with an inscription in Greek of Septimus Severus and an inscription of Caracalla, more capitals (late Roman), a mosaic (late Roman or early Christian period), and an altar with a dedication, in Greek, to the master of the universe.
On the left:
A column base, the tomb of Ann Boulanger, a Frankish lady who died in 1243, having remained after the departure of the crusaders, capitals, doric capitals, a column base, and a mosaic (4th century Byzantine).
- Frescos in the church’s apse:
There are seven persons in that painting (one in the middle and three on each side) carrying books with auras over their heads. The person in the middle is surrounded by a red frame that separates him from the other persons. What distinguishes it is that he has a crown with a yellow aura, wearing ecclesiastical clothes, with a white beard, carrying a book in his left hand and blessing with his right hand.
This way of blessing belongs to the Byzantine tradition. The little finger means in Greek “I” which means “Jesus”, the thumb crossing the ring finger forming an “X” while the middle and the index make an “N” which means “the victor”. And so the blessing became: “In the name of Jesus Christ the Victor”. Opinions are conflicted about the identity of the person in the middle, and it is considered one of most mysterious frescos in Lebanon. Possibilities vary from one researcher to another, to be St. John-Maroun or St. Qobrianos (Cyprian), or maybe St. Charbel the martyr or Melchisedek the priest.
And it might be Jesus in the middle surrounded by the two columns of the church, Peter and Paul, and the four evangelists. The first person to Jesus’ right, St. Peter, has his name written in Syriac. The church depicts him with two keys in his hand, one for binding and the other for loosing. The stick with a cross is the shepherd’s staff, the symbol for Christianity entrusted to Peter, who is the Christ’s representative on earth, which is why he is on his right, the closest to him of all.
The person on the left of the Christ is Paul the apostle, with mature features, blessing with his right hand, and holding the book of his letters in the left, one of the most important references for Christians. The two men to Peter’s right side are the evangelists Matthew and John, and the two others to Paul’s left are the evangelists Luke and Mark.
- The frescos of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary:
In the southeastern room, the Virgin Mary laying on her deathbed, her son Jesus in the middle of the icon without the regular light aura, surrounded by two deacons and next to him, in heaven, two angels. One on his right and another on his left, ready to transfer his mother’s soul to his hands like a swaddled baby.
The apostles surround Mary’s body in a half circle: Peter is the closest to her head, Paul kneeling at her feet, and John the beloved disciple tending to her heart. On the top row of the west side, we see Philip, “the non-bearded young man”, with Jacob by his side.
Under him we see Luke, depicted with short hair, and by his side an unknown apostle wiping away his tears. The ornate bishop with formal church dress, not sharing the apostles’ grief, is not precisely defined. On the other side, we see Thomas and Bartholomew, one not identified, and of the other, all that is left is part of his aureole.
In the bottom of the painting, we see the Jewish Jevanios, whom St. Michael prevents from dropping the Virgin’s body from the loading. We notice the yellow color on his clothes, the color of money, that were given by the Jews to Judas, to deliver Jesus to them, and behind him, we see the painting’s donor kneeling respectfully and praying.
The North wall: It has a small hole with on both sides a drawing for two persons: a saint with a cross in her hand, and a bishop, a saint with a crown, appears on his knees with two hands supplicating to him. Under the hole, between the saints, is a bearded man, the painting’s donor, kneeling, opening his hands for offerings. Above the hole, the drawings are covered by deposits, and the only one remaining the drawing of an angel with white clothes, holding in one hand a shaft, and in the other a ball with the Christ drawn on. Relics of St. Charbel the martyr were kept in this hole.