is good we are doing this in the darkness. We'd never dare,
if we saw what we were doing.'
Styx, Maxwell, Bliss, the Eagle, Dardanelles, La Minaret,
La Pagode, Pantheon, Chaos, Thompson, Crusaders Column, Rapids
de l'enfers, the Tunnel
What am I going on about?
What images do these wild places inspire?
For they are all actual places soon to be seen by me for the
are we doing this? How are we finally being taken by Sami
to see Jiita through his eyes. The only thing I will say at
this point is Sami Karkabi is Jiita. If there is anyone who
knows, lives, breaths, and loves this cave it is he.
couple of months back he had said he wanted to tell us the
history of Jiita. We (Issam and I) told him that it would
so much better to go into Jiita and then he can explain the
history on the ground. He agreed. We couldn't believe it.
Sami Karkabi after a 20 year abscence was entering the lower
gallery of Jiita to spend two days in the cave he helped discover
So this was it.
As simple as that.
were all meeting up at 2pm in the parking lot of Jiita to
enter the cave (For me this was the first time in this area
of Jiita so excited doesn't even begin to explain how I was
We had arrived slightly earlier than Sami as we wanted to
prepare all the bags before we went inside. Sami was also
notoriously known to get very angry if anyone if late.
But true to form we all arrived together! At least we were
on time for once. Sami's reputation precedes him.
had arrived at the parking lot of Jiita Cave in our cars but
the pioneering explorers could only access the cave using
donkeys to carry the supplies down into the valley, a 2.5km
trip that used to take around half an hour. Our boat was made
of an aluminium alloy with a flat hull. In 1873 they used
a few planks of wood tied together and supported on inflatable
goat-skins (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).
After placing all the sacs in the boat we all got in. Marc
was steering at the front, Issam and I were rowing, next sat
Sami and finally Joe, who was steering from the back. A steerer
at the front and one at the back does not make for good steering,
'too many cooks
' came to mind very often. (Last count
there were 13 sacs, four cameras, lots of food, a gallon of
water (Earlier in the week we had gotten the lecture from
Marc that the water in Jiita is contaminated with epoxi-hepi-fluoro-sewage-bacterium-includis-agrevis
no-one ever understands Marc but we didn't want to take the
chance and end up with the previously mentioned disease so
we took our own water
.ever heard of 'Water, water, everywhere
but not a drop to drink?'), 2 writing books, lots of smiles,
and the feeling that something special was happening.)
were finally on our way. The first 400m were the illuminated
tourist section. Lac Thomson, named after the first person
to explore and write about the cave. Here we saw the Screen,
a narrow passage now and where Sami had dynamited the rock
to allow the boats to pass through. Before the dynamiting
the barrier of rock meant that the boats had to carried over
the rock and then replaced into the water. Then came The Tower
of Pisa on the right, a leaning stalagmite, the Weeping Willow
on the left, a beautiful curtain wall, the Flic (The police
roundabout) a protruding rock in the middle of the water.
stopped at the sand mound on the right just after the Flic
and before Maxwell's Column. Sami and Issam photographed,
we modeled, held flashlights and listened to Sami as he explained
1873, W.J Maxwell, an engineer from London commissioned by
the water board entered Jiita with the purpose of studying
the cave to see if the water from the Dog River can be used
to supply water to the city of Beirut. The other men who entered
with him for the exploration were W.G Huxley his second on
the engineering staff, Rev. D Bliss, then president of the
Syrian Protestant College (Later to be the AUB), and R.W.
Brigstocke. Maxwell had read a previous account by a Dr. Thomson,
an american missionary, who, in 1836, had fired a gun into
the cave and judging from the echoes he heard said the cave
must be very big. He had no boat at the time to explore but
he had seen the beautiful concretions at the entrance (With
foresight this a good thing because in his account he states
that he longed for a boat so he can gather the stalactites
and stalagmites, (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990)). He became the
first 'caver' to write an account of a cave in Lebanon. Unknowingly
he had entered the first 50m of Jiita (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).
From the sand mound we were standing on we could see Maxwell's
Column. This gigantic column is a landmark in the cave. I
recognized it from all the old photographs and etchings I
had seen in the Ouatouats. Issam of course found some concretions
that got him all excited. Decalcification seems to get him
all hot and bothered these days.
all got back into the boat and made our way to Maxwell's Column.
Surrounded by sand this pillar is stunning. It is approximately
8m high and seems to stand as a guard to the rest of the cave.
