We packed our things as efficiently as we could and took off on a five day pilgrimage road trip through southern and central Syria. Bishop Saba arranged our schedule, and mostly we were late and didn’t quite know what to do when, but things worked out more or less alright. After about an hour and a half drive we arrived in Damascus, and went to visit Straight Street, where St Paul’s eyes were opened, and St. Ananias’ house, where he was baptized. It’s about half a story below street level, made of old stones, with light from a grate in the ceiling. There’s a chapel section and a baptismal section; the chapel is set up as for Latin mass; probably from the French influence.
We drove over to the center of the city, where after walking down a street of vendors we visited the Antiochian Patriarchate and got a blessing from His Beatitude Ignatius IV, though he was busy and we were somewhat unexpected, so he couldn’t stay and talk. We also visited the patriarchal cathedral next door, dedicated to the Theotokos, which is lovely. Afterwards we alked over to the Al Hamidiyeh souk (market), which was mostly closed because Friday is a weekend in Syria, but probably about as open as we could have managed anyway, given our time constraints. Some of toured the inside of the Umayyad Mosque, which was a church before it was a mosque, way long ago. The women had to go rent black hooded coats, and we were all obliged to take our shoes, but they did let us women go into the main part of the mosque, which isn’t usually done, since we were all touring in a group. It’s enormous an quite lovely, with some especially fine mosaics.
St Takla Monastery
After some more shopping in the slightly livelier souk (since the prayer service had just gotten out) and chicken wrap with sour yogurt drink (why do people choose to drink that stuff?), we got back on the bus and headed to the woman’s monastery of St Takla (Thekla) in Ma’aloula (they tend to use convent there, but I don’t, because we usually don’t here). It’s a beautiful old monastery built into the mountain between a path through the mountain it is said opened when St Takla prayed for a way of escape from her enemies and the cave where she lived with a miraculous spring in it. There we stayed the night, and had Liturgy the next morning. The monastery takes in orphan girls from the area, who live there and were at Liturgy with the nuns. They gave us an icon and a book of Thekla’s life.
The Christian Valley
After Liturgy on Saturday we first went to the Saint George Monastery on one side of what is called “the valley of Christians,” because there were so many Christians inhabiting it at one time. The monks living there gave us a tour, told us something about the churches there, and invited us into their salon for coffee. They have a medieval church, an old church, and a very old former church, all dedicated to Saint George. In their salon they also have the original proclamation of the leaders who took over from Muhammad saying not to destroy the Christian sites or kill those living there.
After driving 40 minutes of so to the hill on the other side of the valley, we stopped at the Castle of Knights and had lunch at a lovely little restaurant beneath the castle. The standard festive meal there seems to come in three courses: appetizers, some kind of meat, then fruit. The appetizers were amazing, and we seemed to have ordered all of them, which amounted to about ten different kinds of food. Then we went up to the “Castle of Knights,” which was built by the Hospitallers during the Crusades, taken by Saladin, then taken again much later by the French. It’s large, formidable, and very impressive — we spent quite a long time wandering around, trying to figure out what all the rooms were for, looking at the breathtaking views from the walls, and generally remarking on just how impressive of a place it is. Afterwards we drove to the women’s monastery of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, where we spent the night.
Other posts on Syria
Opening travels — Dubai, Damascus, Sweida, Phillipi, Bosra
Road Trip part 2 — Latakia, Palmyra
Road Trip part 3 — Homs, SaidNaya (Theotokos Monastery, St George’s Monastery, Cherubim Monastery), Vision Church
Road Trip part 4 — Golan Heights, Revolution Museum
Back in Sweida — Mounted icons, Tissia, meeting people, candles, Izra