In 1836, American missionary Reverend William Thomson was poking around in a cave in Lebanon when he happened upon an underground river. Intrigued by the find and suspecting the cave held more to be discovered, Thomson—in remarkably American fashion—pulled out his gun and squeezed off a shot to aurally investigate further. The resulting echo made him believe he’d happened upon something rather impressive. He wasn’t wrong.
Jeita Grotto (Arabic: مغارة جعيتا) is a spectacular underground system consisting of two separate cave systems intertwined with one other, with a total astounding length of 5.6 miles (9 kilometers), making it the longest cave system in the Middle East. The Lower Cave is home to an underground river some 3.9 miles (6.2 kilometers) long, while the Upper Cave features innumerable dazzling rock formations including one of the largest hanging stalactites in the world, measuring 27 feet (8.2 meters).
It is more accurate to say that Thomson rediscovered Jeita Grotto, as various chambers were inhabited during prehistoric times, and the remains of an ancient foundry in an exterior portion of the Lower Cave suggest that it was used for swordsmithing in antiquity. Today the subterranean river that flows through it forms the headwaters of Nahr al-Kalb, a river that provides fresh water to over one million people in Beirut.
The Lower Cave was opened to the public in 1958, at which time the previously unknown Upper Cave was also discovered. Visitor access to the Upper Cave commenced in 1969 with an inauguration ceremony featuring an electronic music concert by François Bayle. The Lebanese Civil War led to the closure of Jeita Grotto in 1978, as the tunnels were being used to store ammunition. Treasured as one of the national symbols of Lebanon, the site was reopened to the public in 1995.
Today, visitors can tour three chambers in the Upper Cave via platforms and raised walkways that permit exploration without disturbing the natural landscape. The Lower Cave can only be toured by boat. The annual swelling of the river leaves the Lower Cave unnavigable and thus closed to visitors in the winter.
Know Before You Go
Grab a coat or something to keep warm! Summers in Lebanon may be hot, but the grotto sure isn't. Best route is the scenic route through the mountains in the cable car.