In Maxwell's report he writes that this column was so imposing
and grandiose it stopped their exploration for a while,
' Standing out in bold relief, with fine fluted front and
continued to the rear in a mass of pendent drapery, like a
sheet let down in graceful folds from the roof. The leader
of the party, amid ringing cheers was compelled to allow his
name to be given to the central attraction.' (Al Ouatouat,
From that time on the pillar came to known as Maxwell's Column.
climbed the rocks behind it only to discover a small bottle
placed on top of colonette. We opened the bottle and read
the paper that had been placed inside, 'Christmas 2000, Dr.
Nabil Hadad.' (Dr. Hadad is currently the director of Jiita
cave). Sami didn't like this very much as all the bottles
that had previously been placed in Jiita were placed as a
reward and proof of the explorers' feats in the cave.
the back of the Column lots of plastic bags, metal and light
bulbs were found. A huge plastic sheet covered the electricity
boxes (placed for the lights). On the next sortie into the
cave we have to have a team that cleans up all the rubbish
in the cave.
was wandering through the forest of stalagmites on the slope
next to the column and Sami asked me, 'So do you recognize
this?' I thought and thought and then I recognized the photos.
I had used it many times and here it was in front of my eyes.
I shouted the answer to Sami and he smiled. This game was
to carry on through the entire trip. I loved it. We had reached
'the Minaret' and 'the Pagoda'. Marc was wandering through
the stalactites, Joe was sitting on a rock, I was watching
Sami and Sami was just standing there. What must have been
going through his head? It has been 20 years since he has
been in this cave. He had lived, breathed, explored, slept
for 15 days straight, twice, while he was drawing the map
and exploring. For twenty years this cave was his life and
during the civil war in Lebanon, due to political events,
it had been taken over by someone else to manage. What a feeling.
He was standing now back in the same places. This was a cave
he had told us repeatedly that he would never enter again
and this outing was especially done for us by Sami. But here
he was. I guess when you love something the heart always wins
over the mind.
We left Maxwell's Column to pass through 'The Dardanelles',
a series of water channels between protruding rocks. After
that we arrived at a well known site. The old lira note in
lebanon portayed a part of Jiita. We were sitting now looking
at the real thing. We passed a curtain concretion called the
Medusa, or 'the jellyfish'. The English called it 'the Parachute'.
In this passage we passed the postage stamp (original photo
taken by Manoug) illustration called the 'camel'. Behind the
Medusa, above, lies pockets of red straws. We pass by the
elephant's ear, pipes that are used in the upper gallery surrounded
by fan-like algae.
We stopped at a mound of eboulis. An iron ladder was placed
at the top. It was old, rusted and connected the lower gallery
with the upper one. Here was where they had placed the mat
and gone up to discover the beauty of the upper gallery. Marc
and Joe went up to walk around a bit.
1957 a mat was bought from Grenoble in France. This was used
by Raymond Khawam, in 1958, who went up and placed a rope.
Later George Farra went up but it was finally Kasparian, Sami
Karkabi and Ramond Khawam who went up and reached the upper
gallery some 55m up. They actually climbed 80m upwards and
came down 33m to reach the upper gallery. On the first attempt
they found themselves on the opposite side of what is now
the touristic upper gallery. Then they took ladders and connected
with the other side. President Chehab approved making the
upper gallery touristic from photgraphs taken by Sami. While
they were exploring so many rocks fell below that a boat was
We walked around this area and Issam found some 'eggs' concretions.
There was also some decalcification happening on some calcite.
We are now some 600m into the cave. Marc found an old coin
thrown apparently from the top. Asking Issam to photograph
it didn't go down all that well with Issam. Marc had thought
that the coin was stuck on the calcite but Issam was able
to take it out and later on at the end of the sortie Issam
gave it to Marc who lets put it mildly didn't like the offer
and immediately told on us to Sami. Sami just laughed it off.
My comment of, 'It is not a naturally occurring element in
a cave so it is good we took it out' was met with a hostile
look. Oh well!
Where were they?
We could not find them.
We were then told that was due to the dam that had been built
at the 'entrance'. The water level had gone up and the rapids
And now, the Pantheon.
than a half mile underground we find ourselves in a spacious
cavern, whose roof is lost in the gloom. Under this dome,
standing out clear as alabaster in midst of darkness, is one
of the most beautiful stalagmite formations of the grottoes,
which, from its resemblance to the Pantheon, has been distiguished
by that name (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).
As we rowed we missed the place were we could go up into the
Pantheon. We tried to go up from another place but the rock
was covered with a black slimy coating. Later we found out
that this was manganese oxide. We went back to the proper
de-embarkation point which we new was correct as there was
a mapping point at the top that we found on the map as well.
