At around 42 AD, Saint Mark introduced Christianity into Egypt and found the Church of Alexandria, one of the five apostolic sees of early Christianity in the Roman Empire (Church of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem ). By the 3rd century, Christianity had became the most popular religion in Egypt. The local language used to translate the earliest scripture was Coptic, and the Copts are one of the most ancient Christian communities in the Middle East. As Islam and the Arabic language entered Egypt in the 7th century, the significance of the Coptic language declined. Coptic Orthodox Christianity, on the other hand, continues to evolve and has became the main stream Christianity in Egypt. It is also believed that many practices of early Christians had been preserved by the Coptic Church. Today, it is estimated that Copts account for 5 to 20% of the Egyptian population.
In the 12 century, the seat of the Church of Alexandria was relocated to Coptic Cairo, the area believed to be visited by the Holy family when Jesus was a child. Today, Coptic Quarter is included in Old Cairo, the historical area of the Egyptian capital that has been inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1979. Like many tourists, we took the metro to the Coptic Quarter on our second day in Cairo. We visited the St George Church, Synagogue of Ben Ezra, Church of Abu Serga, and the Hanging Church. We also toured the Coptic Cemetery. Every tomb in the Coptic Cemetery is like a small shrine on its own.
In the shaded valley of Mount Sinai stands the 1500-year fortified Eastern Orthodox monastery named after Catherine of Alexandria, the Christian saint and virgin who was martyred in the early 4th century in hands of Emperor Maxentius. Monastic life had been known since the 4th century at the Sinai location, in the barren land of austerity and remoteness. In AD 330, Empress Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine the Great, built the Chapel of Burning Bush and a small hermit refuge at the site where Moses was supposed to see the burning bush and was named by God as the leader to lead the Israelies out of Egypt. In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian I ordered the construction of the monastery complex that we see today to house the Chapel of the Burning Bush. Amazingly the monastery still remains functioning as a Christian monastery today, and became one of the oldest monastic communities in the world. Due to the site’s significance in the Old Testament, the monastery is considered a sacred pilgrimage site for all sects of Christianity, Islam and Judaism throughout history.
After a sleepless night and hours of hiking in the rugged Mount Sinai, we finally made it to Saint Catherine’s Monastery at around 08:00. From the outside, the monastery resembles a highly fortified defense complex. It was hard to imagine that beyond the high stone walls stand one of the world’s oldest monastery, together with the oldest library in the Western world. The thousand-year-old library contains 3300 manuscripts written in 11 languages: Greek, Arabic, Syriac, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, Georgian and Slavonic. These manuscripts have became an extremely precious collection: classical Greek texts, medical writing, monastic documents and other texts created in different period in history, including some splendidly made manuscripts with glided letters and illuminations crafted in Constantinople. While the library is off limits to tourists, most visitors and pilgrims who have braved the harsh landscape and remote location of Sinai would find peace and bliss for the real life encounter with the legendary Burning Bush mentioned in the Book of Exodus.
We waited outside the monastery for about an hour until 09:00. Inside the complex, only the main church, a small museum and the exterior courtyard where the Burning Bush stands are opened to the public. At the crowded courtyard, everyone was trying to take pictures of themselves with the legendary Burning Bush. We wandered around the complex for a while and slowly returned to the parking lot of Mount Sinai for the tour minibus. We were quite sleepy and tired by the time we reached Bishibishi. At the hotel we grabbed a quick bite, packed our backpacks, and took the 14:30 bus leaving for Cairo. It was a long journey, passing by the Suez Canal at sunset, and reached Cairo after 8.5 hours on the road. At the bus station in Cairo, we took a taxi to Midan Talaat Harb, a star-shaped plaza at the centre of a shopping district, where our guesthouse was located. It was 23:30 when we arrived, but it felt like 20:00 as most shops and restaurants were still busy. After our hermitic days in the Arabian desert of Wadi Rum and Sinai Peninsula, the vibrant scenes of Cairo almost gave us a little shock.: the way people drive, cross the streets, yell in the shops, and occasionally intimidate tourists for a little tip. This is Cairo, the largest city in Africa, Middle East and the Arab world, with over 20 million of inhabitants who are proud of their pharaohic history.
