An ancient monastery in Maaloula clings to the side of the Qalamoun Mountain Range. (photo: Joseph Cornelius Donnelly)
Rev. Michael Zaaroura points out the unique characteristics of St. Sergius’ altars. (photo: Joseph Cornelius Donnelly)
Jesus cried out in a loud voice, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is, My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
These last words of Jesus from Matthews Gospel are recited every Passion (Palm) Sunday and Good Friday in churches throughout the world. Heard in the climax of the penitential season of Lent, they reveal a complex yet profound message: though he felt abandoned by God, Jesus never lost his faith in God.
Unlike the rest of the Gospels which were written in Greek, Jesus words from the cross were left in their original Aramaic.
As the spoken language in the Semitic cultures of Babylonia, Palestine and Persia, Aramaic flourished until the rise of Islam and Arabic. Today approximately 20,000 people speak this ancient Semitic language, 5,000 of which are residents of the Syrian Christian village of Maaloula.
Perched in the Qalamoun mountain range 30 miles north of Damascus, Maaloula is an oasis in the midst of a desert, its isolated location symbolic of its history.
Maaloula has striven for centuries to retain her cultural and religious integrity. Her people have wrestled with schism and internal differences as well as standing out alone as a tiny minority in a Muslim nation. Such circumstances created a people who tenaciously adhere to their roots and to signs of their faith. With the introduction of television and other modern conveniences, however, many of Maaloulas young leave for the cities in the search for jobs and a better life. There they speak Aramaic less frequently and grow accustomed to Arabic, the national language.
Inevitably those who remain in Maaloula must strain to maintain their identity. Arabic, not Aramaic, is taught in the schools. Because the Aramaic dialect spoken in Maaloula is never written, it is less open to change, adapt and expand as languages must in order to express modern ideas and vocabulary. Hence, Aramaic has eroded as a vernacular language and is now exclusively a language for scripture scholars.
Not only is Aramaics existence eroding, but Christianity itself is threatened. This struggle for survival is not unique to Maaloula; survival cannot be taken for granted by any minority in the Middle East. Once a church of philosophers, theologians and artists, the church in the Middle East today faces possible extinction. Creation and preservation of a supportive faith community is not a luxury; for the ancient convent of Saint Sergius in Maaloula it is essential.
Built in the fourth century, the church commemorates two Syrian soldiers, Sergius and Bacchus. It is one of the oldest continuously active churches in the world.
The architecture of the church reveals a strong influence from the Byzantine East. Like the Haghia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul), though on a much smaller scale, Saint Sergius has a similar basilican plan crowned by a dome which floods the interior with light.
The altars in this ancient church still resemble pagan altars with one difference; absent is the hole which allowed the blood of the sacrificed animals to freely flow. Capped with semicircular marble slabs, the freestanding altars, unlike any other in the Christian world, testify to the survival of an ancient culture and the livng churchs roots.
The church in Maaloula, like her sister Christian churches throughout the Middle East, is a church in transition. For centuries, Christians quietly carved out for themselves an existence in a non-Christian world. Ironically, this isolated location which for centuries allowed Maaloula to survive now threatens its existence.
Emigration to the West increases, especially in the wake of the crisis in Lebanon, once considered the Middle Eastern Christians refuge and haven. Today several Middle Eastern Christian communities, Catholic Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox, can be found in Western Europe, South America, Australia and the United States.
These communities maintain their unique identities in cultures different from their own. They offer us, who adhere to other traditions, an opportunity to experience firsthand the churchs Aramaic roots.
The people of Maaloula now cater mostly to tourists and scholars. The Basilian Salvatorian Order of the Greek Catholic Community, which serves the people of Saint Sergius, has published a brochure in several languages that explains the history of Maaloula and the Convent of Saint Sergius. The Ministry of Tourism of the Syrian Arabic Republic, eager to promote tourism from the West, boasts in colorful brochures of Maaloulas unique role in the history of the church.
The church in Maaloula, both Catholic and Orthodox, points to the roots of the Christian faith, emphasizes the importance of Christian community and reminds us of our devotion to those who have gone before us. Most importantly, though, Maaloula announces the faith and hope in the Risen Lord.
Pope John XXIIIs love for the Eastern churches is well known. He believed that by studying, embracing and loving the churches of the East, one could discover the roots of the Christian faith. This need to discern the churchs roots was one of the motives that prompted John XXIII to convene the Second Vatican Council, perhaps the most important event of our church in the 20th century.
Appreciation of their place in history, however, is not enough to preserve communities like Maaloula. As their sisters and brothers, we must, like John XXIII, be open to receive and respect these cultures as equals. Where extinction is possible, we must advocate their right to exist in dignity.
Adversity is nothing new to the people of Maaloula. Like Aramaic, it is a part of the culture. Their faith in God, like the faith of Jesus, has enabled them to survive for over fifteen hundred years. This Christian faith and hope will, God willing, allow them to continue to survive and grow as sons and daughters of God.
Michael La Civita is CNEWA’s vice president for communications.