Hasbaya citadel of the Chehabs and the Wadi Taym
The Wadi Taym is a long fertile valley running parallel
to the western foot of Mount Hermon. Watered by the
Hasbani river, the low hills of Wadi Taym are covered
with rows of silver-green olive trees, its most important
source of income. Villagers also produce honey, grapes,
figs, prickly pears, pine nuts and other fruit.
Mount Hermon, 2814 meters high, is a unifying presence
throughout the Wadi Taym. This imposing mountain held
great religious significance for the Canaanites and
Phoenicians, who called it the seat of the All High.
The Romans, recognizing it as a holy site, built many
temples on its slopes. The Old Testament refers to
it as “Baal – Hermon,” while in the New Testament
the mountain is the site of the transfiguration of
A Historic Site
Hasbaya, the capital of the Wadi Taym, is an attractive
town full of history. A good deal of this history
transpired at the huge citadel that is today Hasbaya’s
chief claim to fame. Owned by the Chehab emirs, the
citadel forms the major part of a Chehabi compound
– a group of buildings surrounding an unpaved central
square 150 meters long and 100 meters wide. Several
medieval houses and a mosque make up the rest of the
compound, which covers a total of 20,000 square meters.
The citadel is situated on a hill overlooking a river
which encircles it from the north.
A site steeped in mystery, the citadel is so old its
origins are uncertain and so big that even today no
one is sure how many rooms it contains. The known
history of the structure begins with the Crusaders,
but it may go back even earlier to an Arab fortification
or a Roman building. Won by the Chehabs from the Crusaders
in 1170, the fortress was rebuilt by its new owners.
Since then it has been burned many times in battle
and was often the scene of bloody conflict. Most recently,
it was struck by rockets during the Israeli occupation
of South Lebanon (1978 - 2000).
Amazingly, for almost all of the eight centuries since
it fell to the Chehabs, the citadel has been occupied
by members of this same family. Today actual ownership
is shared by some fifty branches of the family, some
of whom live there permanently.
A number of attempts have been made to repair the
old castle, which has deteriorated over the centuries.
Unfortunately, the Lebanese war and the Israeli occupation
have prevented serious restoration from going ahead.
Today, however, the citadel is the object of a concerted
campaign to preserve and restore it.
Although privately owned, the citadel is listed as
a Historic Site by the Lebanese General Directorate
of Antiquities, which is responsible for its maintenance.
Visiting the Citadel
The building consists of three floors above ground
and three subterranean floors. Constructed in stages,
often damaged and rebuilt, today the sprawling structure
incorporate a mix of styles, building techniques and
states of repair.
The tower in the southwest corner and the eastern
wall-both visible from the third floor – are easily
identifiable as Crusader. Other medieval elements
are arrow slit windows and machicolations-small openings
through which hot oil or missiles were dropped on
the enemy. Despite its primary function as a fortress,
the castle also possesses many graceful architectural
features such as slender columns and arched windows.
Entrance and First Courtyard
Wide steps lead to the main entrance, where the original
Crusader door still swings smoothly on 800 year old
hinges. Four meters wide and three meters high, the
passage allowed horsemen to enter the castle without
Stone lions, a heraldic emblem of the Chehab family,
decorate the wall on either side of the arched portal.
Two large lions are depicted in chains, each beside
a weak, unchained rabbit. A set of smaller lions appears
within the arch above the doorway and just below that
is a plaque in Arabic commemorating an addition to
the castle made in the year 1009 Hejira by Emir Ali
Chehab - some 400 years ago.
Once through the portal, you enter a huge stone-paved
courtyard surrounded by castle walls 1.5 meters thick.
In addition to the attractive windows, old balconies
and staircases, the courtyard has four main points
of interest: a limited view of the dungeons, two important
arched entrances and a wing once occupied by the Pasha
In a corner to the right the main entry gate is the
only glimpse the modern visitor will get of the dungeons.
Through a break in the wall one can look down on the
room where the ruler of the citadel once sheltered.
If necessary, he could escape from here through special
tunnels: one leading to the Abu Djaj River north of
the castle, and the other to the mosque.
Now closed off by the Lebanese Directorate General
of Antiquities, the three subterranean floors posses
their own dark history. Crusaders buried their dead
here and prisoners were kept in its dungeons. During
the citadel’s heyday the lower floors were also used
to store water and other suppliers, as well as to
At the far end of the courtyard is a wine arched opening
set in a wall of alternating black and white stone.
This was the entrance of the “diwan” or salon of Sitt
Chams, wife of Bechir Chehab II, governor of Mount
Lebanon between 1788 and 1840. To the left of the
diwan is the wing occupied by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt
during his campaign against the Ottomans in 1838.
Another, higher entrance, in a wall of yellow and
white stone, once gave onto a Crusader church, which
was long ago destroyed.
The rooms surrounding the lower courtyard, including
what was once the stables are now used for storage.
The Second Floor
Stairs lead to the second floor and a courtyard with
a small, tiled pool at its center. A splendid room
just off the courtyard is interesting for its painted
walls decorated with delicate carvings. Although faded
with age, it is possible to make out the fleur de
lys and star symbols of the French Bourbon kings who
ruled during the Crusader period. Similar Bourbon
remnants can be seen in the carvings around an arch
in the courtyard. This floor, as well as the third,
contains apartments of the families who still live
on the premises.
