Monday, July 28, 2008

Travelogue 7: "Camel Ride to the Tomb"

Nothing grabs your attention quicker than a camel. Only die-hard Powell-heads will recognize this post's title, however. Books Do Furnish A Room is the 10th volume in the 12-volume Dance to the Music of Time, Anthony Powell's masterful rendition of 20th-century decline and decay. In this particular volume, Powell tells the story of novelist X. Trapnell (loosely based on Julian McLaren-Ross) and a disastrous affair with Pamela Flitton Widmerpool (loosely based on Pamela Digby Churchill Hayward Harriman). In the story, Trapnell--a typically tortured artist type--is something of a one-hit wonder, whose fame rests solely on his Camel Ride to the Tomb. In a fit of pique, Pamela tosses the manuscript to his new novel in the canal, leading to his tragic demise. Trapnell viewed a camel ride to the tomb as a bleak metaphor for life--bumpy, uncomfortable, and ending in death. But I digress.

Camels also put me in mind of Rose MacCauley's The Towers of Trebizond. Her opening line has been called one of the best in English literature: "'Take my camel, dear,' said Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."

I saw a good many camels here and there in Jordan, and figured I would have opportunity to ride one in Petra. I was not disappointed. Petra lives up to its hype. The ruins of the old Nabatean city definitely deserve listing among the wonders of the world. Just don't mistake the modern tourist-trap town that has grown up outside the entrance as being any way representative of Jordan.

My nephew and I had been climbing the peaks overlooking Petra that morning, and by late noon had made our way down to the restaurant in the center of the park. By this time, we were both dog-tired and ready for a bit of rest. We had to pass through an area where Bedouins were offering rides on camels and burros. A young Bedouin boy tried to interest us in a camel ride, but I told him that we were going to eat lunch, then climb the mountain path up to the monastery and come back down. We agreed that if he were still there when we returned, I would talk to him about the camel ride. He made me promise I would choose him instead of the older men hawking their camels. I was happy to oblige.

By the time we came down off the mountain, I was ready for a camel, or a helicopter, or anything else that would get me out of there other than my feet! Our camel boy saw us coming from a distance and started waving for us. My nephew (ever the attorney) tried a bit of haggling over the price, but I was just ready to get on the animal. The camel has to kneel on the group for one to climb up on the saddle. When the camel unfolds itself, you suddenly realize just how much higher up you are than upon a horse.

My camel ride lasted 30 minutes or so. The camel kept wanting to break into a trot, though I was fine to just mosey along. The ride is not at all uncomfortable, though the gate takes a bit of getting used to--totally different than horseback riding. You just cross your legs in front of you, across the camel's neck and enjoy the ride. I talked a bit with my camel boy. He lived with his family, in a cave up above the ruins. Bedouins still live among the ruins, herding goats, primarily. Some operate crude, makeshift souvenir stands along the trails, selling home-made items as well as kitsch. I was amused to hear one assure a potential customer that yes, they took VISA. The young man informed me that the Jordanian government registered camels and allowed each family 2 of the animals--to avoid any camel monopolies, I suppose. As we were heading towards the gate, another young camel boy was coming toward us, riding a camel and leading another. As we approached, he said in English (for my benefit, I suppose), "Your camel has only one eye." Apparently this is one of the most insulting things you could say about some one's camel. This set off a heated interchange between my camel boy and the other young man. Still indignant, he assured me that my camel had TWO eyes! I didn't tell him, but at this point, a flea-bitten, one-eyed camel was just about my speed.

Travelogue 6: Detour Lebanon

Welcome to the Hezbollah Valley

During the first week of my stay in the Levant, I slowly worked my way south from Aleppo to Damascus. According to the maps, it looked just as easy to loop through eastern Lebanon, which of course was always a part of Syria anyway, until the French decided to make a state for the Maronite Catholics. (As I was to learn, relying too much on maps in the Middle East can be a tricky thing.) My plan was to leave the area around Krac des Chevaliers and St. George's Monastery and drive down through the Bekaa Valley, between the Mt. Lebanon Range and the Anti-Lebanon Range. I would stay in Baalbek, visit the ruins there, and then cut across to Damascus.

The whole Lebanese leg of the journey was in doubt, however, until I arrived in Aleppo and confirmed the itinerary. Two weeks earlier, the border had been closed due to a new outbreak in fighting between Hezbollah and the government forces. By the time I reached Syria, the situation had calmed, for a bit, and the border was open again. My agent in Aleppo was able to arrange for a driver that could cross over into Lebanon.

