Pilgrimaging in Syria

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There’s something about the train ride from Santa Fe to Albuquerque that never to incite in me a poetic frame of mind. I start humming Fernando Ortega songs about God’s Creation, exclaiming about how lovely the light on that mountain is, how pink the sand is, how the tumbleweeds congregate like tribbles in the ditches… I didn’t say I was a good poet. On Pentecost evening I took said train ride again as the first of a many-staged journey from Santa Fe to Damascus, and it was as poetic as was to be expected. Air travel, on the other hand, has no such quality for me, though it seems like it should. Air travel mostly makes me wish I were unconscious. The people who design airlines seem to appreciate that, because they close all the windows and offer us movies and food. In the case of Emirates both the food and entertainment are as good as could be reasonably hoped for at no additional cost to the flights, so I commend them. It’s therefore as easy as can be expected to sit there with Alice in Wonderland and a tray of lamb stew, rice pilaf, hot tea in plastic teacups of the correct shape, shrimp salad, tirimisu, and so on and be almost ideally unconscious for hours at a time. I’m not sure how I feel about that — I suppose sometimes it really is about the destination. A group of 16 (I think) of us went, of a variety of ages and occupations, including Fr. Richard and Fr Matthew, who had gone last year as well.

Between Houston and Damascus we spent the night in a hotel in Dubai, and on the way back I took a middle of the night tour. Dubai is a strange place. It boasts the world’s tallest building, biggest mall, and a manmade island in the shape of a palm tree. I got to stick my feet in the Mediterranean sea (it was warm and placid, and there were people floating in it even at 2 am), visit the lobby of the Atlantis hotel on Palm Island, and stop to look at the Very Tall Building. It was fun, but strange. Tour info included that water is more expensive than oil there (40 and 60cents per liter respectively), which accounts for why there are so many fountains – they’re apparently wealth-flaunting fountains – there are a bunch of grossly overpriced hotels with lovely postmodern architecture ($32000 a night was near the top), palaces on the artificial beaches for princes, princesses, oil barons, and other rich people, and the weather in the summer is warm and absurdly moist. I looked at a book in the airport on architecture in Dubai, and my favorite was an apartment tower they’re working on that comes up out of the sea, and each floor rotates independently of the others. Most everything was built in the past decade by workers from southeast Asia, who have no possibility of becoming citizens for the foreseeable future.

Arrival in Sweida

Our arrival in Damascus photo (c) Joe Lahane

On Wednesday the 24th (I wasn’t quite clear on whether that counts as the next day or the day after — the time change gave an affect of having lost about a day in there some-when), we got up at 5 am, breakfast at the Dubai hotel, and flew to Damascus (about three hours). Once again the airlines seemed especially concerned that we were well fed – on a day and a half venture to Alaska they gave me a soda and a package of mini pretzels, while on a similar trip to Damascus there’s breakfast at the hotel, a tea sandwich, fancy coffee, then an omelet, fruit, croissant, tea, cheese and crackers, etc. on the flight. Anyway, we arrived in Damascus noonish, had only a little trouble getting through customs (“Americans!? We can’t let them in ! Oh… visas… we’d better let them in”), and drove to Sweida, the headquarters of Metropolitan Saba’s diocese. (A metropolitan is a bishop over a large area or city) We met Metropolitan Saba, put our stuff in our rooms, had coffee in the salon, then went to the Hills of Bashan, which overlook Sweida to look about and enjoy the sculptures that are there from an international stone sculpting competition a while back. On our way back into town we visited the medical clinic that’s run by the church, along with dormitories for young women studying to be nurses. We came back, had dinner with bishop Saba, and retired to our rooms to talk or sleep. As an aside, I’m still a bit unclear on how these titles work out in normal speech. The title, I think, is: his eminence (or his grace?) metropolitan Saba of Bosra-Hauran, but that sounds really awkward if I have to say it more than once. I heard sometimes something like “siedna Saba,” which I think is the bishop equivalent of calling a priest “father” instead of “the reverend archpriest__” or some such, and which I like much better.

St Timon

Except for the last few days our services in Sweida were held in the St Timon chapel which is upstairs in the bishop’s chancery. St. Timon was one of the 70 original apostles, and brought the Gospel to Bosra and the surrounding area, and was martyred there.

St Timon


Salons are very popular in Syria. A salon is the place where one receives guests, like the French equivalent to a parlor, but not quite like an American living room, because they’re more formal than cozy. Generally a salon is a largish room with benches, formal couches, or chairs around the three walls opposite the door and a little table in the middle, perhaps with little stool-like tables next to it. Along the wall opposite the door there are probably somewhat nicer chairs for whoever is most important, with a picture of their president, Bashar al-Assad, and the bishop (in church salons) on the wall above. There may also be some icons, and perhaps a picture of President Assad meeting with the person in charge of the church or monastery. More on that later.

In our case, after greeting our hosts and asking a blessing, should that be appropriate, the abbot or bishop and visiting priests sit at the far end of the room and all the other visitors sit around the sides, looking cheerful but awkward. A few minutes in someone brings in a tray of arab coffee and (if we’re lucky) tea. Once we even got cherry cordial, but usually it’s coffee in little porcelain cups and saucers. There may or may not be grounds a quarter inch think at the bottom of the cup; they may or may not add in sugar and spices, but without fail there will be small cups and strong, boiled coffee, kind of like drinking espresso shots. Nobody asks who likes coffee before making it, so refusal is not really an option. Then there are sweets of some kind, probably sesame cookies, perhaps toffee sorts of things and other kinds of cookies. These are not optional either. At a monastery the abbot of abbess might say something to us, or perhaps not.

Old City of Bosra

Philippi and Bosra

On Thursday morning after a somewhat bumpy Orthros (morning prayers) in English and Arabic, and a lovely breakfast with fresh tomato and cucumber, various salty cheeses, pita, tea, pickled eggplant, and so on we went on a tourist outing near Sweida. For the most part Metropolitan Saba decided our schedule — where we went, who we met, and so on.

We visited an old Roman temple which is now mostly a raised stone floor and columns, a ruin that had been a Roman temple and was converted into a church, then had another church added onto it before crumbling to ruins, and an old bathhouse, bath mosaic museum, theater, and little amphitheater before heading back to Sweida for an excellent lunch with Metropolitan Saba. At the bathhouse there was a little museum with four especially nice floor mosaics of Roman gods.

We had a short rest, then went out again to see the enormous amphitheater at Bosra, which is enwalled as a fortress and surrounded by a mostly ruined Roman city in which people are still living. It’s one of only a few intact free-standing Roman amphitheaters, and quite impressive. We walked around the ruined city of Bosra which is partly inhabited, though suffering from various stages of decay, where there was a bath house, market, church, pagan temple that had been turned into a monk cell, and something (a tower) near the bath house that prompted Fr I__ to tell a story about the daughter of a local ruler who was locked in so that a prophecy couldn’t come true concerning her death by spider bite, but they had to still feed her, so one day they sent a basked of fruit up to her through the window and there was a spider on it, which bit her and she died.


Other posts on Syria


Road Trip part 1 — Damascus, St Thekla’s Monastery, Valley of the Christians (St George Monastery, Crusader Castle)

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

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