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

Biomass Sales Consultant

£20000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitment Company...

Java Developer

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My Client are a successful software hous...

Senior Analyst - Financial Modelling

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This really is a fantastic chance to joi...

MS Dynamics NAV/Navision Developer

£45000 - £53000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: **MS DYNAMICS N...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Adele performs onstage during the 2011 MTV Video Music Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A  

Adele knows that privacy is the best gift a famous mother can give her child

Chloe Hamilton
 

The legal definition of terrorism threatens to criminalise us all

Mike Harris
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform
Climate change threatens to make the antarctic fur seal extinct

Take a good look while you can

How climate change could wipe out this seal
Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier for the terminally ill?

Farewell, my lovely

Should emergency hospital weddings be made easier?
Man Booker Prize 2014 longlist: Crowdfunded novel nominated for first time

Crowdfunded novel nominated for Booker Prize

Paul Kingsnorth's 'The Wake' is in contention for the prestigious award
Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster to ensure his meals aren't poisoned

Vladimir Putin employs a full-time food taster

John Walsh salutes those brave souls who have, throughout history, put their knives on the line
Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

Tour de France effect brings Hollywood blockbusters to Yorkshire

A $25m thriller starring Sam Worthington to be made in God's Own Country
Will The Minerva Project - the first 'elite' American university to be launched in a century - change the face of higher learning?

Will The Minerva Project change the face of higher learning?

The university has no lecture halls, no debating societies, no sports teams and no fraternities. Instead, the 33 students who have made the cut at Minerva, will travel the world and change the face of higher learning
The 10 best pedicure products

Feet treat: 10 best pedicure products

Bags packed and all prepped for holidays, but feet in a state? Get them flip-flop-ready with our pick of the items for a DIY treatment
Commonwealth Games 2014: Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games

Commonwealth Games 2014

Great Scots! Planes and pipers welcome in Glasgow's Games
Jack Pitt-Brooke: Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Manchester City and Patrick Vieira make the right stand on racism
How Terry Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

How Newton tragedy made iron men seek help to tackle their psychological demons

Over a hundred rugby league players have contacted clinic to deal with mental challenges of game