Bell Hunting in Lebanon
Alex Rodriguez Suarez
The project I am undertaking at the Orient-Institut Beirut focuses on bell ringing on Mount Lebanon throughout the centuries; two keywords to define it are religious soundscape and material culture. The former concept refers to an intangible aspect of the Christian faith, the pealing of bells, whose main aim is to regulate the schedule of religious activities in the community. The latter alludes to the percussion instruments rung to produce the pealing and the structures from which these hang, bell towers and bell gables. Written sources provide some details about the religious use of bells in Mount Lebanon; however, the most original part of my research is the study of the actual bells. Because they are found in places that are difficult to access or are deemed unsafe, bells have not received much attention. As a result, their decoration and inscriptions, if they have any, remain invisible to the naked eye. These details may seem irrelevant since the main purpose of bells is to broadcast sonic orders and messages. On the other hand, without this information it is not possible to fully reconstruct their history. In the following lines I relate two field trips that I undertook to examine bells. These took place when the lockdown restrictions were being eased and Lebanese society was slowly stepping into the new normality that has resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic.
I had phoned in advance and I had been told that the church -Mar Abda, in Bikfaya- would be open on Sunday morning for mass. When I arrived, I found its interior full of people. Everyone was wearing a mask. I was shocked and impressed; the fear of the virus did not stop people from gathering to take part in the liturgy. When the priest was about to share the sacramental bread, two assistants provided hand sanitiser to all the attendees. Once the mass was over, one of the assistants led me to the roof of the church, from where one has access to the massive bell gable built over the portico. While I examined the bells, the assistant followed me around. He patiently answered all my questions while he made sure that I would not fall. The church has four bells cast in Beit Chabab, a village located in the Matn district and famous for its bell casting industry. The inscription on one of the instruments informs us that it was cast by David and Elias Naffah in 1903. Another one, undated and decorated with four little crosses, was cast by Najib Naffah. The Naffah family seems to have managed the production of bells in Beit Chabab since the business was established. Its origins are unclear, but they may go back to the eighteenth century. Thus, bell casting in Beit Chabab could be among the older crafts still practised in Lebanon. Its bells are exported to other countries in the Middle East and even Maronite churches in the United States have purchased bells produced in the village. The bronze artefacts symbolise the significant bond between Maronite faith and Mount Lebanon.
Most Lebanese churches ring bells cast in Lebanon; however, there are exceptions. The Evangelical Church of Kfarshima, a town in the Baabda district, has an unusual bell. In the memories of Henry Harris Jessup (1832–1910), an American Presbyterian missionary, we are told that the bell of the church was imported from North America in 1871. He described it as “the largest bell in Syria.” This description and its provenance made me curious and so I decided to see if the instrument was still there. Kfarshima had been shelled during the Lebanese Civil War and I wondered if the bell had survived. I arranged an appointment with the priest of the church and I could not wait to find out about the fate of the instrument. When I arrived I learnt that the church had indeed been hit, but the bell tower was not damaged. Also, because of a technical problem they do not ring the bell anymore. Climbing to the narrow belfry and looking at the instrument was an exciting and risky adventure. At the top there is no platform on which one can stand to examine the bell. Hence, in order not to fall I had to push my back against the wall while I supported my arms on iron beams. I could not handle the camera and so I had to use my phone to take pictures. Dangerous, but definitely worth it. Its inscription records that the bell was cast in New York State in 1870, a year before it arrived in Kfarshima. The origins of the missionaries -for instance, Jessup was born in Pennsylvania- probably account for the American provenance of the bell. Descending from the belfry, full of dust and shaking because of the effort, I had a smile on my face. Having been able to catch sight of an artefact that had not been seen for so many years felt like a great discovery. Like an archeologist uncovering an object that has been buried for centuries.
As it is not always possible to examine the bell(s) of a church or a monastery, whenever I am granted the opportunity to do so, it is a rather special moment. The anticipation grows because one does not know what to expect; it is like when you are about to open a gift, it is a surprise. Usually, only if the instrument is a recent purchase the priest knows details about it. On the other hand, the experience may also be disappointing. Since not all bells show inscriptions, some will remain anonymous and undated, even if their features may reveal that they were cast in Beit Chabab. Oh well, such is research! You do not always find what you are looking for. However, you always learn something along the way.