After reunited with my two travel buddies in Cairo, our homeward odyssey official began. From Cairo, we flew to Athens, then to Zurich, before crossing the Atlantic back to Canada. In Greece, our plan was to spend a few hours to visit the Acropolis, had supper, and took a bit of rest before heading out to the airport. We expected to see some crowds at the world famous Acropolis, but watching hundreds if not thousands of cruise ship tourists wearing the same cap marching up the citadel hill right below us was still a shock. Despite the crowds, seeing one of the most recognizable icons of Western civilization was definitely an impressive experience.
The Acropolis is home to some of the most recognizable Classical Greek structures: the Parthenon, Propylaea, Erechtheion, Temple of Athena Nike, etc. Most of the Acropolis was constructed under Pericles during the golden age of Athens in the 5th century BC, the century that saw Athen’s victory against the Persians. The Acropolis was a magnificent collaborative work by architects including Iktinos, Kallikrates, and Mnesikles, and sculptors such as Pheidias, Alkamenes, and Agorakritos. This iconic hill was also the birthplace of democracy, philosophy, and theatre art of the Western world.
After seeing the Classical ruins, we headed down the northern slope to the Plaka quarter, a colourful and lovely neighbourhood full of lively restaurants, souvenir shops, and eye catching street art. In the evening, we picked a cosy restaurant for dinner. With English menus in hand, we ordered our dishes and I chose sirloin steak. The server tried his best to match our selections from his Greek menu. Somehow my sirloin steak was lost in translation and I ended up getting a whole grilled squid. It was a pleasant surprise and I had zero intention to swap it back to beef. The Mediterranean squid was fresh and delicious, and lived long in my memory. If it was a typical steak dinner, I would definitely not remember a single thing from that particular meal after all these years.
Built upon the 3rd century ruined gate of the Roman fortress, layers of palm tree logs and stones were used to construct the foundation for the Hanging Church. Probably the most famous church in Coptic Cairo, the Hanging Church is also one of the oldest. Between 7th and 13th century, the Hanging Church was the residence of the Coptic Patriarch. Although much of what we see today of the church’s exterior is from the 19th century, many of the interior architectural features and objects date back to various periods in history, including the 110 Christian icons in which the oldest dates back to the 8th century. Some parts of the church was off limits to tourists during our visit, but nonetheless the Hanging Church was the highlight of our visit of Coptic Cairo.
After Coptic Cairo, we spent much of the afternoon at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the huge museum filled with treasures from ancient Egypt since 1901. The exhibits seemed disorienting at times, though its collection of the 120,000 ancient Egypt artefacts, such as papyrus, stone statues, jewellery, royal mummies (famous pharaohs such as Ramses II), and funeral accessories were truly magnificent. The most impressive of all was undoubtedly the treasures of the tomb of boy King Tutankhamen. According to plan, the Cairo’s Egyptian Museum would be replaced by the new Grand Egyptian Museum at Giza in 2021. Unfortunately, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic would likely affect the visitor numbers for the new museum at its grand opening.
Leaving the museum, we strolled along the Nile and saw a few felucca owners cleaning their boats. We didn’t have the interest to hire a felucca. Instead, we headed to Cafe Niche for a quick bite. Back at Luna Hotel, my two travel buddies rested a bit before heading to the train station for their quick visit of Upper Egypt. For me, I thought more time would be needed for a decent visit of Luxor and Aswan in Upper Egypt. Instead, I planned to spend the remaining few days in Egypt on my own. My destination was off the beaten track at Siwa Oasis and the Western Desert.
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.
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.
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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.
Covering 500,000 square kilometers in the Middle East, and spanning across parts of Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the Syrian Desert (Badiyat al-Sham) is home to Bedouin tribes, ancient trade routes and ruined cities. Parts of the Syrian Desert and other deserts in the Arabian Peninsula are considered to be some of the driest places in the world. Yet, some Bedouin tribes continue to live nomadically with their livestock (goats, sheep and camels) in the area. From Hama, Cairo Hotel arranged a van to take us into the Syria Desert towards the ancient city of Palmyra. On the way, we stopped by the Roman ruins of Qasr Ibn Wardan and a village of vernacular beehive houses.
In the middle of the desert where ancient Romans marked their eastern boundary, Emperor Justinian built an enormous complex in the 6th century AD attempting to impress the desert nomads. A mixture of local materials and Byzantine architectural styles imported from Constantinople created a magnificent building complex that once encompassed a palace, church and military barracks. To the Romans, Qasr Ibn Wardan was a beacon at the border that separated the their empire and the Sassanid Empire, the last Persian dynasty. Stripes of dark basalt and yellow bricks create a strong sense of horizontality against the desert horizon, connecting the structure with the imposing desert landscape and expressing the grandeur of Roman Empire in the middle of nowhere.
Although the original dome was long gone, the impressive remains of the church at Qasr Ibn Wardan has stood prominently against the desert horizon for 1500 years.
The palace is the largest remaining structure, with rooms distributed on two floors surrounding a central courtyard. An inscription dated the building to 564 AD.
In terms of architectural technologies, the Byzantine style of the complex must have been quite fascinating for the locals 1500 years ago.
The basalt and yellow bricks should be considered high quality in the 6th century.
The lintel at the church’s main entrance also contains Greek inscriptions.
The Greek inscriptions “All things to the glory of God” was carved onto the lintel of the palace south entrance.
Many archaeologists believed that the columns used at Qasr Ibn Wardan came from the ancient city of Apamea.
