Many buildings in Maaloula wear washes of blue paint in honor of the Virgin Mary. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
A modern icon marks the shrine of St. Thecla. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
Mother Bellegia walks through the courtyard of St. Thecla’s Convent. (photo: Mitchell Prothero)
The nuns of the convent also run a shop that features sacramentals from many Christian traditions. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
The sun sets over one of the many churches in Maaloula. (photo: Armineh Johannes)
The sleepy Syrian town of Maaloula once seemed decades from the bustling city of Damascus, which lies some 30 miles away. Since the first century, when Christianity penetrated the barren mountains that shield Maaloula, its residents have commemorated the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and his martyred followers. Generations observed fasts and feasts, clung to traditions, passed on superstitions and developed new customs. And as the world around them changed — Muslim Arabs conquered Christian Syria in 634, making Damascus their capital in 661 — Maaloula’s sons and daughters remained steadfast in their Christian faith, maintaining even their distinctive language, Aramaic, which they shared with Jesus.
But Maaloula slumbers no more. Its churches and shrines, less than 45 minutes by car from the Syrian capital, host tens of thousands of tourists and pilgrims each year, swelling the small town of 2,000 residents.
Maaloula is synonymous with martyrdom and miracles. Scaling the cliffs that tightly contain it, Maaloula’s sacred and secular architectural wonders rise several stories, usually wearing a wash of blue distemper. Were it not for the vineyards and olive and apricot orchards that carpet the surrounding valley, a casual visitor might ponder how the townspeople have survived the mountains’ sun-dried, barren landscape for millennia.
Maaloula’s most distinctive feature, however, is the language its residents speak, the same dialect of Aramaic spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. Predating Arabic — the most widely used language in the region for more than a millennium — Aramaic originated more than 900 years before Christ and, in its many forms, was the Middle East’s lingua franca from around B.C. 1200 to A.D. 700.
As with all things in the minority in the Middle East these days, Aramaic has nearly died out. Only in Maaloula and two nearby villages — now Muslim — does Aramaic’s western dialect survive as a native language and everyday vernacular. All in all, experts estimate only 15,000 people speak it worldwide, most of whom have direct lineage to one of these Syrian communities.
Modern Syria’s network of highways, improved telecommunications and deteriorating rural life endanger this ancient language.
Interest in preserving Aramaic, however, is increasing. Maaloula’s residents take pride in speaking Aramaic, and the Syrian government has established a new Aramaic Language Institute, which advances the study of, and offers formal instruction in, the language.
While Maaloula’s diminutive size and geographic isolation impeded it from ever playing a leading role in Christian history, it is home to several of Christianity’s oldest holy sites, including the Melkite Greek Catholic Monastery of St. Sergius and the Antiochene Orthodox Convent of St. Thecla.
Built in the early fourth century on the remains of a pagan temple, St. Sergius looms over the town from a high hilltop. Staffed by the Basilian Salvatorian Fathers, the monastery commemorates two Roman soldiers, Sergius and Bacchus, whom the Roman Emperor Maximian exiled to Syria for their Christian beliefs. Resolute in their faith, they were executed (around 303) and buried in Syria. Devotion to Sergius and Bacchus, particularly among officers and soldiers, spread rapidly throughout the empire after Constantine the Great’s edict of religious toleration in 313.
The iconostasis of the monastery church, which divides the sanctuary from the nave, features several rare icons dating from the 17th century. But the real treasures of the church remain behind the screen of marble, stone and wood, where vestiges of the site’s former life as a temple to Apollo linger.
Carved deep in the ancient stone walls of the apse, a few pagan symbols remain intact. The freestanding main altar, one of the oldest in Christianity, displays non-Christian elements; the wide grooves that run along the sides of the polished square top were cut to channel blood from ritual sacrifices. The altar, however, lacks the drain that would allow the blood to flow freely. This suggests that Christians, who then often recycled pagan architectural elements, may have built the altar following pagan models.
Near a gap in the mountain, at the bottom of the ridge, stands a 10th-century convent containing a shrine built around a cave honoring Christianity’s first female martyr — St. Thecla, a disciple of the Apostle Paul and considered by the Christian East as “equal to the apostles and protomartyr.”
