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Long Read: The Story of Maaloula

August 14th, 2020

Long Read: The Story of Maaloula

HART partners with the Syriac Orthodox St. Ephrem Patriarchal Development Committee (EPDC) http://www.epdc-syria.org/index.php, in a project in Maaloula, that seeks to empower local women to preserve fruit and vegetables both to provide food for their families and for income generation.

Baroness Cox and David Thomas Visiting EDPC Project in Maaloula

The village of Maaloula has a remarkable story to tell.

Maaloula is dramatically situated against a rocky escarpment 60kms north of Damascus. By tradition, St. Thecla, a disciple of St. Paul, lived and died here and her shrine has been a place of pilgrimage for both Christians and Muslims for centuries. Maaloula is one of the few places remaining in the world where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, has survived as a spoken, rural dialect.

Maaloula in 2009

 

The village has a majority population of Antiochene Greek Orthodox and Melkite Greek Catholic Christians, living alongside a minority Muslim community. Apart from a few periods of tension, particularly in the nineteenth century, the Christian and Muslim communities have lived side by side for centuries. In 2004, the Syrian Bureau of Statistics gave the full-time number of residents as 2762.[1] However, this number increased dramatically during the summer holidays, when families from Damascus would come to stay in the village.

Tradition describes how St. Thecla, a first century disciple of St. Paul, vowed to devote her life to Christ, fled persecution and found refuge in Maaloula. Thecla was widely venerated in the early Church, and in the Eastern Churches continues to be regarded as a role model for women.[2] Prior to the conflict, pilgrims from all over the world climbed the steps above St. Thecla Convent to visit her tomb in the cave where she resided.

In 2013, Maaloula was invaded and occupied by multiple ‘rebel’ Islamist groups.

Maaloula Village Centre 2016

On a cliff overlooking the town of Maaloula stands the Melkite Greek Catholic Monastery of St. Sergius (Mar Sarkis). Built on the site of a pagan shrine, and with a marble altar that predates Christianity, parts of the Church date to the 4th Century. Some of the wood in the walls of the Church has been carbon-dated to over 2000 years old. As with the Convent of St. Thecla in the valley below, pilgrims used to come from all over the world to visit this church, but during the occupation of Maaloula by the Islamists, the monastery was occupied as a headquarters by the fighters, who would fire on the villagers below from the monastery. The monastery also contained unique Byzantine icons but these were either stolen or destroyed by the militants who badly desecrated the Church which was also damaged in battle. Since the liberation of the town in April 2014 by the Syrian Army, the monastery has been fully restored. The monastery is once again being looked after by a local priest, Fr. Abdullah, and a ‘family’ of staff who welcome guests, maintain the monastery, and tend the fields.

St Thecla Shrine, Desecrated 2016

Shrine Restored, 2017

Maaloula sits at the head of a fertile valley. Farming is the main local industry, and the village is known for the quality of its produce. It is also known globally for the unique celebration of the Feast of the Holy Cross that has been celebrated here for centuries. The feast commemorates the finding of the ‘true Cross’ in Jerusalem in the fourth century, by Empress Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. Tradition states that she ordered fires to be lit on high mountains across the region, to announce the discovery. The night before the celebration on 14 September, bonfires are lit on the summit of both mountains north and south of the town to mark the start of the feast. For centuries, and continuing to the present day, thousands of Christians and Muslims gather to mark the occasion. Two other important celebrations in Maaloula are the Greek Orthodox Feast of St. Thecla on 27 September, and the Greek Catholic (Melkite) celebration of the Feast of St. Sergius on 7 October. In celebrating these feasts, authentic Eastern Christian traditions are preserved, and remain of global religious and historic significance.

During Ottoman times, owing to the economic disadvantages faced by dhimmis (a historical term for non-Muslims living in an Islamic state under legal protection), limitations in transport links, the riots of 1850 and 1860, and the political instability of the French Mandate, the village saw a steady decline in its population, with families moving to the growing and developing cities of Damascus, Beirut, or as far afield as South America. However, from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards, an increasing number of visitors: European academics, Orientalists, travellers and pilgrims, were drawn by the unique religious, cultural, anthropological and linguistic heritage of the village, which despite its relative proximity to Damascus, had been preserved by it’s geographic isolation. After independence, the fortunes of the village improved further as villagers were able to articulate the unique Aramaic and Eastern Christian identity of the community, in the context of a nationalist vision that sought to include and celebrate the multiple identities that existed historically within Syrian society (Pichon, 2010).

