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


                                                            Anonymous said...

                                                            My goodness; where to begin? I definitely have to go. Thank you for sharing.

                                                            The St Simeon complex is much larger than I had envisaged; I was imagining a small area with the remains of a column. Wow.

                                                            The Monastery of St George and the Convent of Our Lady of Sednaya sound amazing; as do all the places you saw. Regarding the 'picking up of scarves' before Communion, that practice somehow crept into our parish during the time of our last priest; we are an Antiochian parish, so I am assuming it does come from that area. [Though the scarves at our parish are in a basket on a chair, not on hooks on columns!]

                                                            Ranger said...

                                                            Borger is somewhat close to me here in sw ks, maybe 2/3 the way to Amarillo.
                                                            THanks for sharing. If you ever visit borger, i could show you the place where the movie castaway w/ tom hanks begins and ends, tempting eh?

                                                            John said...

                                                            Thanks, Ian. Yes St. Simeon complex is immense. What I have described is only the main church. There are ruins of attached monastic buildings all over the place, as well as a completely separate church which is no small thing in its own right.

                                                            Well, I'll have to put Borger on my list. I haven't been to that part of the state in, well....let's just say, a very long time.

                                                            Anonymous said...

                                                            Nice to see another American travel to Syria. I found Seidnayya, Simeon, Aleppo, and Damascus to be beautiful places. I'll be sure to read more of your words.