People are not the only species that have enjoyed Beirut’s celebrated nightlife. Bats have flocked to Jeita Grotto, just 11 miles north of Beirut, since prehistoric times. You won’t spot any today, but Lebanon’s longest cave system is so artistically lit, the caverns oddly resemble a trendy nightclub.
This short trip from cosmopolitan Beirut is a welcome descent into nature: the pervasive drip and sudden gush from an underground river, and passageways that open to magnificent cathedral rooms that flow with shapes and color.
Jeita is actually two cave systems, an upper cave nearly 7,000 feet long (about 2,500 feet is accessible) and 200 feet below – the lower cave with an underground river and lake.
The upper cave is laid with a concrete walkway which opens to large chambers dripping with draperies of dissolved limestone, created over millions of years.
The chambers reach nearly 400 feet high, and contain the world’s longest stalactite, which measures 27 feet.
A boat trip through Jeita’s lower cave
Electric boats ferry passengers through the lower cave’s river and lakes. About 1,600 feet are accessible by boat. The cave is closed in winter when the water level is high. But even in summer months you may need to duck – the jagged ceilings can be low.
The lower river and cave was discovered in 1836 by Reverend William Thomson, an American missionary. The cave’s river (Nahr al-Kalb) that sources near the grotto from a spring, is Beirut’s primary water supply.
Jeita means “roaring water” in Aramaic, and is also the name of the town where the grotto is located.
Both caverns closed in 1978 after the start of Lebanon’s civil war, as the tunnels filled with munitions. The system re-opened as a tourist attraction in 1995.
At the end of the lower grotto: a hellish view
The walk through the upper grotto, which originally opened in 1956, leads to an end barrier with an astounding overlook: a golden, back-lit craggy ridge in the far distance. Just beneath that, a spiraling rocky mouth reveals caves within caves that open and descend.
It’s a scene straight from Gustave Dore’s drawings of Dante’s Inferno. The awe-inspiring view is hypnotic and somewhat unsettling. Head back the way you came. Any further exploration could lead you into perdition.
There are no direct flights to Beirut from the U.S. Turkish Airlines can route you, however, with a direct flight from Istanbul to Beirut via Middle Eastern Airlines.
Turkish Airlines also has new non-stop service from Los Angeles to Istanbul.
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