To Ma'aloula and Deir Mar Musa, in Search of Spiritual Roots

Monday, July 11, 2005 | Ma'loula, Syria (map)

Deir Mar Musa, perhaps the most tranquil place in Syria, overlooks a broad and rugged plain.
Life hasn't slowed down much lately. This weekend I went with my Australian housemate Julian and two German friends, Marion and Christina, to two fascinating sites just a short drive north of Damascus.

The tiny village of Ma'aloula (معلولا) is famously known as one of the last places in the Middle East where people still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus and most everyone else in his day. We didn't notice anyone speaking Aramaic, but we were there!

Ma'aloula's colorful mix of pastel houses are built into a hillside, and dominated by rocky cliffs above. Among the cliffs are two ancient churches, which we visited. One is so old that it predates Christianity; it used to be a Roman temple to Bacchus, the god of wine. Its cryptic sanctuary holds several original pre-Christian altars, notable for the small lip running around their edge, which we're
told was designed to prevent the blood from running onto the floor when sacrifices were performed.

After a hike up to a nearby waterfall, we grabbed lunch and headed on to our next destination.

We took a bus through some very desolate stretches of desert, and were dropped off at the base of a mountain. The afternoon sun beating hard on us, we hiked up a trail to Deir Mar Musa (دير مار موسى), the 12th century Orthodox Christian monastery perched on a cliff near the peak. The monks gave us fruit and water when we arrived, and let us drop our bags in a series of small, rough-hewn shacks where we would spend the night. Five monks live in the monastery year-round, along with an assortment of dogs, cats, chickens, turtles, and other creatures.

Soon, Marion, Christina, and I decided to scramble the rest of the way up the mountain to catch the sunset over the surrounding desert. The view was stunning, and utterly desolate. As far as we could see, there was not a single piece of vegetation, and only one or two shacks in the distance to indicate human habitation.

Back at the monastery, the priests were preparing to hold their normal evening service of prayers and meditation in conjunction with the nuns from the adjoining convent. We decided to check it out, and ducked into the cave-like chapel. The service turned out to be a fascinating study for me. The monks' brand of Orthodox Christianity is quite far removed from European brands of the religion, and even further from American sects. The service was conducted entirely in Arabic, and the participants, all seated on the ground, knelt and touched their foreheads to the ground like the Muslims do.

Coincidentally, earlier in the week while relaxing in the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, I'd noticed that the Star of David is prominently displayed in the designs of the mosque's minarets. Because people cling to their religion so tightly here, and consider it so central to their identity, it seems amazing how much the different faiths have mixed over the centuries.

And yet, none of those blends seemed particularly out of place in Syria. The whole country is a jumble of cultures, languages, and histories built up over centuries.

Update, April 2008: The New York Times has just published a piece on Ma'aloula and its unique—but fading—linguistic heritage. Read it here: "Malula Journal: In Syrian Villages, the Language of Jesus Lives".

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