In Maaloula, the past has relevance to Syria's tragic present
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.