Emm Youssef tosses a piece of flattened dough in the air and slams it onto the saj, an open-topped, concave oven. The delicate aroma of sumac and thyme tickles my appetite as she mixes herbs and spices with olive oil to baste the flatbread. “Wallahi” she exclaims, “By God, these Israelis still try to claim it as their own! Just like the Hommous! But this is where Jesus performed his first miracle, at the wedding here in Qana.”
I smile and nod, the rows between the Lebanese and Israelis run so deep, there are even tensions over who secured the Guinness record for the world’s largest hommous plate - the Lebanese have held the title since 2009. Now, scholars are touting an Israeli village, Kafr Kanna or Kenet El Jelil as the location of a wedding where Jesus turned water into wine. The fact that Emm Youssef lost her eldest son, Youssef, in the Israeli Defense Force shelling of Qana in 1996 only adds to the firmness of her position.
If Lebanon’s trees could talk, they would probably rule out the debate over whether Jesus actually did perform his first miracle here. Centuries-old pine trees stand tall in the jagged mountains. Deeply rooted within the land, they personify the village’s resilience through a turbulent history of conquests and wars. Cozily nestled amidst a blanket of trees and dotted by red tile rooftops, this is Qana, ‘the nest’.
Hassan, our young guide, went scampering down the slippery footpath of the hill, while it took all our concentration to ensure we didn’t accidentally slip and enter the pilgrimage site in a great tumble. The melodious chanting of a Mu’azzin, calling believers to prayer from a nearby mosque breaks our focus. Despite being a venerated Christian pilgrimage site, the majority of Qana’s population is Shiite Muslim. Hassan and his family opportunistically embraced an influx of Christian tourists to his village, bringing about business in one of the most remote areas of the country. But not all were happy when scholars announced evidence to support Qana’s case as the undisputed site of Jesus’ miracle. “Anyone who turns water to wine is an infidel,” Hassan told us, “alcohol is forbidden in Islam and why would the prophet Issa (Jesus, as denoted in Islam), turn perfectly good drinking water into wine?”
From the heart of a hill gape several imposing stone basins. With a capacity of 120 liters each, these structures would have managed to quench the whole village and ensured unrelenting merriment for the biblical wedding party. Subterranean water streams carved these enclaves over millennia and still naturally cool them. As we take a sip of that sweet cold water, even we begin to share the villagers’ belief that these gushing springs of water, filtered by layers of mountainous strata, really do have healing powers.
Given the controversial nature of the site, soldiers use the surrounding caves as barracks, sleeping on cots in true biblical form. Sadly, the damage is already done; defacement and graffiti deprive the surrounding from a sense of reverence and little more than contours are left of the 13 carvings depicting Christ and his disciples.
Qana El Jalil is not like Lourdes or Fatima where amphitheater cathedrals demand attention and worship. The small village church on a hilltop fits 20 at most and I join Abouna Boutrous, the local priest, as he rallies the village youth to help patch up a leak in the roof before winter. Over a coffee break, served in ceramic, espresso-sized ‘chaffè’ cups, young boys take turns at ringing the old brass bell, a contest of strength that fills the air with a joyful cacophony.
Regardless of whether Jesus did perform his first miracle here, the village exudes a spiritual serenity not found in more prominent pilgrimage sites. One could almost imagine a dove with an olive branch in her mouth coasting in the cloudless sky, blanketing the village with a sense of peace that belies its turbulent past. I gaze at the expanses of olive groves beneath the hill. Children still scale the trees to shake olives onto rugs and donkey-powered mills grind them into oil, the consequence of years of wars and government neglect. But I rather find comfort in Qana, where the bulldozer of modernity has defaced neither its people nor its nature.