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.