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

I understand that many parts of Lebanon are quite beautiful, but I did not find the Bekaa Valley to be so. The valley was brown and it did not strike me as being as agriculturally productive as the similar valleys I had just left in Syria. The towns were scruffier than in Syria, though somewhat incongruously, nearly everyone seemed to be driving a Mercedes Benz. Perhaps this a holdover from the bad old days when the valley's most noted export was cannabis. The towns were mixed Christian--seemingly Maronite Catholic--and Muslim, chock-a-block with churches and mosques. You quickly sensed that you were now in a militarized zone as soon as you crossed the border. Every few miles, we would pass through a military checkpoint, the soldiers would look us over and then wave us on.

The ruins at Baalbek are truly extraordinary. I visited more Greco-Roman ruins this trip than is usually the case. After a while, these sites can start running together in your mind and you can come down with "ruin fatigue." I enjoyed Apamea, in northern Syria, which had the most spectacular setting (and the most persistent and annoying touts hawking their fake antiquities). Bosra, in southern Syria, has the most impressive Roman theater that I have seen anywhere, including Ephesus and Aphrodiasias. Jerash, in Jordan, has the most varied ruins and best overall presentation. That said, Baalbek is still in a class by itself, due to the sheer magnitude of the surviving ruins. The problem is not with the ruins, but with the noisy, bustling market town pressing against the site.

Muslim family at prayer, Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek

Tourism has taken a beating with Lebanon's on-again-off-again troubles. A fair amount of people were milling about the site, but by and large they were school children on field trips, and not tourists who had come to spend money. The touts around the entrance of the site seemed more desperate than usual to sell their wares, which here included not only the usual postcards, souvenir books and caps, but also....Hezbollah t-shirts. For I quickly figured out, that I was deep in Hezbollah territory. Their bright yellow banners and placards were festooned all over the place. Most had pictures of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Later, in talking with a fellow traveler in the Temple of Bacchus, I was to learn than the valley was now nicknamed "the Hezbollah Valley." I can't say that I was particularly bothered by this, but rather a little annoyed with myself that I had not researched enough to know this beforehand. I associated Hezbollah with southern Lebanon and the Beirut suburbs, not the northeastern quarter of the country.

Mullahs and Mercedes were not the only contrasts I witnessed. As I was arriving, a minibus unloaded a group of young people--perhaps just out of high school, or early college age. They were thoroughly Westernized in both dress and behavior, and I assume they were on a day trip out of Beirut, which is just on the other side of the moutains. These young Lebanese could be "Exhibit A" for the complaint that Muslim traditionalists have with Western culture. For one young man in the midst of this boistrous group was wearing a white t-shirt with bold, black letters proclaiming (in English, of course): THIS IS ONE F*****G OFFENSIVE T-SHIRT. This contrasts sharply with a scene I witnessed inside the ruins, not 15 minutes later. One rarely sees any public displays of Muslim worship in the Middle East, outside of the mosques themselves. I was privileged to observe one young family within the ruins, however, during their prayers. The man, his wife, and their 2 children were in the center of what was once the Temple of Jupiter. They faced Mecca, and then began performing their prostrations. Such is the dichotomy that is Lebanon.

American, Canadian and German backpackers, Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

I met up with some other travelers--Matthew, Victor and Raymond--as we all rested on the altar of the old Temple of Bacchus. These three young men had met up in Damascus, and went in together on a taxi to Baalbek. They were not staying over in Lebanon, but were returning to Damascus later in the afternoon. Matthew, a recent college graduate from South Carolina, had traveled extensively--China, Mongolia, across Siberia to Moscow, etc. On this particular journey, he had spent a month in India, worked his way across the Middle East to Damascus, and was planning to decamp to Istanbul from there. I have to admit I was a bit envious of him. In my day, I thought I was supposed to graduate from college as soon as possible and then get . a . job. My travels have all come much later in life. Victor was a college student from Canada, bumming around the Middle East. Raymond, a German backpacker, was nearer my age.

