A Journey Through Syria 3 November 2013

Christopher De Bie reflects on his experiences travelling through Syria just before the Arab Spring reached Damascus.

Maaloula Shrine of St Thecla

View of Maaloula from the Shrine of St Thecla

In early September of this year, The Daily Telegraph reported that the village of Maaloula had been seized by forces aligned with Jabhat al-Nusra, a radical faction within the Syrian opposition. Maaloula is a special place for Syria’s Christians. Not only does it have a largely Christian population, but it is one of only three places in the world where a dialect of Western Aramaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken.

According to the Telegraph report, the Jabhat al-Nusra targeted Maaloula because of the Christian community’s support of the Assad government. This support may be lukewarm, but Syrian Christians, who make up around 10% of the population, are well aware of the tribulations of their coreligionists in Iraq. Since the collapse of civil society that followed the US-led invasion of that country, an estimated half of that country’s Christians are estimated to have fled a wave of kidnappings, bombings and murders. Many of them found refuge in Syria. Not all Syrian Christians support the government. The Free Syrian Army incorporates a Christian Brigade. But for most, fear of the foreign influences that are gaining increasing prominence among the rebel forces outweighs any dislike of the government.

A Shrine in the Christian Quarter, Old City, Damascus.

Reliable news from Maaloula is hard to come by. Three members of one Greek Catholic family are reported to have been summarily executed after an attempt to force their conversion. Religious images have been defaced and footage is circuiting which purports to show Jabhat al-Nusra fighters forcing their way into the convent of St Thecla. Recent reports suggest government forces are back in control, but fighting continues in the surrounding hills. All of this throws the increasingly sectarian character of Syria’s unfolding tragedy into focus. But sectarian conflict is not the whole story of Maaloula, or of Syria as a whole. On the contrary, for many years, Syria’s shrines and holy places have brought together worshippers of all faiths.

In his book ‘From the Holy Mountain’, the historian and writer William Dalrymple talks about a visit to the nearby convent of Saidnaya. He describes a mostly Muslim congregation, praying before icons in a Greek Orthodox chapel, while around them burn candles and incense. The nuns explain how local people of all denominations come here to ask the mother of Christ to grant them children. Many days Muslim worshippers outnumber Christians. Fascinated by his account, I travelled to Syria myself in April 2011, just as its Arab Spring was beginning to spiral dangerously out of control.

The Ummayyad Mosque

Arriving in Damascus after a tense road trip from Jordan, we made straight for the Umayyad Mosque. Syria had stopped issuing visas to British nationals, but we had ours from the embassy in London. There were anxious moments at the border and we’d had to take a wide detour around Daraa, the epicentre of the conflict at that time. Now, we wanted to make sure we grabbed what could be our only chance see the first Great Mosque of Islam. In previous weeks, there had been trouble after Friday prayers. It was Thursday afternoon and we wanted to get a look before things flared up.

The Ummayad Mosque, Damascus

The Ummayad Mosque, Damascus

We entered past the tomb of Saladin, into the main courtyard. Columns and arches stood above their reflections in a lake of polished marble, acres of seamless flagstones buffed to glass by millions of socked feet. There was little evidence of any Muslim suspicion of pictorial representation, with intricate foliage and scenes of paradise worked in gold mosaic encrusting the cornices in a living, frozen snapshot of the collision between Islam and Byzantium. The synthesis of cultures was writ large on the face of the building. The domes, the arches, the vast, empty, carpeted spaces. These themes would be reworked and reimagined in countless mosques over the next 1200 years up until the present. But I was struck by a sense of continuity with what had gone before; the great basilica dominating the structure, the gold mosaics, the domes and arches all evoking Rome, because of course the domes, and the arches, and even the holy relics were all transmitted straight from Rome. This mosque that lies over the Basilica of St John the Baptist, that in turn lies over the temple of Jupiter, was the closest I would ever come to seeing Byzantium.

The earliest remains here date to the 9th century BCE, to the temple of Haddad, Aramean God of thunder and lighting. In the 3rd century CE, the Romans rededicated the temple to Jupiter and built a vast temple complex covering acres. The ruins of the propylaea, the crumbling monumental archway that once formed the entrance, now serves as the mouth of Hamidayah Souk, the main covered shopping street of Old Damascus. It juts up from the tangle of stalls and hoardings as the ruined forum must once have heaved itself out of the tangled alleys of Rome, before being cleared around, fenced and fossilised. The width of a football pitch separates it from the gates of the mosque, the outer walls of which only encompass the old inner courtyard of that huge ancient building.