The years 1831 to 1860 were tense for the region and have not been forgotten. In 1831, the Egyptian army, supported by western powers, conquered the Ottoman Province of Syria. In 1840, the Ottoman Pasha reconquered the area, but unrest and violence continued. The tanzimat reforms that lifted economic restrictions on dhimmi populations, and re-framed the millet system allowing legal protection and more equality of status to non-Muslims, created resentment and political discontent for the Muslim majority, and the process of economic and political modernisation was seen by many as an example of excessive foreign influence in the region.

 

In 1850, in the belief that St. Sergius Convent had given refuge to rebels against the Ottoman government, Ottoman soldiers attacked Maaloula, raped a number of women, and slit the throat of twenty-two villagers. The Greek Orthodox Bishop of Maaloula was reportedly one of those killed. Further unrest (and massacres of Christians) that took place in Damascus and Aleppo in 1860 added to the communal memory of Maaloula, and helped precipitate further emigration from the village, particularly to the Christian quarters of the Old City of Damascus.

Maaloula also featured in the ‘Great Revolt’ by Syrian nationalists against the French Mandate in 1925[3], when residents of Maaloula were reluctant to participate in the uprising. When the people of Maaloula refused to assist the rebels, they were attacked. Churches were set alight, and in October 1925, a battle took place between residents and the militant groups. A siege followed through the winter but was finally called off following agreements between the French occupiers and the militant fighters.

These experiences in the 19th and early 20th centuries in Maaloula, illustrate the complexity and plurality of the context, and the fact that when tensions arise, they often do so for political rather than religious or sectarian reasons.

Notwithstanding the positive coexistence that was re-established between the communities in subsequent years, historical memory has established a lasting concern amongst Maaloula’s residents of the possibility of communal tension that can evolve into sectarian violence. The events of 2013 brought that memory to the fore.

The story of the occupation of Maaloula by multiple Islamist factions, and its subsequent liberation, offers a poignant window into the damage that has been done to the multiple communities in Syria. Abdo Haddad, a Maaloula resident, says, “our souls are fractured”. This pain speaks of the impact of the conflict on the coexistence and trust that had for so long prevailed for the most part in Maaloula, and Syria itself. In Maaloula, the most traumatic fact for the Christian community is that – reopening communal wounds and memories from past events – some local members of the Muslim community provided arms and fighters to the terrorist groups and participated in the looting of homes, the desecration of shrines, and the killing of residents. Yet Abdo stresses that he does not see this as a conflict between Christians and Muslims, but rather as a defence of Syria itself, and the coexistence, plurality and diversity which has been at the heart of the nation for generations.

The militants first occupied the northern lands of Maaloula in December 2012. On 8 February 2013, they occupied the popular and spectacularly located Safir Hotel overlooking the town, making it their headquarters.

The first major attack occurred on 4 September 2013, when a suicide-bomber exploded a massive car-bomb at the entrance gate to the town, killing several soldiers at the checkpoint. This was followed by co-ordinated attacks against Syrian army positions near the town. As a local farmer, and other witnesses said:

The fighters included people from the Free Syrian Army, the Al Farouq Brigades, Ahfad al Rasul, Jabhat al Nusra, Jaish al Islam, Ahrar al Sham, Jabhat Islammiya, Palestinian Hamas fighters (Jabhat Tahreer al-Qalamoun), and Jabhat al Ruhr Qalomoun. Amongst them were fighters from Libya, Tunisia, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Uyghur Turkic Chinese as well as Syrians.[4]

Abdo Haddad says:

We must emphasise that the so-called, ‘moderate,’ ‘Free Syrian Army,’ were major partners in all of these. There was no distinguishing between the ‘moderate’ groups and the extremist factions.

On 7 September 2013, the militants broke into the town and entered the home of Antoinette and her brother Anton. Antoinette is still suffering from her injuries, and her grief is deep. She still lives in the small house where her life changed. There she told us how she, her brother Anton, her elderly and sick father, her aunt, and her brother-in-law and nephew, Serkis and Mikhael, heard the shouts of ‘Allahu Akhbar’ as terrorists broke down the door and entered the courtyard of their home. They hid in the small cave at the back of the house that acts as a storeroom. On being called out and told they would be safe, Anton, Serkis and Mikhael went to talk to the fighters. Once they were out, the terrorists nevertheless fired into the home, wounding Antoinette in her hiding place.  Terrified and injured, Antoinette heard what followed. “The terrorists demanded that Anton recite the Shehadeh. Anton’s reply was: ‘I was born Christian and I will die Christian.’” They shot him dead, and Serkis and Mikhael were each murdered as they too refused to convert. It was not until four hours later that local Defence Fighters were able to rescue Antoinette and her surviving family from the home.[5]

A few days later, on 7th of September, six young men were kidnapped. What is particularly difficult for the Christian community in Maaloula to forgive is the fact that, “four of the six young men were kidnapped by their Sunni neighbours who were working with the terrorists and then they were executed by the Maaloula Muslim Leader Emad Diab and his local gang.”[6] Their bodies were finally discovered in 2016.

