Maaloula, Syria: Where the language of Jesus lives on

By Steven V. Roberts
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 20, 2009

We were standing in the courtyard of St. Sergius, a Greek Catholic monastery in the Syrian hill town of Maaloula, about an hour northeast of Damascus. It was a hot day in late summer, and the strong sun bounced off the light-colored limestone walls. My wife, Cokie, and I sought the shade of a portico as our guide, Hana, explained the history surrounding us.

The original church, he said, dated from the 4th century but was built on top of a pagan sanctuary, and some of the wooden beams, made of Lebanese cedar, were more than 2,000 years old. Also known as Mar Sarkis, the monastery was named for a Roman officer, a secret Christian whose faith was unmasked when he refused to participate in a sacrifice to Zeus. Sergius and his friend Bacchus, a fellow officer and co-religionist, were tortured and executed in the Syrian city of Resafa, and many churches in this country bear their names.

Maaloula is Hana's home village, and on the drive from the capital he had told us proudly that this is one of the few places where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still spoken. Now he asked whether we'd like to hear the Lord's Prayer in his mother tongue, and of course we said yes.

Hana held out his arms and intoned the familiar words in a strange language that to me sounded a bit like Hebrew. We savored the moment as the prayer echoed off the ancient stones.

Then a door opened, and in walked about 30 well-dressed people who clearly were not tourists. (No one wears heels that high to clamber around a steep, stony village.)

We followed the party into the monastery church, and Hana recognized one of the women as his wife's school friend. They were there for a baptism, she told him, and as we waited for the ceremony to begin, he gave us a quick tour. A stone altar, dating from the church's earliest days, had no rim or drain spout, a sign that it had never been used for blood sacrifices. The icons on the walls included one of John the Baptist, particularly appropriate given the ceremony we were about to witness.

Then the priest arrived, and we stood quietly to the side as the prayers were said and the baby anointed. Here, for this brief moment, Aramaic was not a dead relic but a living thing, a flower bursting through a crack in the stones, greeting a child into a community of Christians that refuses to be swallowed up by the Muslim world at its doorstep.

Syria is known in the West for its combustible politics: an adversary committed to the destruction of Israel; a supporter of radical Islamic organizations such as Hezbollah in Lebanon; a sanctuary for terrorists operating across the border in Iraq. Many friends who heard that we were vacationing in Syria thought we were daft, but few realized that the country's extensive Christian heritage -- St. Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, after all -- is still here to be seen and heard and felt.

As a Jew, I never felt unsafe or unwelcome in Syria, but the country's once vibrant Jewish population has been driven away, and the grand synagogue of Aleppo lies decaying and desecrated behind iron gates. Syria has taken a different view of its Christian population, which remains at about 10 percent, 14 centuries after the region's conquest by Arabic-speaking Muslims. The Baath Party, which has ruled since 1963, is decidedly secular. But one of its founders, Michel Aflaq, was Greek Orthodox. Christians have traditionally served in high government posts, and Christian practices and monuments are widely respected. In the bazaars of Aleppo, the names on the gold and jewelry stores are still mainly Armenian, reflecting the influx of Armenians who fled Turkey during World War I. The town has the second-largest Christian population in the Middle East, after Beirut.

Not far from Maaloula sits the Krak des Chevaliers, a mountain fortress built by Crusaders in the 12th and 13th centuries. In the old city of Damascus, a chapel marks the spot where Paul was nursed and taught by a local Christian, St. Ananias, after his vision. Several of the country's bewildering array of Christian sects -- from Armenian Orthodox to Syrian Catholic -- maintain headquarters in Damascus, and we were surprised to see crosses, outlined in vivid bluish-white neon, shimmering in the evening sky.

As soon as you enter Maaloula, its religious heritage is evident. A large statue of the Virgin Mary dominates one hillside; many houses are painted in a pale blue wash, a gesture of respect to the mother of Jesus. Hana pointed out the mountaintops where every year fires are lighted to celebrate the Festival of the Holy Cross. (Legend says that after Helena, mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, found the relics of Jesus's cross in Jerusalem in 325, she ordered her servants to light a series of fires that eventually carried word of her discovery back to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople.)

We went first to St. Sergius, the highest point in town, and though not every traveler gets to see a baptism in Aramaic, there are usually guides or schoolgirls present to recite the Lord's Prayer in the language. These guides report that visitors often burst into tears while they are chanting. Before leaving, we stopped at the souvenir shop, which dispenses local wine, honey and crafts. My wife, who is Catholic, bought a pair of fish-shaped lace antimacassars that now adorn a chair in our bedroom.

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