The mosaic of the Ummayad Mosque, Damascus

The mosaic of the Ummayad Mosque, Damascus

A hundred years later the site was again rededicated, this time as a cathedral for the newly Christian empire. It remained a place of exclusively Christian worship until the Umayyad conquest swept out of the Arabian Peninsula in 661 CE. For the next sixty years, the site was shared by Christians and Muslims, with each praying in their own dedicated areas – something which would have been scarcely conceivable in Western Europe at the time. When the Umayyads eventually took full control of the site and began the work of constructing their great mosque, they continued this enlightened approach, compensating the Christians with land elsewhere in the city for new churches.

Even then, the mosque continued to draw on its pre-Islamic associations. It is still reputed to house the head of John the Baptist (an honour contested by both Munich and Rome) and the south-eastern most minaret is known as the Madinat Issa, the Minaret of Jesus. Issa is revered by Muslims as a prophet and a local tradition says he will return here on the Day of Judgment. Then the muezzin of the Muslims, the player of the Shofar of the Jews and the player of the horn of the Christians will gather their people to the mosque, before Issa goes forth to seek out the False Messiah.

The Umayyad Mosque is not only of significance to Sunni Muslims and Christians. Among the Sunni faithful and the busloads of Christian tourists from Russia and the Mid-West United States, flocked great numbers of Shi’a Muslims, many of them Iranian women, conspicuous in their black chadors. On the death of the Prophet Muhammad, Shi’a believe that leadership of the community of the faithful should rightfully have passed down the line of his family, via his daughter Fatima and his cousin Ali.

The martyrdom of Ali’s son Hussein is thus a defining moment for Shi’a. He was killed by the forces of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid and a story relates how his head was taken as a trophy. But the killing of the Prophet’s grandson came to be seen as regrettable and the head was eventually interred in the great mosque built by his enemies in Damascus.

If the presence of such a notable relic is a great draw to Shi’a pilgrims, the politics of the region also play their part. Shi’a are a minority in most of the countries where they live, often marginalised. In the Holy Cities of the Hejaz, the Saudi authorities take a dim view of what they regard as Shi’a idolatry, and Shi’a pilgrims are required to keep a low profile. But although most Syrians are Sunni, the government which clings to power is dominated by Alawis, widely identified as a Shi’a sect. Set this alongside Syria’s longstanding strategic alliance with Iran, the world’s most populous Shi’a nation, and it’s easy to see why Shi’a pilgrims feel at home here – even in a Sunni mosque.

The Tomb of Sayyida Ruqayya

The Tomb of Sayyida Ruqayyah

The Tomb of Sayyida Ruqayya

This was even more apparent at the next site we visited, the tomb of Sayyida Ruqayya, daughter of Hussein. Aged only four, she is said to have expired of grief and shock when cruelly taunted with the head of her murdered father. For years the mausoleum decayed among the tangled alleyways of predominantly Sunni Damascus, but with the Shi’a revival of recent years, and the growing friendship between Iran and Syria, the area was cleared and a splendid new mosque built, all paid for by the Iranian government.

The Umayyad Mosque is the number one tourist attraction in Syria, as full of sightseers as Westminster Abbey, but the Sayyida Ruqayya is chiefly a draw for Shi’a pilgrims so we hovered uncertainly at the entrance, unsure whether or not to intrude.  But we were soon spotted and ushered in with smiles and welcomes, any trepidation quickly dispelled by the warmth of the congregation.

From the glazed and carpeted courtyard, we passed through separate entrances into the shrine itself, a riot of mirror glass mosaic, silver tracery, and green neon light, in the contemporary Iranian style. There was none of the sombreness or reserve of a European church. Laughing children ran playing in circles around wailing women in black chadors, some weeping and rending their clothes as they mourned the little saint, while others smiled and chatted. Meanwhile groups of men took it in turns to photograph one another as they posed praying. Others muttered quiet prayers, tracing the tooled silver grill that covered the casket of the infant saint with reverent fingers.

