Robert Fisk: In Maaloula, the past has relevance to Syria's tragic present

 

Share

Sunday is a good day to drive to Maaloula. There are fig and olive trees and grapes by the road and, for a time, you can forget that Syria is enduring an epic tragedy. True, you mustn't turn right to Tell, where the Syrian Arab Army are having a spot of bother with the Free Syrian Army and there are 35 military checkpoints on the 100-mile round trip from Damascus; but in the cool mountains east of the Lebanese border, Christians and Muslims live together as they have for 1,300 years. History, however, does not leave them alone.

Enter the wonderful Catholic church of Saint Sarkis and you find paintings of two Roman soldiers, based at the imperial fort of Rasafa north of Palmyra, who converted to Christianity and found themselves in a rather Syrian situation. Sergius and Pixos upset the Great Leader in Rome – the empire had not yet abandoned Jupiter, Venus, Bacchus and the rest – who ordered their execution. So the two legionnaires took sanctuary in Maaloula, preaching Christianity until the long arm of Rome's intelligence service caught up with them, and they were hauled back to Rasafa to be beheaded on the orders of the emperor. I look at the old man who is recounting this story to me and we both nod in unspoken agreement of its current relevance. Sergius and Pixos were defectors.

Over the Roman temple of Maaloula was built the church, and thence came in 1942 the twice wounded General Wladyslaw Anders, who was shepherding his 75,000 emaciated Polish soldiers from Soviet imprisonment through the Holy Land to join the Second World War allies and subsequently the battle for Monte Cassino. Anders gave a beautiful icon of Christ to the church at Maaloula; I found it inside the front porch, his name written at the base, but no hint of his mission. His brave II Polish Corps was condemned by Poland's post-war Communist government as a legion of defectors.

But Maaloula, of course, is known for finer things. Its people, as every tourist knows, still speak Aramaic, the language of Christ – Damascus was part of the Aramaen kingdom – and when I asked a young woman to say the Lord's prayer in her language, it sounded a bit like Hebrew. A suspicious Fisk wonders if this is the reason why, although there is a written language, the people of Maaloula do not learn it. Did Arabic and Hebrew descend from Aramaic? Scholars – I always find that an odd word – are still undecided.

So I chat to old Father Fayez who's serving time as the local priest and he refuses to talk politics, but insists that his people, in their old, blue-painted houses, live side-by-side with their Muslim neighbours; indeed, the 20,000 Christians and Muslims living in three villages all speak Aramaic. But the sunlight and sharply-defined shade in the church courtyard reflect the darkness that has fallen across the lives of these people. There had been three kidnappings of Christians, the priest says; all had been released after ransom was paid.

Then the owner of a Christian restaurant set off last month to collect some Muslim workers from a neighbouring village, and he'd been abducted on the way. The Free Syria Army brought the kidnapped man back to Maaloula. I drive to Seydnaya where the church is built, Peter-like, on a rock, the basilica of Seyd Naya – the Holy Virgin in Syriac – with a clutch of orphans and an off-duty Syrian army conscript cleaning the floors and bringing water for the children.

And then an angry nun approaches in her black habit, flapping like a blackbird, frameless spectacles pinned to the outside of her head covering. "You journalists want to harm this country," she chirps. "Before the war, we lived in peace. We had holidays, vacations, women and children could walk in the street at midnight." She stalked off, only to return – as I knew she would – for a second assault. She had a story to tell, for the Holy Spirit – while it may drift through the narrow cold stone corridors of Seyd Naya - cannot prevent violence from touching the church. "A boy wanted to come here to pray for his marriage because he was marrying a local girl," the nun said. "But then we heard today that his father has been killed in the massacre at Deraya…"

So I consulted Sister Stephanie Haddad who said that Seyd Naya was peaceful – she passed over the shells which hit the monastery seven months ago, supposedly fired by the Free Syria Army – and was now sheltering refugees from Homs and Hama and Tell and from Deraya itself. So I asked the obvious question. What would Jesus say if he turned up in Syria today? "If he came now, he would tell the people: don't kill, burn, shoot, kidnap or steal. All these things are mentioned in the Bible."

There are 20,000 souls in Seyd Naya, Sunni Muslims, Greek Orthodox and Catholics, 13 churches and two mosques, "at least" two Christian women married to Muslims – make of this what you will.

On the edge of town, I come across a group of civilians at a sandbagged checkpoint. Government-approved, of course. They smiled. And they were armed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Shopfitter

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join a successful an...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Sales Account Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Digital Sales Account Manager...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bob Geldof  

Ebola is a political AND a medical disease

Paul Vallely
 

I've tried reason, but my cat is pig-ignorant

Dom Joly
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

Look what's mushrooming now!

Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

Oeuf quake

Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

Terry Venables column

Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin