Maaloula

Famous mostly for being one of the few places in Syria where Aramaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken, Maaloula is an important centre of Christianity. The town's butter-yellow and pale-blue houses are stacked higgledy-piggledy on top of another, huddled strikingly against the sheer cliffs that mark the edge of the Qallamoun mountains.

Some of the caves around Maaloula suggest that it was a centre for prehistoric settlement, while others appear to have been dug during Greek and Roman times and subsequently used by the early Christians as refuges from persecution. The occurrence of Aramaic in the region, together with the inscriptions found in some of the caves, confirm Maaloula as one of the earliest centres of Christianity in the world. Later, during the Byzantine period, Christianity flourished in the area.

Ins and outs

Getting there and away

There are microbuses from Damascus and from Saidnaya to here. Most microbuses will drop you off at the top of the hill at the Convent of St Takla car park saving you a walk up hill. When leaving, they pick up down the hill at the main intersection.

Deir Mar Takla (Convent of St Takla)

According to legend, this convent grew up around the shrine of St Takla (or St Thecla), daughter of one of the Selucid princes and a pupil of St Paul. The legend relates how Takla was being pursued by soldiers sent by her father to execute her for her Christian faith. Finding herself trapped against the sheer cliffs of Qallamoun, she prayed to God for help. Her prayer was answered when a narrow cleft was opened in the rock face, allowing her to escape to a small cave high up in the cliffs. St Takla is recognized locally as the first Christian martyr, although quite how this is so, when according to the legend she escaped her pursuers and lived in the cave until her peaceful death, is not entirely clear.

Most of the buildings of the current convent are of recent origin, and none show any evidence of surviving Byzantine work. The main chapel has a number of icons inside, while the shrine of St Takla is above, in the side of the rock face.

The defile

From the parking area to the left of the convent, a path leads up through a narrow defile, the rock on either side pressing in, almost to form a tunnel in places. This is the cleft in the cliffs referred to in the legend of St Takla, and there are numerous shrines and caves which have been dug into the rock along its length. It is also to this defile that Maaloula owes its name, the word meaning literally 'entrance' in Aramaic. The defile brings you out eventually at the top of the cliffs. Close to where it emerges, there is a restaurant with a pleasant garden terrace set amongst poplar trees.

Deir Mar Sarkis

The monastery of St Sarkis (or St Serge, from Sergius) is believed to have been founded in the early fourth century AD, on the site of an earlier Greek/Roman temple dedicated to Apollo. St Sarkis, along with St Bacchus, to whom the monastery is dedicated, were soldiers in the Roman army based at Rasafeh. Having converted to Christianity, they refused to make sacrifices to the god Jupiter and were put to death. Their remains are believed to have been housed in the large basilica there, and during the Byzantine period Rasafeh was known as 'Sergiopolis' in honour of St Sarkis.

The entrance to Deir Mar Sarkis is through a low, awkward doorway, presumably a defensive feature. This leads through to a small, recently restored courtyard. Inside a room labelled 'Museum and Souvenirs', there is an excellent series of postcards of the monastery's icons on sale here, along with various items of religious kitsch. The square pit hewn out of the stone floor in this room was for pressing grapes.

At the far end of the courtyard, on the right, a passage leads through to the monastery's church. The main altar of the church, in the central apse, is of particular interest, consisting of a semi-circular slab of marble with a 7-cm rim around it. The fact that the altar is semi-circular is taken as evidence that it dates from before AD 325, the date of the First Council of Nicea, when it was decreed that all altars had to be flat and rectangular. The rim around the edge of the altar is thought to be a feature surviving from pagan times, when altars were used for animal sacrifices in which the blood had to be collected. As the monks of the monastery are quick to point out, however, the rim appears to have been simply a stylistic feature, as in this case there is no drainage point from which to collect the blood, nor is the rim engraved with the animals which were suitable for sacrifice, as was the norm on pagan altars. Below the altar is a small crypt. In the side-apse to the left is another altar, this one also with a rim, though rectangular in shape. Note the fresco in the dome above the altar, depicting the heavens with the Virgin Mary and Jesus surrounded by the saints Mathew, Mark, Luke and John.

The iconostasis of the church includes a number of particularly beautiful icons painted by St Michael of Crete in the early 19th century. The one above the entrance to the central apse is of St Sarkis and St Bacchus. On the pillar to the right of the entrance to the central apse is something you don't see often: Christ's crucifixion and the Last Supper portrayed in a single icon. It is also unusual in that Jesus is seated to the right of the table rather than in the centre. Also of interest is the icon of St John the Baptist, here smiling and relaxed, with his legs crossed (in contrast to the usual serious/formal depictions), having baptized Jesus and therefore completed his mission. Some of the icons in the church are thought to date back as far as the 13th century.

There is clear evidence in the church of its ancient origins. The lower part of the iconostasis consists of stone slabs taken from the earlier Greek/Roman temple, while some of the capitals appear to have originated from the same source. Above the arches separating the nave from the side aisles, wooden beams can be seen incorporated into the stonework. These are thought to have served to reinforce the church against earthquakes. Samples taken from them have indicated that they are Lebanese cedar, and around 2000 years old, suggesting that they too were recycled from the original temple. Outside the church, around the side, there is an even smaller arched entrance, now protected by a porch and sealed behind a metal door. In the immediate vicinity of the monastery there are several substantial rock-cut caves.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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