BEIRUT: Lebanese are lobbying for a majestic cave complex to be named one of the new Seven Wonders of the World in an online competition that has drawn natural attractions from across the globe.

The Jeita Grotto, in a river valley near the capital Beirut, is currently ranked 24th out of 77 on the list of nominations compiled by contest organisers “New 7 Wonders of Nature”.

Other sites in the Middle East include Wadi Rum in Jordan, Israel’s Ein Gedi oasis and the Mesopotamian Marshes in Iraq.

“The Jeita cave is considered one of the largest and most beautiful caves in the world, with an impressive diversity of rock shapes and colours,” said Nabil Haddad, a German-trained engineer who is the cave’s general manager.

“This is a historic chance for Lebanon to show this truly unique secret to the world.”

The grotto comprises two limestone caves, upper galleries and a lower cave through which an underground river runs.

The cave is 10,000 metres long and features one of the biggest stalactites in the world, hanging 8.2 metres from the ceiling.

“The action of the water in the limestone has created cathedral-like vaults full of various sizes, colours and shapes of stalactites and stalagmites, majestic curtains and fantastic rock formations,” the New7Wonders website says.

Jeita faces competition from another Lebanese attraction, however – the country’s famed cedar forests, which the website says “were important enough in the history of man to be traceable to the very earliest written records”.

The country’s 18 cedar reserves are currently just one slot behind Jeita on the New7Wonders website, in 25th place.

Jeita’s ceiling is 106 metres above the water level at its highest point.

“It is an absolutely huge and very unique cave. It is difficult to find one like it in all the world,” said South Korean tourist T.K. Lee, 23.

A cement bridge allows tourists to walk through the palatial structure and view the glistening stalactites and stalagmites formed over millennia by drops of water creating new pathways around rock too hard to dissolve.

‘This cave is magnificent’

“There’s no corner of this grotto without some form of stalactite or stalagmite. People should be in awe. What sculptor could carve this?” Haddad said.

The grotto is equipped with a “cool” lighting system to ensure a steady temperature, as heat would cause moss to grow and blacken the limestone formations.

Jeita also has a dark past, however. The area above ground was the scene of fierce fighting during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war.

“The three underground levels of the parking lot served as a huge weapons cache for the Lebanese forces,” Haddad said.

“When it was blown up, nearby villages shook. They say a mushroom cloud appeared when it exploded because of all the weapons inside.”

Signs at the ticket booth and employees at the site urge visitors to vote for Jeita in the online competition, and one group on the social networking website Facebook supporting the cause boasts more than 55,000 members.

“If Lebanon won, it is an opportunity for people abroad to hear about Lebanon in a context different from conflict and violence like they usually do,” Ali Shehadi, 23, one of the group’s administrators, told AFP.

Members of the group started an email campaign and got as many people as they could to vote.

“We even came up with the idea to put up signs at computers in Internet cafes informing people of the vote,” said Shehadi, who works in television and persuaded a talk show host to broadcast “Live from Jeita” from the site.

In January, the Lebanese site with the most online votes will go on to represent the country in the next stage of the competition.

Shehadi’s Facebook group urges people to vote for both Jeita and the Cedars, but he believes Jeita would have a better shot at success in the next round.

“My personal opinion is that the Cedars are beautiful and symbolic, but they are not a wonder of nature. Jeita has a better chance later in the competition,” he said.

Activists and visitors alike are eagerly waiting for the results, which will be announced on New Year’s Day, according to the website. Twenty-one finalists will be announced next July 21.

“Voting will continue throughout 2010 and into 2011. During this time, the New7Wonders World Tour will visit each of the Finalists to allow them to present themselves to the voters across the globe,” the competition’s website says.

The final declaration of the New7Wonders of Nature will be in 2011.

“This cave is magnificent and definitely deserves to be one of the seven natural wonders of the world,” said Nabil Hussein, 47, a tourist from Iraq, who added that he would vote for Jeita.

“It’s the most beautiful natural site I will probably ever see.”—AFP

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