After I was in Jordan in February 2013, my Mom and I went to Lebanon. I wrote a bit about it then, but didn’t get into the rock-fun we had. On one of our day-trips, generously arranged by our family-friend Adla Chantila, the Director of Finance and Information Technology at the Al-Mukasad Foundation, we visited Qozhaya, the Monastery of Saint Anthony the Great in the northern mountains of Lebanon.
The entire trip was a study in stunning limestone formations. See how two massive formations pile and curve over each other, like pancakes being pushed in a big heap on a too-small plate?
Limestone is sedimentary rock formed under the ocean, in this case of calcium carbonate. It can come with fossils and it makes up a lot of the land most Americans are used to walking on. Here’s a quick peak at what it means to walk on the deep sea floor even when you’re on top of the world:
“The Himalayas are the crowning achievement of the Indo-Australian plate. India in the Oligocene crashed head on into Tibet, hit so hard that it not only folded and buckled the plate boundaries but also plowed into the newly created Tibetan plateau and drove the Himalayas five and a half miles into the sky. The mountains are in some trouble. India has not stopped pushing them, and they are still going up. Their height and volume are already so great they are beginning to melt in their own self-generated radioactive heat.
When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in a warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as 20,000 feet below the sea floor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth.
Limestone not only brings fossils, because where there is limestone:
There are bound to be limestone caves:
Limestone, in this case and according to the excellent-but-not-for-sale-online Caves of Lebanon by Rena Karanouh and Issam Bou Jaoude of Spéléo Club du Liban, fractured limestone is the perfect environment for caves. (More on the general geology of Lebanon here and here). Water made slightly acidic by CO2 eats away at the soft sedimentary rock. And Lebanon has lots of water–check out the natural springs running down the side of the mountain:
Springs like this sometimes lead to caves like the one I visited. It had been inhabited since the 4th century AD and there are stories and miracles attributed to it, particularly surrounding the treatment of the mentally ill. The Maronite monastery itself has a museum with treasures like the first printing press in the Middle East, from 1584.
As I climbed around myself, I noticed these funny bumps on the ground:
And for scale:
“Stalagmites!”* I shouted. And then I looked up and, yep, stalactites:
And they were actively forming! Here’s my video explaining, where you can see them actively dripping:
Those weren’t the only rock formations in the cave–there was also flowstone. Flowstone is like a stalactite trying to form without any space to drip, so it kind of leaks down the wall, leaving itty-bitty deposits as it goes (also, my Mom):
I just cannot get over how cool it is to see stalactites and stalagmites forming in real-time. Geology is a slow process, and that’s a lot of the fun. But when it moves fast, it’s beautiful too.
*If you have trouble remembering the difference between stalagmites and stalactites, remember: StalaGmites are on the Ground; StalaCtites are on the Ceiling.
PS: One more video of a massive limestone cave in the middle of the mountain:
“A cultivated man, wise to know and bold to perform, is the end to which nature works, and the education of the will is the flowering and result of all this geology and astronomy.”–Ralph Waldo Emerson