The Third Floor
The third floor, added by the Chehabs in the 19th
century, also features a courtyard and pool. Typical
Mamluke and Ottoman style squinches or honeycomb decorations,
are set above the entrance, and below that is a seal
with an inscription praising additions made by Emir
Mohammed to the citadel. One wall features elegant
stonework, some of which was removed from the lower
floors. Two of the Italianate marble columns are reportedly
hollow, a device used to detect the sound of approaching
From this level you can enter the Crusader tower,
and if you dare, climb its very narrow winding staircase.
This is also a good place to view the town around
the citadel, including some of the Chehabi compound.
Of these, the mosque is the most important. Dating
to the 12th century, its hexagonal minaret is decorated
with colored stones. A modern addition stands beside
the old mosque.
The Chehabs, Hasbaya and the Wadi Taym
The Chehabs, who trace their lineage back to Qoraish
tribe of the Prophet Mohammad, were made princes by
the first Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Saddiq, in the year
636 AD. Since then, their lands and titles have passed
on from father to son. Their ancestor, Malik, of the
Makhzoum clan, fought in the battle of Yarmouk that
gave Syria to the Arabs. The Chehabs also fought victoriously
in the battles for Damascus against the forces of
the Byzantine Empire in 633 AD.
The clan remained in Syira’s Hauran district for some
600 years until 1170. In that year they moved into
the Wadi Taym to fight against the Crusaders in Rashaya
as part of a 20,000 strong army headed by the Chehabi
Emir Mounkez. The campaign was a success. The Crusaders
were driven from Rashaya to their fortress in Hasbaya
where the besieging army continued its attack. Within
ten days the Chehabi forces had taken the castle,
a victory that marked the entrance of the family into
Lebanon and the Wadi Taym.
The victors repaired and rebuilt the former Crusader
citadel to suit their needs, and for the next 700
years the Chehabs used it as a base to rule the area.
In the process, they formed political and military
alliances with the Maani princes, who were the Druze
rulers of Mount Lebanon. This long-term association
laid the foundations for the creation of an independent
and unified Lebanon. The
Chehabs and the forces of Maani Prince Fakhreddine
fought together in 1623 during the battle of Anjar
to defeat the Ottomans and their Yemeni allies. Some
ten years later the Ottomans banished the Chehabs
to Aleppo where they spent six years in exile. But
in 1697 the princes returned and became the rulers
of Mount Lebanon after the death of Ahmed Maan. The
Chehabs remained in power for nearly 150 years until
abolition of the monarchy in 1841. Bechir Chehab II,
who became governor in 1788, was the greatest of the
Chehabi rulers and it was he who constructed the palace
Given the history of the Citadel it is not surprising
that its residents spent a lot of time planning military
campaigns and ensuring the defense of their town and
lands. Even the main entertainments of those times,
equestrian tournaments and hunting, were related to
the military life.
Every Friday equestrian, jousting, archery and fencing
competitions took place in the big square near the
castle. Part of this popular spectacle was the emir's
magnificent horses, which on special occasions were
adorned with lavish caparisons and other decorations.
Hunting took place in the rural areas around Hasbaya,
especially Chouwayya in the foothills of Mount Hermon.
Each hunter had his own black hawk and an attendant
to prepare the hawk's food and see to its well-being.
When the chase was over, participants were often invited
to one of the emir's hunting lodges for a meal and
Roman Temple at Hebbariyyeh
In Hebbariyyeh village look for a Roman temple on
the left of the main road. The temple originally had
two columns supporting the pediment, but today only
the bases remain. Some of the walls are preserved
to a height of 8 meters, and an Ionic corner pilaster
and the cornice of the south wall still survive. Inside
are two statuary niches with an inverted seashell
motif. Above the upper niche is a six-line dedicatory
inscription in Greek.
Souk El Khan
The ruins of a caravansary or "khan" built
in 1350 by Emir Abou Bakr Chehab stand near Hebbariyyeh.
This is where Ali, son of Fakhereddine Maan, is said
to have been killed. In the remains of this once busy
caravansary a popular open market known as the "Souk
el Khan" is held every Tuesday.
Rachaya El Foukhar
Rachaya el Foukhar is a pretty village on the slopes
of Mount Hermon. Its name means "Rashaya of the
Pottery" and today two workshop are still operating
here. Kilns are only busy in the summer months, but
the pottery is available for sale throughout the year.
Among the designs on offer are "douaks"
or spouted water jars with geometric designs, which
are used to assure ready supply cool water. Another
popular item is the "magic pitcher". Water
is poured in from a hole in the bottom and in the
opening at the top, but only comes out from the spout.
In the environs of Hasbaya is Khalwat el-Bayada, the
principle sanctuary of the Druzes. It consists of
some 40 hermitages of Khalwat where thousands of initiates
come each Thursday on spiritual retreats. As a courtesy,
visitors should request permission from the resident
sheikh before venturing around the site. Women are
asked to cover their heads with scarves.
A large circular stone bench shaded by beautiful oak
trees is known as the "Areopagus of the Elders".
If you stand in the middle of the circle (first removing
your shoes as custom requires) and speak out loud,
you will hear an uncanny simultaneous echo.
Look for two old wells in front of the main hermitage.
Years of raising and lowering buckets on heavy chains
have worn deep grooves into the rounded stone lips
of these wells. Views from here and around the whole
area are spectacular, with the massive slopes of Mt.
Hermon always in sight.
Amenities: A pleasant hotel with a swimming pool is
located in Ibel Saqi near Hasbaya. Several restaurants
on the picturesque Hasbani river serve good Lebanese
food including fresh fish.
citadel of the Chehabs: >> View
Movie << (2009-10-15)