Kaiser Bill and the lobby of the Palmyra, Baalbek

I was staying the night at the old Palmyra Hotel, right in the center of town. This is one of those grand old colonial hotels which used to dot the Levant--not as well known as Aleppo's Baron Hotel, but in the same class. The Palmyra, much more so than the Baron, seems to be on its last legs. A dapper little man with a pencil-thin moustache, complete with white jacket, carried on valiantly, the best he could. I eventually figured out that he was doorman, bellhop, receptionist, cook and janitor. We conducted our business in French, more or less. The formal drawing room remained empty and forlorn. Furniture throughout the hotel dated to the early 30s, it appeared. Photographs of famous guests lined the walls. I couldn't help but notice a large poster on an easel in the lobby, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1898 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the hotel. Electricity was sporadic and spotty, though assured we would have power "in an hour or two." It suddenly dawned on me that I was the only guest in this 44 room hotel--just me and Kaiser Bill, in the dark. Later, another American would check in, and the two of us would become acquainted at the meager breakfast served up in the grand dining room the following morning. The little man in the white coat conducted me to my room upstairs. The second floor had its own expansive lobby, complete 14 ft. ceilings, 30s decor and balcony. My room overlooked the ruins, and (unfortunately I was to learn) the traffic circle immediately below. There was no air conditioning, though this was unnecessary given the thick stone walls and the french doors onto the balcony. For just that surreal touch, the room was decorated in framed Jean Cocteau etchings (of the milder variety). The dapper little man asked me if I wanted hot water that night or in the morning. I chose the morning. This too was a polite fiction, as there was no hot water in the morning either. I asked for restaurant recommendations and I was advised to go to the Sherazade. This restaurant was several blocks away in a relatively modern seven-story modern retail center. The establishment was on the top floor, which at one time could have been reached by an elevator, now out of commission. As I walked up the stairs I had a chance to inspect the shops on each floor. About the only going concerns were on the lower two floors--a few clothing stores selling men's suits and a bridal shop. Many of the floors were completely dark, with no shops at all. The Sherazade occupied the entire top floor, with banquet rooms and a spectacular view over the ruins. A young Muslim man and his girlfriend sat over in the corner, smoking and watching TV. (A Western misconception is that Muslim women dressed traditionally in the hajib would not smoke. They do.) I was the only guest, and from the look of things, I was the only customer who had showed up that night. I realized I hadn't eaten since early that morning. I ordered my favorite--lamb stuffed in eggplant, along with a salad, a meze, some french fries and a Lebanese beer. While it was an enjoyable meal, this is where I may have picked up some food poisoning, or bacteria of some sort, as I was to become intimately acquainted with bathrooms along the way for the next week or so. Walking back to the hotel, I stopped in a small shop to buy a bottle of water. It turned out to be, by and large, a discreet liquor store. The proprietor, no Hezbolllah supporter he, had a framed portrait of one of the Lebanese Christian political leaders. With Hezbollah on the ascendancy here, I wonder how long he will be permitted to stay in business. I was to learn something else about the Lebanese before the night was over. The traffic circle underneath my window handled Beirut traffic from the west and Damascus traffic from the east and Bekaa Valley traffic from the north. It seems the Lebanese are physiologically incapable of driving without honking. I lay in my bed that night with the ruins of Baalbek laid out before me in the moonlight, and Jean Cocteau on the walls, listening to the incessant beep-beeps of the Mercedes and BMWs zipping around the traffic circle until the wee hours of the morning. I don't think they ever stopped, really. I finally fell asleep from exhaustion, in spite of them.

Upstairs lobby, Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek

The next morning, I enjoyed conversation with the other hotel guest--an American linguistics professor who had started a consulting business for student visa applicants from the Middle East. After breakfast, I said goodbye to the dapper little man and Kaiser Wilhelm and headed for Damascus. It would be presumptious of me to judge Lebanon from one night's stay and without ever setting foot in Beirut. I will just say that I found Lebanon a sad place, and was anxious to return to Syria. Lebanon was on edge, and you could feel the tension in the air.

A bit of Jean Cocteau

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Travelogue 5: A land flowing with milk and honey...and bananas

View from Mt. Nebo

Madaba, Jordan makes a handy base for visiting the Jordan Valley from the eastern side of things. Mount Nebo, where Moses was allowed to see the Promised Land, is just 15 minutes away. In the early Christian centuries, a church graced the promontory, and its ruins, along with some incredibly beautiful mosaics, are a major tourist destination. Yet the main draw here is the view itself. Mount Nebo is as desolate a spot as you could find. But looking west, down into the valley and the hills beyond makes you appreciate just what is meant by the term "promised land." From this mountain top perspective, the entire verdant Jordan Valley is laid out like a banquet table.

With my nephew near the Dead Sea

The Jordan Valley seems comparatively lush, though the river itself is much diminished, primarily due to water piped to Israel. The area is agriculturally rich; thick with orchards, vegetable gardens, watermelon patches, grain fields, and surprisingly--banana groves. In fact, there are probably more banana groves than anything else in the valley, explaining their abundance in Jordanian and Syrian marketplaces. I have already touched upon my visit to the river itself in the previous post.