The church of Qasr Ibn Wardanis a fine example of Byzantine architecture.
The dome is supported by pendentives sprang from an octagonal drum.
Simeon Stylites, a famous ascetic saint seeking for a spiritual life of extreme austerity, spent 37 years living on a small platform atop a pillar. Probably born in 390 AD, Simeon was devoted to Christianity since about 13 years old. His practice of extreme austerity led him to a pursuit of an ascetic life in seclusion. In order to avoid the crowd of pilgrims seeking for his prayers, Simeon found a pillar from an ancient ruins and built a platform of about one square metre on top and started his 37 year living on a pillar. He moved to different columns throughout his life. The last was recorded to be more than 15m from ground. Instead of isolated from the society, his fame grew even greater after living on a pillar. He would talk to visitors from a ladder, wrote letters, instructed disciplines, hosted lectures for an assembly down below. Even the Roman emperors greatly respected Simeon and his counsels. He died in 459 AD after 37 years spent on a pillar. After his death, stylites or pillar dwellers had become a kind of popular Christian ascetics in early Byzantine era. Qalaat Samaan, or the Church of Saint Simeon Stylites, is a 5th century church built on the site of Simeon’s pillar. Before the construction of Hagia Sophia, the Church of Saint Simeon had the most famous dome in the world of Christendom. Over the last 1600 years, the basilica survived earthquakes and wars, but had met its fate of destruction being at the wrong place at the wrong time: at the crossroad among forces of the Syrian, ISIS, Kurdish, Turkish, Russians and other rebels. Since taken by the ISIS in 2013, the complex had gone through several years of absolute chaos and madness, missile bombing and stone removal, all causing significant damages to the world heritage complex. What believed to be the remains of Simeon’s pillar was damaged by Russian air strikes in support of Assad’s regime. Along with the destruction of old Aleppo, Qalaat Samaan’s ill fate is another great loss to human civilization that no reconstruction work can ever restore.
A 1664 depiction of Saint Simeon Stylites the Elder, Musee d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.
From the bus station of Aleppo we hired a car to Qalaat Samaan, the famous ruins of the four basilicas built in the 5th century dedicated to Saint Simeon Stylites. The ruins was rather remote, at approximately 2 hour of drive north of Aleppo. We were amazed by the grand scale of the complex, and found the ruined archways very photogenic. We finished our visit at around 11:00 and didn’t have a clue of how to return to Aleppo, as our hired car only offered an one way trip. No public transportation was available, and we were up on a hill far from the highway. At the parking lot, I decided to try hitchhiking. Since there were six of us it wasn’t easy. I headed towards a tour bus in which the driver was reading newspaper. I tried to communicate with him in English and luckily he understood my request. He led me to the tour guide and the group of Spanish tourists. They agreed to take us along all at once as they were leaving for Aleppo as well. They were not a big group, around 15 of them, mainly in their 50s. The bus was the most luxurious tour bus we had ever seen, with large comfortable chairs and a banquette seating area at the back where we settled ourselves comfortably. Their bus even dropped by one of the 700 sites of the Dead Cities along the way. We were invited to go along with them. On the bus, the Spanish group kindly offered us biscuits and snacks. The bus was so comfortable that at the end we all fell asleep. When we woke up we had already back at the Citadel of Aleppo. This remained as our only hitchhiking experience in the Middle East.
Saint Simeon was an influential figure 1500 years ago, prompting people to construct a large church complex shortly after his death at the site of his pillar. The ruined complex is consisted of the main Church of Saint Simeon, Baptistry, and Monastery.
The Church of Saint Simeon had about 5000 sq.m of floor space, almost comparable to that of the Hagia Sophia. It was designed in a cruciform with four basilica centered at the octagonal courtyard where the remains of the pillar of Saint Simeon stood.
Built in 490 AD, the church was one of the earliest churches in this part of the world.
The massive archways are the most well preserved elements of the complex.
The fine details of the arches and column capitals are valuable artefact from the early Byzantine era.
We could have spend a long time to study the fine details of the ruins.
Much of the walls of the four basilicas remained intact in 2006 when we visited.
Along with the Ancient Villages of Northern Syria, the church was declared an UNESCO World Heritage site in 2011. However taken by ISIS in 2013, the church had entered a few years of absolute madness and destruction.
Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, strongly condemned the severe damage caused by an air-strike to the Church of Saint Simeon.
The most important spot of the complex is the octagonal courtyard where the remains of Simeon’s pillar stood before the war.
What remained from the 15m pillar where Saint Simeon once lived atop had become less than 3m tall before the Syrian Civil War. After the Russian air strike, the spot has become nothing but a pile of rubble.
There were hardly any explanations or signage at the ruins, but we were free to walk around the complex.
The Eastern Basilica was beautifully preserved. It was larger than the others, and used to held all major ceremonies.
Since 2003, the complex had been regularly surveyed and scanned by the French. Their 3D documentation prior to the building’s partial destruction in 2016 may prove to be crucial for its future restoration.
The octagonal Baptistery was a crucial part of the pilgrimage complex.
The Baptistery is one of the best preserved Christian architecture in Syria.
Baptistry Baptistry was constructed shortly after the construction of the main church. The wooden roof, either a cone or dome, didn’t survive to this day.
Since the complex was erected on the hill, there were spots where we could enjoy the surrounding scenery down below.
As of 2020, Idlib, the city near the Church of Saint Simeon Stylite, was the latest battle ground between the Jihadist forces, Turkish backed rebels, Russian backed Syrian government and Kurdish forces.