Two thousand years after St Paul’s birth Syria is still home to a thriving Christian centre where Christ’s language is spoken, finds Ed West
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision: “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” – Acts 9:10-12
It was one of the defining moments in history, transforming Christianity from a Jewish cult into the world’s foremost religion. Today Straight Street, a mile-long thoroughfare running east to west, laid out by the Greeks, is a thriving commercial hub as it was in Paul’s day, although after years of shop and house owners progressively taking liberties it is only a quarter as wide.
The House of St Ananias still lies to the north of the Romanbuilt Bab Sharqi, one of seven ancient gates to the city. The next gate along, Bab Kisan, is where Paul was lowered down into a basket to escape an angry Jewish community a couple of years after his conversion.
Nearby is the Greek Orthodox Cathedral, St Mary’s (Mariamie), which for the celebrations played host on the Friday night to the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra. It was a beautiful ceremony, a mixture of east and west, like the Syrian Christians as a whole. Ignatius IV, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, afterwards told the assembled faithful to come back washed in the Holy Spirit (it was translated to us as “we hope you come back washed”, but I’m assuming it was not a criticism of our body odour). Outside in the street the Orthodox had put up a banner welcoming all visitors to Damascus for the Year of St Paul.
I’ll admit to being a bit surprised to receive an invitation to Syria to celebrate the end of the Pauline year. The country is not on everyone’s list of holiday hotspots, and until relatively recently had very few British visitors. But I thank St Paul because Syria is a gem – the people are warm, friendly and gentle, but not pushy (as in other Arab-speaking countries). Strangers help you cross the road or find your destination for no other reason than that they’re civilised, hospitable and wellbrought-up people, and find foreigners curious. Syria is also very religiously tolerant. The women wear a huge variety of clothing, from glamorous to pious, and no one seems to mind either way. Strangely enough, I owe my existence to Syria’s women and their famous beauty. My grandfather was a Jesuit seminarian in Beirut in the dying days of the Ottoman Empire until a visit to Damascus, and the sight of the city’s women made him realise he could not be a priest. Damascus has not changed that much in the century since, although all but a handful of its Jews have left. However, the countless back-street statues of the Virgin Mary and the pasted images of Christians who have passed away are (ironically) testament to a thriving Christian population in these mean, meandering streets of this, the oldest city on earth.
Damascus has been continuously inhabited since at least 8000 BC and possibly 10,000 BC, although it “only” became a major town in 1400 BC when the Arameans invaded. The Arameans disappeared from history although their tongue became the lingua franca of the region, and was the native language of Christ. After the Muslim invasion of the seventh century and the Arabisation of what is now Syria and Iraq, Aramaic survived as the language of the Christians and its fortunes have withered with those of the faith.
But while Iraq’s Christians have faced catastrophe since the 2003 invasion, next door in Syria their brethren enjoy a high level of security, and a future. Syria is today between five and 10 per cent Christian, a baffling mixture of Syrian Orthodox and Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Catholic, Armenian Orthodox and Catholic, Maronite, Protestant and various other smaller eastern churches which have come in and out of Communion with Rome and Constantinople over the previous two millennia.
Keeping the peace is President Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s president since 2000, whose portrait looks down from every tower block, government building and restaurant, often pictured next to his father, Hafez. Assad senior seized power in 1970 and his rise to the top of the Ba’athist regime was unusual because the Assads are Alawites, a Shia sect dismissed as “little Christians” by many Muslims. They celebrate Easter and Christmas and use bread and wine in their religious services. The Assads have managed to keep the country, a mix of Sunni, Shia, Druze, Alawite and Christian, free of conflict. Outside the old town Damascus is dominated by totalitarian roundabouts, wide roads and ugly 1970s tower blocks (Syria was allied to the Soviet Union), although it is worth visiting the National Museum, home to a breathtaking archaeological haul, including the world’s first written alphabet.
Taking the road north, with the Anti-Lebanon mountains on the left, we arrived at Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (Monastery of St Moses the Abyssinian), originally founded in the sixth century by an Ethiopian prince who rejected the crown of that country and travelled to the Holy Land and then on to Syria.
It certainly was not built with the modern tourist in mind, set on the top of a stroke-inducing climb, but the 11th-century frescos of the saints inside the monastery’s tiny chapel are well worth it.
Mar Musa was deserted in the 19th century, left to local shepherds to vandalise for over a century before the Italian and Syrian governments, along with volunteers from Europe and the Middle East, teamed up to restore it.
But Syria is not just a place to see Christian history – it is home to a living culture.
One of the most curious places in the Middle East is the town of Maaloula, 40 miles north of Damascus. Set 5,000 feet up on a narrow
stretch of hillside road (the name means “entrance”), it is accessible only through one road (which still has a gate), through which one sees a beautiful town of windy streets and houses clinging to the side of the mountain, protected by a statue of Our Lady which overlooks it.
It is also the last surviving town where western neoAramaic is spoken as the main everyday language, something my Lonely Planet guidebook compared to finding a Latinspeaking town in the Umbrian hills.
In the fourth-century Orthodox convent of St Sergius and Bacchus, in honour of two soldiers sentenced to death in 297 for converting to Christianity, a local woman said the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic as Iranian Shia women in chadors (who revere the shrine) sat in solemn prayer. It is not an exaggeration to say that Christ himself would have understood proceedings (certainly better than I did). And in an age when so much Christian tourism involves visiting dead museumchurches, watching the ancestral eastern church as a living, breathing religion in the cradle of civilisation is not so much a holiday as a time-travelling experience.
For more information on visiting Syria see www.syriatourism.org