I allotted one day to visiting Mar Sabbas Monastery in Palestine, an isolated monastic community dating to the 6th century. According to the map I had, we could cross the Jordan River into the "West Bank" and then follow a road in a southwesterly direction which would take us to the monastery. But maps can be funny things in the Middle East. My map of Syria included Antakya (Antioch) and the province surrounding it, not recognizing the fact that it has been a part of Turkey since 1939. They likewise ignore the Israeli occupation of the Golan since 1967, and label the country on the other side as simply "Palestine." But Israelis hardly occupy the high moral ground when it comes to map making, either. I was provided a map in Israel. It made no distinction for the Golan, simply including it in Israel proper. But beyond that, we are used to seeing maps of the region that differentiate--to varying degrees--Israel from the West Bank. My map showed no such divisions--including the region within Israel and labeling it "Judea" and "Samaria."

I fully expected something of a hassle in trying to cross the border from Jordan into "Palestine." I wanted my nephew to have this experience, to give him a little better perspective on the way things really are in this part of the world. That said, it was an eye-opener for me as well. I had no plans to go to Israel itself; just cross over into the "West Bank," visit the monastery and return to Jordan. In talking with people back home, they seem surprised that I did not want to visit Israel. There are two reasons for this. First, a trip to Israel deserves a separate trip in itself. And second, I am a bit put off with the modern, secular state of Israel. Even before I became Orthodox, I never, ever bought into the whole premillenial dispensationalism/Christian Zionism that so many in America ascribe to. I wish Israel no ill-will, to be sure. But, the survival of the modern Israeli state has no more importance to me, religiously, than does the survival of Germany, or Bolivia, or Tunisia. There are many legitimate justifications to support Israel, but not the notion that we are somehow helping God's plan. And for someone like myself, who has a tendency to become too wrapped-up in the political and foreign policy issues of the day, the whole Israeli-American relationship is irritating. I remain frustrated by the extent that Christian Zionism and the Israeli lobby have driven U.S. foreign policy in the religion for 60 years. Our current dilemma, as well as the plight of Christians in the Middle East, cannot be separated from this relationship. The sad fact is that one cannot really voice such opinions today without being label anti-Semitic, which I am decidedly not. But nevertheless, there it is. As it turned out, I was going to Israel whether I wanted to or not.

The fact is, the Israelis really do not want people crossing over from the east. The entire process was to take 3 hours. For starters, one cannot just drive across this border. So, we had to leave our driver, Mohammad, behind. While waiting in the Jordanian visa office, I was able to observe our traveling companions crowded into the small waiting room. These were primarily Palestinians who held other passports. Most had large families. That is one of the first things you notice in Syria, Jordan and Palestine--children are everywhere. I imagine that if they were traveling over here they would wonder where all the children were. One young Palestinian-American couple had 7 children, from about 11 years of age on down. They were thoroughly Americanized, speaking in English, unsupervised and being noisy, disruptive and somewhat bratty. The rest of the Palestinians, young and old, looked on in marked disapproval. We passed the first check point and were loaded onto a bus. There would be 6 more check points. For Palestinians without foreign passports, there would be 2 additional stops.

On the bus, I had an interesting exchange with an American contractor working with the State Department. With a diplomatic passport, he was able to zip on past us once we reached the first Israeli checkpoint. He had quite a bit to say in the short time we were together. First, he advised us (correctly) that the Israeli border crossing was a pain in the butt. Next, he told us to notice just how badly the Palestinians were treated in this process. He thought more Americans needed to get over here and see the situation first hand, instead of believing what they were being told back home. Then he talked a bit about Afghanistan, where he spent 2 years, and why we needed to be there, instead of Iraq. "Oh well," he concluded, "it's an Israeli war anyway." His job was to help train the Palestinian Authority security forces, "such as it is," he noted. He went on to add that he didn't see how the security forces were going to fight terrorism when the Israelis didn't even allow them to have bullet-proof vests.

The main processing center was at the 4th stop. Here, things bogged-down considerably. My Syrian visa was a red-flag, as was our plan for only a day-trip to the West Bank. Israeli security took my nephew aside and questioned him for an hour. I thought it would be a good time to catch up on my journal, which I carry in my back pocket. I took it out and began writing. An Israeli security officer came over, inspected the book and told me "no writing." Okaay.

A little relaxation in the Dead Sea

At the end of 3 hours, we were out the other side, where we met our driver for the rest of the journey. We were supposedly in "Palestine," but to this point we had seen no Palestinian officials whatsoever, only Israeli soldiers, security officers and drivers. Nor were we able to cut across Palestine to reach the monastery. The sleek, modern Highway 45 had us in Jerusalem itself before we knew it. The first sight one sees coming up out of the valley are the modern Israeli settlements on the hilltops flanking the highway. The look just like gated American suburbs. Pm a map, they appear as two giant lobster claws, encircling old Arab East Jerusalem. Peace talks come and go, but from what I saw, I don't believe Israel plans to give up an inch of Jerusalem. And "Palestine" remains a polite fiction.

