Thursday, 24 May 2018
The Qerban from Khenshara

History of Noble Bread

There are picturesque places in Lebanon that live to the rhythm of their religious feasts. At Khenshara Al Jwar in the Metn district the holy feasts are sacred, and during them processions and masses are held in the utmost solemnity. The Qerban is the bread which villagers prepare on and off religious feasts.

The village is known as the place where the best Qerban is made in Lebanon. Its name means fern the plant that grows in the shade of its humid terraces. During such festive times, you see Khenshara four bakeries working around the clock to fulfill clients’ orders. Since early morning hours, baking scents fill the village air. Being its main component, the orange blossom water’s pungent smell combined with Miskeh - Arabic gum - and aromatic Mahlab tickles the nose. The craving to stop at any bakery and get some Qerban is irresistible! Easter Sunday is approaching and workers at the bakeries follow a ritual of gesture to make the perfect Qerban. Mixing the ingredients, kneading the dough, leaving it to rest and shaping it into round flat breads are all accompanied with generous sprinkles of flour at every step.
At the village souk is an old bakery established since the early 1960’s. A flourishing business ran today by Ghassan and Hanna Mansour Riashee. The atmosphere seems mystical: the workers dressed in grey uniform are covered by a haze of white dust created by their generous pinches of flour over the dough. On a wood board the dough is then slid inside the stone oven. Seconds later, it will come out golden and fluffy.
It’s said that the Qerban is round like the sun of Justice, in reference to Jesus Christ, that has no beginning and no end. Before the Qerban is baked, it’s sealed in the middle with a special imprint engraved with the Greek inscription IC, XC / S / NIKA meaning Jesus Christ Savior / Victorious. Or five holes are made symbolizing the five wounds that Christ had on the cross. When trying to trace back in time the history of Qerban in Khenshara, it seems that the first bakery the village had goes back to World War I when Najib Riachee went to Zahleh in the Bekaa to learn the art of baking. Today, his son Joseph is settled in Mrooj a nearby village and perpetuates his father's­­­ métier.
But the history of the Qerban is tightly related with the history of Saint John the Baptist Monastery. It’s perched on huge rocks embracing a valley that Abouna Sharbel, the oenologist father, has been transforming into a rich vineyard by planting French grape varieties. An old restored 17th century grape press is found in the vicinity near Beit Aayal spring. Huge wine amphorae are kept in cellar of the Monastery and evoke an epoch of important wine production.
Since monks’ early settlement in Khenshara towards the second half of the 16th century, they were making Qerban and sweet wine with local grapes to celebrate the Eucharistic consecration. In the orthodox and Melkite Catholic churches it’s called prosphora. They prepared it only with noble ingredients without aromas; flour, salt, water and sourdough. Their old stone stove must have attracted for more than two centuries the village housewives who carried their trays there for baking. At that time, houses were not all equipped with ovens. It’s said that before Maamoul becomes an Easter sweet, the Qerban was and still is prepared for this holy occasion symbolizing Christ’s resurrection. Saint John the Baptist Monastery has always been the village’s life beat. It played a guiding role in people’s spiritual and physical life. In late 17th century, two monks left the Greek Orthodox monastery of Balamand located on a hill overlooking the sea south of Tripoli searching for a place to live their Catholicism. They arrived at Khenshara to find a small church dedicated to Saint John the Baptist served by Rizkallah Sawaya a priest from Shoueir.
Soon in 1710, the Monastery became home of the Basilian Shoueirite Order and later knew an important cultural and economic prosperity. Saint Nicolas Church was built between 1716 and 1719. It was given a beautiful wood iconostasis decorated with biblical scenes. In 2015, restoration works revealed delicate wall paintings that, according to father Boulos Nazha, were probably made after year 1790. They are simple geometric and floral patterns in bright colors that were made by monks from Aleppo and Damascus. They were inspired by the decorative prevailing art that adorned elegant palaces. Only the figure of Christ crucified is painted on a cross that combines the three crosses that were on the Golgotha on that day of passion.
The Monastery has the first printing press made in the Middle East that used Arabic characters. It was invented by Abdallah Zakher between 1722 and 1733 and is located in the workshop that he built upon his arrival. The process of aligning the characters, printing, binding and illustrating the books is kept inside window cases. But the village has more to offer. The best way to discover it is by following the darb. It’s a built path that goes through a pine forest on ancient stairways, springs, the grape press, the Monastery and an old mill in the valley. Khenshara is also known for its old elegant houses and breathtaking long staircases that for decades linked the neighborhoods together.

Text By Raghida Samaha
Photos By Abbas Salman