Diocesan Projects and Parishes
Thursday 3 June — After the five day road trip around central and southern Syria we came back to Sweida a bit tired and cranky, so we mostly stayed at the Bishop’s residence in Sweida, hung out, ate, washed clothes, and mounted icons of Christ, the Theotokos, and St Timon.
Friday 4 June — In the morning, after visiting the Museum of the Revolution, we went to a little Christian village on the border with Jordan, where we visited a little old church, looked around a bit, and had coffee in the salon of one of the families who live there. It was delightful — we mostly couldn’t understand each other very well, but the family we met us there was so very warm and friendly.
From there we went to the Bethany Retreat Center, which they have plans of making into a monastery at some point. They grow wheat there, and perhaps some other plants and hold conference sorts of events for the diocese there. The chapel is lovely, and I especially liked the icon of Christ as the Good Samaritan behind the alter — I’d never seen one like it before, but noticed that there’s also a small one in the chancery in Sweida.
We also went to another church, one that Fr. Timon serves at, I think. It’s fairly new, and they have plans to build a guest house and perhaps a house for the priest.
By then it was fairly dark, but we went anyway to another very old church without lights, to hear about how they hope to restore it sometime. There are an estimated three feet of packed down dust presently covering the floor, which has been accruing for several centuries; the people there used the church anyway until this past generation, and are now hoping to restore it. I don’t know how it happened that nobody swept the place for a century or so, until it was too late to do anything without investing in a major project; they said it’s been more or less continually in use. However that may be, the thought is that perhaps they’ll have to soak everything into mud and then pump it out, but are uncertain in the absence of an expert on that sort of thing
We then went to another church, perhaps a St. George church? where Fr. Timon is priest and had dinner with the parishioners there, in their large salon/parish hall. They were so very, very nice — like family reunion without any bickering sort of nice, and cooked amazing food, of which they were determined we would eat as much as possible. The men danced a traditional dance from the area, which was also neat, and our leaders and their exchanged fond greetings for quite a while. Very delightful people.
Church at Izra
Saturday morning we went to visit the very old church of St George at Izra (Ezra). It’s from, I think, the fifth century or thereabouts. Sometime I should make a count of how many old St George churches we visited; I’m guessing around twenty. In any event, this St George church is neat in that it was the first one to be built as an octagon inside of a square, with another octaganal set of pillars inside holding up the dome. It was built shortly before the Hagia Sophia, and is considered a sort of test-run (though of course much smaller) of the style of architecture used there. It’s fairly sizable but not enormous — it would fit rather nicely a parish of a few hundred — and was built on top of an old pagan temple. This is accented by the presence of channels for sacrificial blood a bit out from the alter, which were for a time used to hold alter rails, which since fell into disrepair and were removed. At some point in the past — I think it was the 1800s — the dome collapsed, so it has a new dome not of stone; I think constructed under Metropolitan Saba. There are six domed side-rooms, in one of which is an old sarcophagus being used as a water container for cleaning the floors (hence, how they don’t have three feet of dust), and another sarcophagus which now has a large icon of St George on top of it.
The alter area is somewhat unusual, and we got to go back behind it. It’s a large half-dome with the alter in the front, then a rail, then an area for the tomb of St George. They had his body there until Richard the Lion-Hearted took it from them in the Crusades. Presently they think that there’s a hat and a finger still under the stones back there, and are considering looking for them at some point.
We went up some very steep stairs, which almost amount to a wooden ladder, to the left of the alter up to a little cave sort of room from which one can look down and get a nice view of the church from above, then up some scary steep stone stairs, which don’t have a railing, to the roof. There are two little rooms up there where a couple of nuns lived a long time ago, a fortified wall from which the villagers might defend themselves, a bell tower (complete with loud-speakers), the ruins of a giant Christmas decoration, and, of course, the new dome. The priest who was showing us around (I thought perhaps Fr Timon, but can’t properly remember) told a story about a pilot back in the 1970s who was about to crash over the town of Izra, and St George appeared and said he would rescue him, so the pilot bailed out over the church and was not hurt, and the plane crashed into the field without damaging anything except some plants. Every year since the man goes there to bring something and light a candle to St George. Afterward we went outside, looked at some old doors and the place where there had been a little stone bowl for holy water or oil, and had coffee at the salon before going back to Sweida.