Jerusalem itself has a Mediterranean feel--leafy, with lots of bougainvillea. I caught glimpses of sites I had seen on television: the Dome of the Rock, the old city walls, the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, etc. But we had no time to stop. Before I knew it, we were at The Wall, the monstrosity which allows modern Israel to deny--if only briefly--that there are Palestinians. One more Israeli check point put us out of Israeli Jerusalem and into Palestinian Bethlehem. From there, we were finally able to proceed to Mar Sabbas.

Washing in the Jordan

Mar Sabbas is not that far from Bethlehem, though it evokes a feeling of incredible remoteness. The monastery is on the side of a mountain, overlooking the Brook Kidron. My nephew and I arrived at the same time as a group of Greek pilgrims. In one sense, this was unfortunate. The monks knew we were American, but grouped us with the Greeks, to whom, of course, they were conducting the tour in Greek. I kept thinking the monk would turn to me and give a short explanation in English, but he never did. I particularly wanted to see the cell of St. John of Damascus, the patron saint of our mission church, but was unable to do so. My nephew had the better approach. He paid no attention to the group, or the monk who was speaking to them, but rather just stood back, venerated the icons, and better appreciated the sanctity of this very holy site. Visiting a chapel that displaying the skulls of the monks martyred by the Persians in the early 600s was a particularly moving experience. I counted more than 100 skulls, and I understand there are many more. When leaving, the monks did give us an English-language handout, describing the history of the monastery, which I appreciated. I had to remind myself that the monks were not there to provide tours for me, or to cater to my particular touristic needs, but rather, to pray for me, and all mankind.

Upon leaving the monastery, I thought it would be nice to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem on the way back. Only then did I learn that the Israelis close the border at 3:30 in the afternoon, leaving us only time to rush back to the crossing. We were the last vehicle through, and I was the last traveler to go through the border that day.

Greek Orthodox Church near the baptismal site

There are no easy answers when it comes to Israel and Palestine. Nicholas Kristoff, in today's New York Times, has it about right, here. Most American visits to Israel exist in an artificial vacuum, hermetically sealed from the surrounding environment and culture. Americans fly into Tel Aviv, are whisked down the modern highway to Jerusalem, and then bused around to the usual sites. They come nowhere near the West Bank, any Palestinians, or The Wall. And they return to the U.S., bubbling about how wonderful Israel is. They may have seen the "Holy Land" but they have not seen the Middle East. I am thankful my nephew and I caught a glimpse of it from the other angle.

Mar Sabbas Monastery, Palestine

Monday, July 14, 2008

Travelogue No. 4: In the Syrian Churches

To the native Christians of the Middle East, Syria offers something of a safe haven. It has not always been so: the 1860 massacre and destruction of Damascene churches is notable, even in a part of the world where this sort of thing has often been far too common. But the Christian communities seem to be hanging on here, and well integrated within the larger society. (Of course, that could have once been said of Iraq, as well.)

  • My time was limited in Aleppo and I was unable to really investigate the Christian community there, as I had hoped. Churches are scattered throughout this large city, and I was confined to walking the more touristed areas in the old city. The Christian quarter is known as Al-Jdeide, although at first glance, there is nothing to particularly distinguish it as such. The neighborhood is a maze of twisting narrow streets, alleys, and passageways, much like the rest of the old city. Occasionally, you will catch a glimpse through a opened door into the inner courtyards, where the real life of the city occurs. The Maronite church, the Armenian church, the Greek church and the Suriani Church are all clustered together in Al-Jdeide. All except the Maronite church are as hidden as the residences. You have to stand back from the neighborhood to be able to see the domes, bell towers and crosses which rise from behind the walls. (Note: this only applies to the Christian Quarter of the old city. Many churches are located throughout the city at large, entirely visible.) On some afternoons, the door to the Armenian church compound is opened, and tours are possible. I chanced upon such a time on my second day in Aleppo. The church is known as the Church of the 40 Martyrs, and the current structure dates only to the mid 1800s, I believe. The interiors of some of these monophysite Armenian churches seem more reminiscent of Catholic churches than Orthodox ones. There are a number of icons of Armenian saints, as well as two large icons, one of the Last Judgment and one of the 40 Martyrs of Sebaste, each several hundred years older than the present church. I chatted with a young deacon of the church, and he showed me the translation of an Armenian text that he was translating into Arabic. He claimed that there were 60,000 Armenians in Aleppo. Undoubtedly, there are other Armenian Orthodox churches scattered throughout the city. An open courtyard lies between the outer wall and the church itself. From here, passageways and stairs lead off in all directions to the offices, classrooms and apartments which fill out this large compound. The bell tower of the adjoining Greek Orthodox Church is hard against the one wall.

