BEIRUT — High in the mountains above Damascus lies a town so remote that Syria’s war had passed it by, so untouched by time that its inhabitants still speak the language of Jesus.
The violence ravaging the rest of Syria has finally caught up with Maaloula, renowned as the oldest Christian community in the world — and the last in which the same version of Aramaic that prevailed 2,000 years ago is the native tongue.
On Sunday, Syrian rebels, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda, swept through Maaloula for the second time in four days, after an assault a few days earlier in which the last of its few thousand residents fled and the specter of unchecked violence threatened to convulse the iconic town.
Only a couple of dozen nuns remained, cowering in fear as warplanes screeched overhead, shells exploded and al-Qaeda-linked fighters overran their convent, turning them into witnesses to what may be one of the more extraordinary encounters of the Syrian war.
The monks had fled from their nearby monastery months ago, and even the last two priests who oversaw the affairs of Maaloula’s ancient Mar Takla nunnery took buses out of town last week, leaving the nuns of Maaloula to fend for themselves as the fighters closed in.
With Congress poised to debate President Obama’s proposed military intervention in Syria, the arrival of war in Maaloula illuminates the complexity of a conflict that has defied all attempts at resolution for 21 / 2 years. The future of Christianity in the region of its birth is just one of the smaller issues at stake in the discussions expected to unfold.
The fight for Maaloula began Wednesday, when rebels of the Free Syrian Army launched an assault aided by a suicide bomber from Jabhat al-Nusra, which is designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government because of its declared affiliation with al-Qaeda.
The bomber, said by other fighters to be a Jordanian, blew himself up at the Syrian army checkpoint commanding entrance to the town, killing seven government loyalists. Other rebel units, most of them less extremist, swarmed into the town, which in past years lured Christian pilgrims from around the world to explore its ancient sites and listen to the Christian liturgy preached in Aramaic in its churches.
Firing volleys of gunfire into the air, according to videos posted on YouTube, the rebels roamed through the town in pickup trucks and said they had “cleansed” Maaloula of supporters of the regime.
They also vowed not to attack Christians and proclaimed, “We must not harm any church . . . we target only those who shoot at us,” a commander told the camera. “These people are our families . . . these icons of the church and those people here and there, they should stay in peace.”
And then they departed Friday, almost as abruptly as they had arrived. They attacked the town, several rebel spokesmen said, only as part of an offensive to secure control of a major road between the strategically vital city of Homs and the capital, Damascus, both at the forefront of the broader battle for control of Syria — a battle that has been waged by the family of President Bashar al-Assad for 40 years.
But when the rebels moved in, the elders of the town “were afraid of airstrikes and shelling,” said Abu Shamso, an activist with the rebels, speaking by Skype from a nearby opposition-controlled village in the mountains northwest of Damascus.
“They wanted us to go, so we left,” he said.
Overnight Saturday, the rebels surged back into the town, including members of Jabhat al-Nusra. They surrounded the Mar Takla convent, which was built into mountains where persecuted early Christians found sanctuary many centuries ago.
The 27 nuns and the two dozen or so orphans they are caring for remained inside, huddled in an ancient cavern known as the Christmas Cave because it resembles the caves in Bethlehem where Jesus was born, said the convent’s mother superior, Pelagia Sayaf, who was interviewed by telephone and has been in charge of the nunnery since 1990.
The cave also offered protection from the MIG fighter jets that began dropping bombs on the town to dislodge the rebels and the shelling that routinely targets towns across the country that are seized by rebels.
Late Sunday, the Jabhat al-Nusra fighters entered the convent and asked the nuns to appear in a video to declare that they had not been harmed. Such videos serve as the chief medium of communication for all parties to the Syrian opposition.
There were 25 fighters in all, Sayaf said. The one who negotiated with her spoke with a Saudi accent, while others appeared to be from Afghanistan or Chechnya, she said. Several spoke no Arabic, and all of her comments were interpreted from Arabic into English by one of the fighters to the others, she said, leading her to suspect that some were Americans.
In the video, she told the fighters that she had not been harmed, which, she said, is true.
And then, she said, the fighters withdrew from the convent. The nuns remain, praying and expressing no opinions about their hopes for the outcome of a war that could soon engulf the town.
“If you had heard so many explosions in any other place on Earth, many people would be dead,” Sayaf said. “It is because of our faith that we are alive.”
And, she added, “Maaloula is a very special place.”
Suzie Haidamous and Ahmed Ramadan contributed to this report.