We explored inside the pantheon and here Sami told us that
we need to map this part of the cave as they had not done
it. We followed the black cable and arrived at a sand plateau.
Here we found Issam..his nose (already very big) stuck in
some rather interesting concretions. Hot and bothered again!
We were, at this point, getting used to it. He photographed
them. We named them at that point the 'delta' and 'recrystalisation'.
There is a small passage that also needs to be explored. Issam
tried to explain this phenomena to Marc who only seemed interested
in peeing and filling his arianne with water. A small fight
ensued over where Marc should pee. In the water or the sand
the sand won
As he was doing this Marc noticed bubbling
in the water. He got all excited that this was a spring but
Issam soon put an end to that saying it was his weight pressurising
air in the sand and it bubbling out under the water. We make
our way around the rest of the Pantheon which doubles back
to the main river. We saw the bottle from the top. Issam and
Joe were photographing it. Issam also photographed some good
looking 'popcorn' here.
We were back in the boat. We passed by Bliss's bottle. This
bottle had been placed at the top of a stalagmite. It is calcified
now and the note inside is unreadable. Explorers of the cave
have tried to shake the bottle loose but to no avail as explained
by E. Thompson on his 1927 expedition.
it (the Pantheon) is an island that rises to a peak, icy in
pallor, and in slipperiness, on whose summit is the bottle
containing the names of the first explorers, placed there
more than fifty years ago. It stands in an incessant rain,
and is now a solid part of the rock; we could not shake it
in the least (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).
The known bottles with notes inside that were placed in Jiita
by the early explorers are:
-Bliss's bottle, Pantheon, 1873
-Bottle (unknown who placed it but probably Maxwell), Pantheon,
-West and Crawford's bottle, Lake Dorothy, 1926
-Thompson's bottle, Thompson's Cavern, 1927
-Sami's bottle, unknown location,
-Gorra, Anavy, Ghanuum, inscription at 2800m (Falaise Karkabi)
As we row we find we are approaching the 'Potern' and what
seems to be a very narrow opening. In fact it is just large
enough to fit the boat. 1.5m wide by 0.5m high from the water.
A semicircle hole in the rockface. Sami said that they had
to blast certain areas to allow the boat to go through. The
tourist boats used to reach here (800m) but they were stopped
due to too much time taken to reach here. The route was decreased
to 300m so that more people could see the cave for less time.
This is where Maxwell and Huxley stopped on their 1873 expedition.
In 1874 they reached 1060m.
.. I mean the place!
1000m into the cave.
had arrived at our bedroom for the night. Chaos is a mountain
of rocks surrounded by beautiful curtains of concretions,
one, the torpedo, was 12m (after a haggling match with Marc),
two sisters (Two identical large, white stalagmites) but what
stood out was a column on the opposite side that was massive,
known as Crusaders Column. We had to carry our equipment up
as we were sleeping in Shangri-la. We took a break hear and
Sami once again started talking.
1892 and 1902 a professor A. E. Day reached the 1000m accompnanied
by a crew from the water works.
In 1923, Odinot reached 400m only researching the source of
In 1925, Dr. Lamarche, Odinot, Delanges and Janvier enter
In 1926, Dr. Lamarche, Brun, Delanges and Janvier reach 1100m,
using a boat made of material.
In 1926 W.A. West and J.P. Crawfard reach 1320, reaching and
naming Lake Dorothy and the 'Tunnel'.
In 1927, E. Thompson, D.H. du Bois, H.Hall, P. W. Ireland
explored the cave using rafts made from 16 benzin tins.
1940, Clan Lyautey, 1060m. Lionel Gorra was not allowed to
enter with them. He was told that he was too young (18) but
it is believed that he was not allowed because he was Lebanese.
1946, L. Gorra, A.Anavy, L.Eid, N. Elnékavé,
1950m - The first Lebanese led expedition. Louis Eid was to
discover Shangri-La. The Lebanese had finally taken back their
cave back from the Americans and the French.
1947, 1949, 1951 all saw Lebanese led expeditions into the
cave. They reached 2800m (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990). The speleological
age of the Lebanese had begun, there was no stopping them
we were transporting the sacs Sami told Issam that he had
no photo of the Crusaders Column (This was thus called because
the 1940 expedition by the French were from the clan 'crusaders').