Armenian Church of the 40 Martyrs, Aleppo

St. Elias Maronite Cathedral, Aleppo

  • I spent the better part of two days checking out ruins--mostly Christian--in the environs of Aleppo. To the north of the city, I visited the sites of Qalb Lozeh (5th-century), St. Simeon (5th-century) and the Monastery of St. Daniel (6th-century), as well as some Roman ruins and traces of old Roman roads. To the south of the city, I visited the so-called "Dead Cities," provincial towns from the early Byzantine period. The entire area was once within the Antiochian sphere of influence. From the heights above Aleppo, you can see the fertile valley leading down to Antioch, now part of Turkey (In 1939, France ceded this Syrian region to Turkey, and Antioch become Turkish, for the first time in its history. Memories are long in this part of the world, and the Syrians have not forgotten--but that is another story.) During the sweep of Islam across the Middle East, Aleppo fell first, and then Antioch. Aleppo (Halip) fell in 637, and except for a brief Byzantine reoccupation between 974 and 987, has remained under Muslim control ever since. The Byzantines lost Antioch in 637, only to regain it in 969, only to lose it again in 1085 to the Seljik Turks, and then the Crusaders in 1098. The city finally fell to the Muslims for the last time in 1268. But despite all the vicissitudes of history, the countryside remained heavily Christian, as these ruins attest. The ruins of Qalb Lozeh date back to the 5th century, and as one of the earliest structures of this design, are considered to be architecturally significant. I was particularly impressed with the craftsmanship, the great attention given to beauty, even in the smallest details of its construction. A Christian temple was to be a microcosm of heaven and of earth, and as such, a place of rare beauty. The contrast with the wreckage of modernity could not be starker. Although I had seen pictures of the ruins of the St. Simeon complex, nothing prepared me for the actual experience. The church built around the pillar of St. Simeon is simply incredible. The church commanded a windswept hilltop, overlooking the valley out of Antioch, and became a major pilgrimage destination for Christians, from both East and West. The main structure is cruciform in shape, and according to my rough measurements and calculations contained in excess of 55,000 square feet of floor space. In its day, it must have rivaled the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.

Qalb Lozeh, northwest of Aleppo

St. Simeon, north of Aleppo

Monastery of St. Daniel, northwest of Aleppo

  • In transitioning from Aleppo down to the Monastery of St. George in the "Christian Valley," I stayed one night in Hama, a conservative Muslim city. Hama is most noted for the 1982 heavy-handed crackdown by Hafez al Assad on the Muslim Brotherhood. While human rights organizations have condemned the assault on the city, Syria has never since been troubled by Islamist extremism. Even so, Hama retains a reputation for religious conservatism. Most of the old city center destroyed in the fighting has since been rebuilt, and the suburbs boast attractive new apartment complexes. (A large army base is situated nearby--just in case.) I was a little surprised to see a large Greek Orthodox cathedral in the center of the city, with newly-constructed adjoining educational complex .

    Orthodox Cathedral, Hama

                    • In northwestern Syria, between Latakia and the Lebanese border, 27 small Christian towns are nestled in the "Christian Valley." The differences between these communities and the nearby Muslim towns are subtle. Obviously, churches in a village are a sure sign. In one village we passed through, homeowners had erected crosses on the tops of their homes--some of them outlined in neon. In Christian villages, you would occasionally see men wearing shorts; not so in the Muslim villages. Women wearing dresses were a sure give away as well. But in one village, I had noticed several younger women with their heads uncovered. I asked Mohammed, my driver, if this was a Christian village. No, he replied. Islamisme moderne.

                      • The Orthodox Monastery of St. George is one of the landmarks of this region, nestled in the shadow of the great Crusader castle of Krac des Chevalliers. The "new" church (mid 1850s), is built above an older church, which itself is constructed above an even more ancient church. I arrived at the monastery at the same time as two chartered busloads of pilgrims arrived from the church in Latakia, the seaport in northwestern Syria. Fr. Isaac welcomed me to St. George and encouraged me to stay for the service (not that I had any plans of leaving!) The Orthodox Christians from Latakia could have been any church group from most anywhere--normal everyday people behaving normally. There was a short service and then a homily in the church. Of course it was all in Arabic, but as it was still during Pentecost, I recognized the "Christ is risen from the dead..." done in the Greek style. And of course, I was right there with all the alleluias. And so, there I was, a displaced Texan, perfectly at home in worshipping with my Syrian brothers and sisters. Fr. Isaac introduced me to Fr. George, the priest from Latakia, who is, as it turns out, an iconographer.