After lunch and a Syrian siesta (everyone takes a nap from lunch to 4 or so), we went out to some fields owned by the diocese to learn about candle making, and theoretically to help. Things being what they were, we first had to buy stuff in town, eat ice cream, lose track of each other, and wait for various people to re-assemble themselves. That being the case, we got to where we were going two hours before sunset. We were at a candle-making shed next to a toot berry orchard, and there were a multitude of tiny red insects on the ground, and it was amusing watching some of the young ladies of our group freak out about them. There were two men there to show us how things worked, and they had set up a propane stove outside next to the shed with a large pot of beeswax beginning to melt on it. On account of timing, wind, wax shortages, and so on, the candle making didn’t go so very well, though it was, of course, fun.
Fr Matthew said that the land we were on belongs to the diocese, and that the Bedouins farm it for a percentage of the produce. It had been given to the Church quite some time ago, but the last bishop before Saba, and for some time had not been very good bishops. There might have been historical reasons for that — the chancery had been by where the Bethany Retreat center is now, but it had been destroyed in the war with the French (I think), so this other bishop, though he could have lived in Sweida, mostly lived in Damascus instead, and rarely visited the parishes. He didn’t know about the land south of Sweida belonging to the Church, and the people there didn’t tell him, because they thought he would just sell it instead of farming it. But when Siedna Saba became bishop they heard good things about him; he stayed in Sweida a lot, and visited the parishes. Eventually they gave the land back to the diocese because, after meeting with him, and listing to whatothers thought of him for a while, they thought that he would be responsible with the land, and not sell it.
Sunday 6 June, we had Orthros and Liturgy with Bishop Saba at the church next to where we had been staying. I had only been to one hierarchical Liturgy before, and couldn’t remember it very well — it was rather interesting and different, alternating between English and Arabic. The most peculiar thing, to me, is the way in which the bishop at some point between Orthros and Liturgy comes down to stand in front of the royal doors, and puts on an impressive cloak rather emphatically; or, rather, the alter servers put it on him, and then he goes up to the bishop’s throne to preside some more, but later goes back down and takes it off. There are other bits of ceremony that only happen when a bishop is present, mostly involving sets of double and triple candles and vestments.
At the end of Liturgy Bishop Saba formally welcomed up to his diocese, and our groups exchanged short speeches of how delighted we were to know each other, which continued over lunch in Houston Hall, which is a kind of parish hall/large salon that they had built with donations from the churches in Texas. There was much food, singing, dancing, gifts, and good will. Some of us walked a mile or so afterwards to the home of a family from that parish for coffee in their salon. They had spent a number of years in South America, and mostly spoke with us in Spanish. They had an old building up on their roof that had once been used as a church, when the French where there, but had since been stripped of all its icons and decorations so that they could be donated to the new church. It was a lovely visit.
After packing and some free time we went back to the hills of Bashan for a going-away dinner with most of the clergy we had met and Bishop Saba. At first we were confused, because we went off on “picnic,” which is a little drive out into the countryside before coming back a bit to the restaurant. That seemed odd, like perhaps we were lost (which wasn’t an unknown position for us). It ended up being a rather nice but deserted (except for us) place with a nice view of the hills and excellent appetizers of salad, spreads, pita, and so on. Apparently they have more business later, and are a kind of night club. They were so good and continued unaccompanied so long we supposed that nothing else was coming, and were somewhat dismayed to be confronted with trays of lamb and chicken an hour or so later, after Bishop Saba had left to go work on something. Mostly, though, it was a lovely dinner.
Monday morning we got up, finished packing, hung about, and went to Damascus for our first flight back, heading to Dubai, where we stayed overnight and then flew back to Houston the next day — 16 or so hours, all in sunlight, and we got in late afternoon that day, though the details are lost in a kind of jet lag haze. The food and entertainment was still good. A couple from Houston kindly let me stay the night at their house, and I left from Tucson. Something that surprised me was that there was no grand farewell at the end of the flight, or before it, or at any point, really. I don’t know if that was because most of the people will see each other again, or at least can if they want, or what. We all got off our flight, went through customs, and left — just like that.
I still want to write a proper essay sometime, but haven’t had the energy or thought space to do so properly as yet.
Other posts on Syria
Opening travels — Dubai, Damascus, Sweida, Phillipi, Bosra
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