So Issam went down to check the site out. At this point I
was praying. For what? I hear you ask.
well my prayers
were not answered as a few minutes later I heard Issam's voice
.' Oh well I guess it will be a bit of flash holding
for me and modeling
.so grudgingly I went down and posed
next to the column. The fact that Issam forgot to tell me
when he had taken the shot left me standing still for a good
my scream of 'Haven't you bloody well taken
it yet?' got him out of his trance releasing me from my very
awkward position, one foot on the column and the other on
a rock effectively putting me in a 'splits' position. I was
never one of those flexible women!
seems that Jiita Grottoes has gone through lots of name changes,
from the Grottoes of Nahr el Kalb, Djaita, Jehita, to finally
ending on Jiita (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990). The name change
from Grottoes of Nahr el Kalb to Jiita Grottoes seems to have
happened in 1927 when in newspapers the name Jiita Grottoes
was used. Naher el Kalb was the name of the river that runs
through Jiita Grottoes but the entrance to the cave is an
area called Jiita which means 'roaring water' in aramaic.
So we were all in Shangri-la finally. After a small clamber
to the top of the Chaos's rockfall we found that we can see
the entire room from the top. It was like a balcony overlooking
a landscape. The Crusaders Column was directly in front of
us. The Torpedo concretion was to the left. The beautiful
draperies of Chaos were to the right, and behind us was the
'Jug'. A huge stalagmite shaped like a Lebanese jug. The old
explorers had reached here wearing swimming suits and carrying
candles. To just be standing here knowing all the work Sami
and the others had put into this place made me feel like I
was walking on sacred ground. Marc ofcourse decided to smoke
the cigar Sami had given him on this jug.
it does have this feeling of being holy. Sami also told us
of the dry 1600m upper passage that leads to the Clayton's
Passage which starts from here. Basically it is a passage
that runs on an upper level but on the walls of the lower
To sleep per chance to dream
No such luck!
We settled in for the night. First things first. Candles lit
up the place making it appear to be like a temple. Food. Sahngri-la
turned out to be a 10m by 6m white room undergoing decacification.
The floor was stone much to our distress
.Sami told us
this was the first time anyone had ever slept in Shangri-la.
Marc argued that he would have liked to sleep on sand rather
'Did someone say 'karkabi'?' Sami asked,
'I had no idea what he was talking about until he pointed
to the mess we had made with our stuff. 'Look at the 'karkabi'
in Shangri-la!', he continued. Of course to all foreigners
reading this part, you are not going to get the joke! As the
noodles were cooking we asked Sami what they had eaten on
their expeditions. On short ones dry things were on the menu.
For long expeditions rice, chicken, eggs, stews
had also only allowed one glass of Arak a day for each person.
He told us that he checked all bags that were entering the
cave to see if anyone had brought with him (and I stress him
to be explained) any useless stuff.
What was on our menu?
Curried noodles, salami, jambon, mushrooms, hot dogs, wheat,
bread, a bottle of wine and a cigar for Marc brought by Sami.
All the food was packed and we settled to sleep. All the lights
were switched off and it was so dark I couldn't tell if my
eyes were shut or open. This was the time for thinking. If
I had been born in Sami's time I would not be here. Sami had
told us that he didn't allow women in explorations as they
distract from the work. They only came on 'picnics' sorties.
I am glad things have changed. Issam told Marc to put the
alarm at 5:00am. Wheneveryone had settled in for the night
Issam got his camera out and started photographing us asleep.
Sami shouted at him 'voyeur!'.
Sami wakes us up. Marc had forgotten to put his alarm and
if Sami had not woken up we would have slept even longer.
The joke of the night was that we will wake up when the sunlight
well it was funny at the time and I guess you
had to be there
were making breakfast debating why Shangri-la was called Shangri-la.
Sami said it was 'paradise'. I think he guys had other ideas.
Breakfast consisted of tea, cheese, bread, fruit salad (Isaam,
who else?), croissant and wheat.
We packed all out stuff and placed them back into the boat.
Carrying the dinghies we were on out way. We could hear the
Rapid's d'Enfers also known as Hells Rapids also known as
Huxley and Bridstockes's Rapids
these rapids had stopped
many of the earlier expeditions.
After walking for about 10minutes Issam climbed up to rig
a ladder. I tried to find another way to go up and I did.
Sami didn't like this a lot as he said we were trying to retrace
the old explorer's routes. Issam gave me a 'look'
just thought it would be easier. At the top of the rock we
found old wine bottles from the 1902 expedition. Then we reached
the rapids. Marc went ahead to find the walkway that would
get us past them safely. He found it and we followed. There
was wall walk and then a protruding rock from the rapids was
used as a foot hold and over to the other side, a wall walk
and then another cross over until we reached a deep passage
we here we had to blow the dinghies up and use them. All clear?