Most of the residents of the village escaped on 7 September via sewers out of the village, leaving local Defence volunteers. The following weeks and months saw a long and difficult battle between the Maaloula Defence force, fighting with the Syrian Army and Hezbollah, and the terrorist factions to recapture the village. The battle cost the lives of over 200 Syrian Army soldiers. During this time, the terrorists, “brought in looting gangs to the town. They wrote on the doors of houses either, ‘this is a Muslim house’, or, on Christian homes, ‘We will slaughter you.’”[7] By the time Maaloula was recaptured, “ninety homes were destroyed; no church was left intact. The terrorists dug up graves and desecrated bodies. They destroyed farms and cut down fruit trees.”[8]

On 2 December 2013, Jabhat-al-Nusra kidnapped 13 Greek Orthodox Nuns from the Convent of St. Thecla. They were held for three months in various locations, finally ending up in Yabroud, before negotiations involving the Qatari, Lebanese and Syrian governments resulted in their release on 9 March 2014, in exchange for 150 women detained in prisons in Syria.

On 14 April 2014, the town of Maaloula was finally recaptured, but its shrines and a large majority of homes in the Old Town were very badly damaged. A year later, a statue of the Virgin Mary was placed on one of the rocky pinnacles overlooking the town to replace the one that had been destroyed by the Islamist fighters.

In September 2016, I visited the shrine of St. Thecla. Picking through rubble in the desecrated convent, past smashed mosaics, and the burnt-out Church, I climbed to the cave, to find the shrine blackened by fire – icons stolen or destroyed, and the altar smashed by the militants who had occupied Maaloula in 2013. Visiting again in May 2017, the Convent was already in an advanced state of restoration and by September 2017, the restoration was almost complete.

Substantial works of restoration have taken place at both the shrines – Mar Thecla and Mar Sarkis – as well as local Churches, and local homes.[9] The villagers who have remained and those who have returned are keen to see the town returned to its former glory, and for most of its residents to return. At the end of 2014, there were 1400 people in Maaloula. In 2017, there were just 800 people in the town. Those who could return but have not are reluctant, primarily for economic reasons. The town still lacks an adequate transport system, and much infrastructure has yet to be fully restored. In May 2017, there was still fear that terrorists who had not been completely expelled from the Qalamoun region, might return, and attempt to attack the village again. Once they were defeated in the area, it was hoped that the rate of return to the village would increase.[10]

Maaloula Homes Fired on From Above by Militants

Antoinette in the Cave at Back of Her Home

Many citizens of Maaloula are keen to stress the historic coexistence in Maaloula and resist a sectarian narrative. Rather, what happened is seen as politically motivated, with an external religious agenda – namely that of those who adhere to Salafist and Wahhabi ideology. For most, the deepest hurt is that some of the residents of Maaloula assisted the terrorists. As one resident put it bluntly: “this is not about Christianity versus Islam, but about patriots versus betrayers of the country.”

Mr George Reihan from Maaloula said:

we spent hundreds of years living together without a problem. It was only after residents of the village went to live and work in Qatar and Saudi Arabia and returned with sectarian tendencies that tensions developed.”[11]

A leading elder of the community, echoing a theme repeated by many Christians in Syria-bewilderment at the collusion of western Christians with those threatening Syria’s plurality, and awareness of possible consequences- said:

What are the western churches doing supporting the terrorists? I am warning you. This extreme ideology will come to the west.