According to the apocryphal “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” a second-century text of Coptic origin, the young virgin of noble lineage found the cave as she fled soldiers intent on executing her after denying the advances of a nobleman from nearby Pisidian Antioch. Reaching the side of the mountain, Thecla implored the Lord to save her and the ridge opened, revealing her cavernous refuge. From this story originates the town’s name. In Aramaic, Maaloula means “gate” or “entrance.”
Local tradition maintains that St. Thecla was buried here, though a competing legend claims her remains were “translated” to Rome and put to rest alongside those of St. Paul.
Each day, scores of pilgrims — Christian and Muslim — visit the shrine to pay homage to St. Thecla and seek her intercession.
“There are no Muslims here in Maaloula, only Christian people … but we get a great many Muslims who wish to pray in the shrine,” said Mother Bellegia Shayaf, superior of the Antiochene Orthodox community tending the ancient shrine.
Muslims, especially Shiites, have great reverence for the shrines of holy men and women, irrespective of their confession, and travel from as far as Iraq and Iran to visit the shrine of St. Thecla. Overwhelmingly Christian, with 22 churches to serve residents and Christian pilgrims, Maaloula also boasts three mosques. These accommodate Muslim pilgrims, visitors and the surrounding area’s Muslim community.
Tradition maintains that, for centuries, many miracles have taken place at the shrine, favors granted to the faithful who drank the holy water flowing from a natural spring inside the cave.
“St. Thecla has performed many miracles,” said Mother Bellegia as she pointed to the shrine, “and many miracles have taken place here.”
Leading a group of pilgrims inside the shrine, she described a recent miracle performed by the brikhta (“blessed” in Aramaic). Last June, a shoemaker and his family from southern Syria came to Maaloula to pray for a miracle. He had swallowed 27 tacks, which lodged in his large intestine, causing tremendous pain. Doctors told the shoemaker they could not do corrective surgery because he suffered from other serious preexisting medical conditions.
After drinking the shrine’s spring water and taking two spoonfuls of its holy oils, the shoemaker witnessed a vision of St. Thecla, who told him to keep faith. His pain stopped immediately. Mother Bellegia keeps X-rays from before his visit to Maaloula, as well as follow-up X-rays, which indicate the nails miraculously disappeared.
Among the pilgrims intently listening to Mother Bellegia was an Iraqi Christian family now living in Damascus. Like the shoemaker and his family, Fadi and his kin came to Maaloula in hopes for a similar miracle. Hailing from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the family recently fled the violence there for the safety offered in Syria’s capital.
Fadi suffers from chronic high-blood pressure and an associated heart condition. With little money and fearful of deportation, he refused to avail himself of medical care in Damascus. As a last option, Fadi, accompanied by his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandson made the short trip to Maaloula to pray for a life-saving miracle.
Maaloula now depends almost entirely on tourism for survival. Some residents own and operate businesses catering to pilgrims and tourists, but most staff the town’s hotels, shops and restaurants.
As elsewhere in rural Syria, Maaloula faces tough economic challenges. With few jobs outside the tourist industry, a high unemployment rate (up to a quarter of all Syrians are jobless) and a dearth of institutions of higher learning, most of Maaloula’s young adults leave town for more promising opportunities in Damascus or abroad, particularly the Persian Gulf. Almost none return to settle permanently.
With modest foreign investment (most of which is in natural gas and oil) and a cash-strapped government, Syria’s tourist infrastructure languishes nationwide. This forces municipalities, which cannot afford basic structural maintenance much less upgrades, to go it alone.
Maaloula contains a number of significant archaeological sites — which possess great potential as tourist attractions — but without sponsorship they lay fallow, unexcavated and untapped. Visiting the town’s outskirts, one of the sisters from the Orthodox convent of St. Thecla points to a cluster of ancient ruins.
“We don’t even know what these sites are,” she said. “Many of them predate even the Christians.”
With a little money, she continued, these ruins could be unearthed, studied and developed as archaeological sites. Maaloula then could attract more visitors, pilgrims and tourists, and significantly expand its economic base.
Mitchell Prothero writes from Beirut.