We were handed a leaflet which told the story of the little Sayyida’s sad demise. Interestingly this pamphlet, printed in English, seemed designed to evoke solidarity between Shi’a and Christians. Since this common front has kept the current regime in power for over 40 years, it was hard not to detect a political undertone. The story told how a Roman ambassador, arriving in Damascus shortly after the events already related, admonished Yazid for the murder of Hussein. He suffered martyrdom, but not before exclaiming that Hussein’s severed head had appeared to him in a dream the night before, to promise him a place in paradise.

The Convent of St Thecla

The statue of Christ the Redeemer above the Convent of St Thecla

The statue of Christ the Redeemer above the Convent of St Thecla

The next day we set off for Maaloula with some trepidation. We had little idea of the situation outside the capital, but more than that we had no real idea where to get off the bus. It turned out we needn’t have worried. The guidebook said the bus would stop in the centre of town, but two of our fellow passengers were also intending to visit the Convent of St Thecla and they had no intention of walking up the hill. Both were woman in black chadors, obviously Shi’a, and they had clearly made the journey before. As soon as we boarded the bus they told us to follow them and had the driver take the winding road right up the flank of the mountains to the gates of the Convent, perched under the overhanging cliffs at the top of the town.

Legend has it that Thecla, a disciple of St Paul, was cornered here by soldiers sent to execute her. Trapped and facing martyrdom, she prayed to God, who split the rock allowing her escape. In the convent dedicated to her memory, we overheard a hushed conversation in the language of Christ between a nun and an elderly villager, while our new Muslim friends lit candles at the grotto shrine of a Christian saint. Afterwards we followed the gorge through to the monastery church of St Sergius, past rock-cut tombs and anchorite caves. Built in 325 CE it is one of the oldest active churches still in existence. We bought a CD of the Aramaic liturgy and a recycled whisky bottle full of “Local Wine”, with a sellotape and felt-tip label, before catching the last bus back to Damascus.

Syria: Now and Then

In those early days of the uprising, Damascus seemed untouched by the conflict, an exciting, vibrant city where mixed groups of girls and boys happily drank together in bars, and Muslim girls in hijab chatted and smoked nargileh in the coffee shops. The streets were clean and safe and the cosmopolitan middle classes seemed more fearful of uncertainly than they were of the government. Pictures of Assad were posted in every shop, every car, from every lamppost, all celebrity smiles and waves. But when we got in each night we flipped back compulsively to Aljazeera – another 37 dead in Daraa, shots fired in Harasta, a short bus ride away.

On the last night we were invited to join the hotel owner for some drinks. The conversation flowed easily with the arak as he questioned us bluntly and teasingly on the meaning of life, quoting liberally from Nietzsche, Lewis Carroll and Khalil Gibran. At one point we stopped to join in with the whooping and clapping from a long table where an old priest, dressed all in ecclesiastical black, was presented with a matching black birthday cake covered in sparklers.  They clapped and sang long into the night. Our host’s nephew recognised the old folk songs as Armenian, he said he’d known the tunes since childhood, but he confessed he didn’t understand the words. By the time we left, a couple of musicians had started an impromptu concert of David Bowie songs and everyone was singing along.

This was a microcosm of modern Syria, an irreverent Greek Orthodox host, who professed that drinking arak was the only true religion. His friend, a Muslim who drank gin and tonic – but only ate halal food. His nephew was a young Syrian Armenian. Like so many Armenians, with memories of their recent genocide still fresh, his family fled southwards when the French handed over their corner of north-western Syria to the newly formed Turkish Republic in the wake of the First World War.

They were not the first to take that road. Since the days of the Persian and Byzantine Empires, the mountain villages and great cosmopolitan cities of Syria have been a refuge for those fleeing religious persecution. For centuries Jews, Christians and Muslims venerated Syria’s holy sites together. Today the forces of modernity, urbanisation and war threaten to tear what remains of that fragile patchwork apart. But until recently, vestiges of those traditions survived. Now they are on hiatus, and it remains to be seen if war and terror will break the thread that connects Syrians of all faiths to their common history. If there remains any hope for the future of Syria, it surely lies in the memory of the common bonds forged between communities in places like Maaloula and Damascus, where Sunni, Shi’a and Christians of all denominations have lived and worshipped side by side for the past 1400 years.

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About Christopher De Bie

Christopher De Bie graduated from Birbeck College with an MA in Islam, Politics and Society, specialising in religion, secularism and modernity in Iran.

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