Everyone I have spoken to in and from Maaloula believes that events there represent a lesson for the wider world. The documented collusion of western nations with the forces that destroyed Maaloula and threatened the cohesion of Syrian society, and the silence of western Christian communities in the face of attacks on both Christians and Muslims by extremists in Syria, who oppose any who do not follow their ideology, has not been lost on Syrians who value the pluralist tradition of the country.[12]

In Maaloula, a local shopkeeper added, “Christians are taught to love one another. Where is the support of western Christians for us here?  If this continues, what happened here in Maaloula will happen in Europe.”[13]

Many are keen to stress that they do not see this as a sectarian issue. Abdo Haddad adds:

“Whether we are Sunni, Shi’a, Druze, Alwaite, Orthodox, Catholic, we are all Syrians.  Christians have a key part to play in the future of the country so long as we recognise that we are Syrians first. This is not a civil war, but rather a war against our country by foreign invaders. Fundamentalist Islam is not a religion. It is a political ideology. It is not Christianity against Islam.“[14]

Despite the pain of what has happened, and the fear of what the future could hold, the people of Maaloula exhibit a remarkable degree of resilience, and a determination to ensure that Maaloula will once again be the place of peace, hope and faith that it has represented for so many generations. The Head of the Maaloula Council, says:

What we need is a period when Truth can be told followed by a process of reconciliation. The conflict has caused great tensions. We want to overcome them and ensure that we can all live with equal rights and free from any extremist ideology.” [15]

The speed with which restoration work of homes and churches has been undertaken, even whilst the war continued in other parts of the country, is witness to the will of the people to survive and flourish, and of the symbolic cultural and religious importance that Maaloula holds in the country as a whole.

 

By Andrew Ashdown

 

[1] http://www.cbssyr.org/new%20web%20site/General_census/census_2004/NH/TAB03-17-2004.h

[2] Traditions about St. Thecla are to be found in a second century text entitled The Acts of Paul and Thecla

[3] Pichon, Frederic. (2010) Kindle version.   Location 4174-4390

[4] Interview with refugees from Maaloula.  At St. Saviour Monastery, Lebanon. 1 May 2017

[5] Interview with Antoinette in her home in Maaloula.  3 September 2016

[6] Abdo Haddad writing in an email correspondence dated 2 September 2017

[7] Interview with refugee from Maaloula.  1 May 2017

[8] Sarkis Raiham, a local farmer, speaking at St. Saviour Monastery, Lebanon on 1 May 2017.

[9] See also:  https://www.sott.net/article/331705-Eva-Bartlett-Overcoming-savagery-treachery-Maaloulas-heroic-defenders-fight-for-the-future.   In this article, Eva Bartlett recounts her visit to Maaloula, and interviews with a few of the same figures mentioned here.

[10] Discussions with refugees from Maaloula at St. Saviour Monastery, Lebanon, 1 May 2017.

[11] Mr. George Reihan speaking with other Maaloula refugees at St. Saviour Monastery, Lebanon. 1 May 2017

[12] In a House of Lords Debate on Syria on 20 September, 2017, Baroness Caroline Cox asked what types of assistance the British Government provided to the Syrian opposition between 2015 and 2017.  Lord Ahmad, Minister of State for the Commonwealth replied: “Through the cross-government Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) for Syria the UK is supporting those groups opposed to Daesh and Assad as well as Syrian civilians and their communities. This support to the moderate opposition has included political support and non-lethal equipment. In terms of equipment, we have provided communications, medical and logistics equipment. We have also provided equipment to protect against chemical weapons attack. For security reasons we do not disclose the names of groups supported. The UK does not supply weapons to anybody in Syria. The value of the CSSF for Syria is £69 million in the current financial year, was £64 million in 2016-17, and £66 million in 2015-16.ody in Syria. The value of the CSSF for Syria is £69 million in the current financial year, was £64 million in 2016-17, and £66 million in 2015-16.”  On 14 December 2017, in response to a tabled Parliamentary Question (HL4196) concerning support to armed opposition groups in Syria, Lord Ahmad replied: “In partnership with other donor countries Her Majesty’s Government provides a range of support to Syrians to help save lives, bolster civil society, counter extremism, promote human rights and accountability, and lay the foundations for a more peaceful future.  This financial year, we have allocated over £60 million through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF).  Of this, £10 million has gone to armed opposition groups, in the form of non-lethal assistance and lifesaving support, helping them protect civilians from the threats of both the Assad regime and extremists.”

[13] Maaloula Shopkeeper.   Speaking in Maaloula on 15 May 2017.

[14] Abdo Haddad, speaking to a British delegation in Beirut. 29 April 2017

[15] Conversation with Head of Maaloula Council.  Maaloula. 15 May 2017.

 

This article is an edited version of part of a chapter that will be published by Routledge in November 2020: Ashdown, A. (2020) Christian-Muslim Relations in Syria: Historic and Contemporary Religious Dynamics in a Changing Context. London, New York: Routledge


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