56km northeast of Damascus, Maaloula is one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Considered by many Christians as sacred, the rocky terrains of the small mountain village is home to some of the world oldest Eastern Catholic monasteries, Greek Orthodox convents, churches, shrines, sanctuaries, etc. The village is also famous to be one of the last places on Earth where Aramaic, the Galilean dialect spoken by Jesus, is still spoken by elderly villagers or priests. Today, the Aramaic language is considered to be endangered, as it is only spoken natively in a few pockets in the Middle East, and most speakers are elderly. Some scholars are racing against time to document the language before it extincts completely. The population of Maaloula is also in decline. The 2004 census recorded 2,762 Christian and Muslim villagers, compared to the 19th century, when Maaloula was a monastic town with 15,000 Greek Orthodox Christians, Catholic Christians and Sunni Muslims. Tourism and pilgrimage have been bringing modern energy into the village. But the Syrian civil war put an abrupt end to it. In 2013 and 2014, Maaloula was a battle ground between the Syrian army and Al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda in Syria), a jihadist organization active during the war. During the temporary Al-Nusra Front occupation, monasteries and churches were damaged; Christian icons, including the Virgin Mary statue perched on the cliff above Maaloula, were destroyed; some Christian villagers were forced to convert to Islam or faced death penalty; and many more were forced to leave the village altogether. Rebuilding has been ongoing after the war.
* * *
In the morning we took a minibus from Damascus to Maaloula, a small village 56km northeast of the Syrian capital. Backed against rocky cliffs, Maaloula is a small place with rich history and deep spirituality. We get off at a fork road. Immediately we went up to the cliffside Mar Sarkis Monastery. We made a short hike to tour around Mar Sarkis. The gorge was narrow and looked like a mini Siq of Petra. We reached a plateau with good views of the village before turning back to the monastery for a brief tour of the interior. At the end, a priest offered us a special wine prepared from the monastery.
We got off the minibus at the fork road at Maaloula.
The surrounding rugged landscape and high cliffs define the character of the monastic village.
High above the village, a statue of the Virgin Mary stood on the cliff side.
From a distant, Maaloula looks similar to any other small towns in the region until one finds the rooftop crucifix and Byzantine domes of the Christian monasteries.
the rock plateau above the village is quite overwhelming.
Christian crucifix and dome structures stand out from Maaloula as we went closer to the village centre.
Continuous construction upon older structures or renovations every generation conceal the thousand years of Christian history in the simple stone buildings that blend in well with the rest of Maaloula.
Yet artefacts such as bronze bells or Christian icons in the interior would reveal the true age of the place.
Aramaic, the language Aiken by Jesus two thousand years ago, is still spoken by some elder villagers or priests. For many in Maaloula, the language would only be used in monastic rituals. While the sound of the Aramaic prayers might pass on to the next generation as part of the rituals, the actual meaning could be lost in the future.
The cliff around Monastery Mar Sarkis is full of narrow and winding passageways.
Convent of Saint Thecla is home to the tomb of St Thecla, disciple of St Paul who came to Maaloula to escape from Roman persecution. During the war, 12 nuns were taken hostage but eventually released as a prisoner exchange deal with the government.
Due to its proximity to Damascus, Maaloula is considered as a holiday destination by the locals.
Constructed in 325 AD, the Mar Sarkis Monastery, also called Saint Serge and Bacchus Church, was one of the world’s earliest church dedicated to the two Roman soldiers executed due to their Christian faith.
The Saint Serge and Bacchus Church at Maaloula predates its counterparts in both Constantinople or Rome. Unfortunately many churches in Maaloula didn’t allow photography in the interior.
No matter where we were in Maaloula, the imposing rocky landscape was never far away.
Pictures and photos of the former president Hafez al-Assad could still be seen in different places from Syrian cities to villages.
We passed by some new concrete houses under construction on our way back to Damascus.