                      • Krac des Chevaliers Castle

                        Fr. Isaac and Fr. George, St. George's Monastery

                        St. George's Monastery, "old" church

                                    St. George's Monastery, new church

                                  • In driving into Damascus for the first time, we passed several large churches, though I was unable to re-trace my steps to inspect them closer. On my first full day in Damascus, my nephew joined me for the remainder of my travels. We visited a number of churches in the old Christian quarter of the old city. The Patriarchate of Antioch is headquartered at St. George's Church, and the Church of St. John of Damascus is located nearby. Armenian and Suriani churches are scattered about, as well. The Catholics maintain a chapel at the reputed house of Ananias, and have also built a church in the city wall where St. Paul was let down in a basket. We viewed an exhibit of early Syrian iconography in the National Museum. My nephew and I even checked out the Omayad Mosque, which is really the oldest and greatest of such in the Islamic world. I hate to be flippant (again), but after a while, one mosque looks much as another, even this grandaddy of them all. But this mosque was built on the site of, and with the stones of the great Christian cathedral which once stood here. The central portion of the mosque, looks nothing so much as like an early Christian basilica. The Muslims maintained the shrine to St. John the Forerunner, whose relics were contained within the cathedral. This was actually our main purpose in visiting this site.

                                    • Shrine of Head of St. John the Forerunner, Omayad Mosque, Damascus

                                      Omayad Mosque, Damascus

                                      Patriarchate, Damascus

                                      Church of St. John of Damascus, Damascus

                                      • My nephew and I took a day trip out from Damascus and visited the Monastery of Mar Mousa, as well as the churches and monasteries of Maalula and Sednaya. Mar Mousa is named after St. Moses the Ethiopian. The monastery sits at the top of a rocky crag, overlooking the eastern desert. The setting is quite remote, and reaching the monastery requires quite a bit of effort. I took it slow and easy, while my nephew bounded up the steps (though he paid for it dearly all the next day.) The main church is in a fortress-like enclosure dating to the 6th century or so, which can only be entered through a small opening in the wall--forcing one to bow when entering. The church itself is small and intimate. As in mosques, one removed ones shoes before entering. The monastery is supposedly shared by both Orthodox and Catholics. The only monastics I saw were Orthodox, and the iconography and interior of the church was as well. The only Catholic item was a crucifix at the southwest corner. Visiting the remote monastery was one of the more moving experiences in my travels. The monastery accommodates overnight visitors, and if I ever return to Syria, I plan to take them up on it. Between Mar Mousa and Damascus are the two Christian towns of Maalula and Sednaya (or at least they used to be predominately Christian). In Maalula, we visited the Monastery and Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus and the Convent of St. Teckla. Both were well worth our efforts. The Church of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus dates to the early 4th century and was converted from a previous pagan temple. Wooden beams in the church have been carbon-dated at 2,000 years. In fact, the marble altar predates the Council of Chalcedon as it is not square, but oval in shape. The church was home to several unique icons. I noted one in particular--a double icon, perhaps the only one of its kind. On the top was a depiction of the crucifixion and below was a depiction of the Last Supper. What was different was that Jesus was sitting to the side of the table, instead of in the center as it is usually depicted. A young lady of the church quoted Matthew 20:28, where Jesus said that he "did not come to be served, but to serve..." and she went on to explain that hospitality was and is so important in the Middle East. The guests, not the host, would have the place of honor, and the host would serve. So, in their understanding of the event, Jesus would be to the side, where he could serve. Another icon depicted John the Baptist at rest, as his labors were over. The young lady also recited the Lord's Prayer in Aramaic, which is still known, if not exactly spoken regularly here, and in a couple of adjoining villages. As is often the case, I was a little sheepish in my lack of foreign language skills. She spoke Arabic, obviously, and Aramaic, a near-dead language, and had just spoken to an Italian group in that language before speaking to us in English. If some French tourists had wandered in behind us, I feel confident she could have spoken to them as well. We talked briefly about how English is the universal second language. She corrected me, however, and said that it was the universal first language. Finally, we purchased a bottle of monastery wine that we were to enjoy at a later date. We also enjoyed the shrine to St. Teckla at the Catholic convent of that name. Sednaya is a large resort town, closer in to Damascus. The famous Convent of Our Lady of Sednaya, an ancient pilgrimage site, sits atop the hill overlooking the city. This convent contains one of the icons of the Theotokos written by St. Luke himself, or an early copy. The icon is on view in a small shrine, but almost totally covered in silver, and gifts that have been left there, so that you really cannot see it. A nun sits in the corner and I feel confident that if anyone made an untoward move toward the icon, that she would take them down. The terrace atop the convent provides a spectacular view across the city. Spilling down the hillside and up the next are any number of churches, but the city is growing fast, and it's predominate Christian character may already be past. The infamous Sednaya prison in on the outskirts of this otherwise pleasant locale.