Me and Marc had a little race over the wall. He was not impressed
when I got his feet wet! Calling me a little cheat was all
I could hear in the distance as he ate my dust!!!
he also swore unprintable things! Thompson in
1927 had written about this part of the traverse,
lower yourself from ledge to ledge, to a place where you can
stretch one foot to a split rock in mid-water, an inch or
two below the surface. The upper side of the split is firm;
the lower is loose and is better not stepped on. From this
rock you spring across, and then climb. Though never so high
again (Al Ouatouat, No5, 1990).
in this passageway the two inscriptions that were made in
could be found. The first was 1873
the other being '1875
another hundred feet'. These were made by the 1873-1875 expeditions.
dinghies were placed in the water and Issam and Sami went
first so that Issam could rig the second ladder. There was
an old eschelle still dangling and Issam climbed the rockface
(about 2m) and rigged the ladder. The water here is very strong
as we are close to a waterfall. We followed and climbed up
the two meters to a ledge. The dinghies were transported with
us, carrying them over the climb and past the waterfall, Deversoir
Lamarche. We then walked through the 'Tunnel'.
in 1927, had built his rafts inside the cave using tins and
planks of wood they had carried in with them (Al Ouatouat,
Tunnel turned out to be exactly as its name portrays. The
whole of it is an easy walk. It looks much like a deep, straight
canyon. The dinghy, for at this point we only needed one was
used to pass Lake Dorothy. Again this took two goes transporting
Sami and Issam and I first, and then going back to get Joe
and Marc. Lake Dorothy is not really a lake as such. It is
just where the river becomes thicker and deeper.
We had finally landed on the sands that is Thompson's Cavern.
This immense room is massive. After walking for 5 minutes
over rocks and sand beaches we arrive at what is commonly
known as The Eagle Obelisk. This large stalagmite has what
looks like a head of an eagle on its top. We are now at 1700m.
I stood at the bottom of the pillar while Issam photographed
and Marc and Joe held flashes. Sami was wondering between
the rocks and we followed him a few meters behind.
Then we arrived at was to be out final location. The Gours.
These turned our to be the most beautiful Gours with cave
pearls the size of marbles. What a sight
.One by one
we took our shoes off and walked on the wet gours. Joe placed
a bottle here with all our names. Who knows, maybe in one
hundred year some one will find it and wonder. Issam, Joe
and I are the only ones who know what was written on that
note. I hope someday someone reads it and agrees with what
We put our shoes back on and made our way back. Back through
Thompson, The Eagle, Lake Dorothy, The Tunnel, The Inscriptions
(at this point I have to tell you that we didn't actually
see these writings but I am sure we will on later occasions),
The Hell's rapids, The Crusaders Pillar, Chaos, Shagri-la,
Styx, Pantheon, Maxwell's Column, Le Flic, The willows, Lake
P.S. Sami did show Marc where there was a phalic looking stalagmite.
And oh was it! Marc this remains Marc's choice to show you
where it is!
So we were finally back where we started.
It is 2:00pm. Our boat was called Caroserce Abillama. Thank
you for not tipping us into the water.
We carried all our sacs towards the cars. Sami wanted to get
photgraphed under the sculpture that now stands outside he
lower gallery of Jiita. The God of the Cave I presume. So
we take the most touristy photos ever. All smiles and laughter.
We had actually done it without any major mishaps. 2000m upstream
with its history being told. We still have a lot to do. The
history continues. We have how the lebanese expeditions were
made. We have the upper gallery explorations. We have to fully
re-explore the cave. We have to work with Jiita to make this
history and the names that are Jiita known.
I came out of the cave with so many emotions inside me. I
felt that this was something so special. Probably never to
be repeated. Sami promised to take us to the upper gallery
and tell us about that. The next report will contain names
like Anavy, Gorra, Khawam, Kasparian and of course Karkabi.
It will contain places like Cascade Mica, Falaise Karkabi,
Salle Blanche, Salle Rouge, Salle du Dome, Palace of the Thousand
and One Nights, Grand Chaos, I can go on and on
At this point I would like to point out that Sami is 72 years
old. Just a thought to ponder on.
Thank you Issam, for being patient with my endless questions.
Thank you Joe for being so reliable.
Thank you Marc for not asking too many questions.
But most of all thank you Sami for being who you are and loving
caving so much.
Thank you Jiita for still having secrets you want to share
Until next time.