                                      Scenes from the Monastery of Mar Mousa

                                      Monastery of Sts. Sergius and Bacchus

                                      Scenes from Sednaya

                                      • On our way toward Jordan, we stopped at the small town of Es'ra, in far southern Syria, not far from Jordan and the Golan Heights. Here, we visited the Church of St. George. This is not just any church of St. George, but I suppose you would say that this was THE church of St. George. For the relics of the saint are in a corner niche in this church (apparently there is a church in Israel that claims the same thing.) Once the mythology that grew up around the cult of St. George (mainly in the West) is stripped away, we have the story of a real-life saint, who was martyred nearby in 303. This particular church dates back to the 6th century or so, is a somewhat unique in its architecture. The outside appears squarish and fortress-like. The nave of the church is octagonal and sits completely underneath the over sized dome. A gallery extends around the outside of the nave, meeting at the iconostasis. We arrived on Friday morning, while a Divine Liturgy was underway. A nice crowd was in attendance, including 2 or 3 Muslim men. I was pleased to see a number of young people there, and a large number of children. None of the women wore headscarves, but as they queued to receive the Host, there was a hook on one of the columns with a number of scarves draped over it. Each woman, before she reached the priest, would reach over and take a scarf and put it on before receiving--and then take it off. Interesting. Everyone chanted enthusiastically during the service. Afterwards, the young children met with their teachers for a class. Driving out of the neighborhood, I counted at least 3 other churches there, including a large new structure under construction. Before leaving Syria, we visited the ruins at Bosra. The ruins of the Cathedral at Bosra was impressive, as was the Monastery of Bohaira.

                                          Church of St. George, Es'ra, Syria

                                        • Jordan, overall, seemed to be a more conservative society than Syria. I was surprised to find Amman to be bustling, modern and really quite beautiful. We stayed in the town of Madaba, about 20 km. southwest of Amman. This had formerly been a Christian town of 20,000 or so, and was now a city of 20,000 Christians and 100,000 Palestinians. The city is most noted for the famous mosaics at the Church of St. George. The complex around St. George's is impressive, with a large school for the Christian youth. A gaudy-looking newer mosque dominates the skyline of the city, but at the right time of day, you can still hear church bells ringing, instead of the ubiquitous call to worship. We met a young man who worked at St. George's who was interested to discover we were from Texas. He pulled out his cellphone and called his fiance to come over and meet us. She was from Borger, Texas and had arrived in Madaba, planning to move on to Turkey where she was going to do volunteer work. She liked Jordan so much, she remained there, met Michael, and they fell in love. She was returning to Texas to work on her masters in international relations at the University of Texas. He, or course, was planning to follow. I gave him my card and told him that he now knew someone else in Texas.

                                        • School complex adjacent to St. George's Orthodox Church, Madaba, Syria

                                                              • Jordan's percentage of Christians is something like 6%, less than that of Syria. The Christians are concentrated in Amman, northwestern Jordan, and in the Jordan River valley. The only other place we visited any churuces was at the baptismal site of Jesus on the Jordan River. Bethany is on the Jordanian side of the river, even though the Israelis have built a sparkling new tourist center on the other bank, not a stone's throw away. The Jordan itself is now a muddy backwater. Our guide showed us where the water level used to be. Of course, the culprit is irrigation. 70% of the water pumped out of the Jordan goes neither to Jordan nor to Palestine (the West Bank). Care to guess where it does go? Before reaching the baptismal site, we passed a large, cordoned-off area. Here several large churches are under construction: the Copts are building a huge church, the Russian Orthodox are well along with a monastic complex, the Catholics plan a church, and the "Roman" Orthodox, as our guide said have a church under construction. I later learned that this is often the term for for Greek Orthodox, as when the Turks say "Rum Ortodox," their old name harkening back to the east Roman (Byzantine) Empire. A young couple from Calgary was in the group being escorted down to the river. The young man, in total seriousness, asked our Jordanian guide: "no synagogue?" I couldn't help but laugh a bit, and say, "I hardly think so!" The guide grinned at me. The young man, undeterred, muttered a common platitude: "Well, the site is holy to all three faiths." A bit embarrased for him, we all let it pass, no one thinking it profitable to try and explain why a Jewish synagogue would never, ever be built at the site of the baptism of Jesus, and on Jordanian soil, no less. A Greek Orthodox chapel has recently been completed nearer the baptismal site. The church was funded by a Greek millionaire, and the iconography commissioned by a Russian politician. The little church (only 1200 square feet) is simply exquisite (look for pictures in next travelogue.)

                                                              Russian Orthodox Monastery under construction, near baptismal site, Jordan