SYRIA, Damascus – The Syrian Ministry of Tourism invited journalists from Tehran to Tunis to check out its top attractions during a trip to the normally reclusive country. Fox News hopped a caravan and went along for the ride.
Syrians are proud of the fact that Christians and Muslims have traditionally lived together in harmony in Syria. The historical monuments alone tell the story of the intertwining of faiths.
Massive columns, the remains of a pagan temple, which was at once the Temple of Hadad — and later the Temple of Jupiter — face the entrance to Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque, one of the holiest shrines in Islam. The mosque you see today was actually built on the site of the old temple. But there was yet another interlude.
When Christianity became the official religion of the Byzantine Empire, a basilica to St. John the Baptist was built on the site. In fact, reportedly the head of St. John the Baptist is buried in the mosque.
When the Muslims entered Damascus in 636 AD, Islamic places of worship were cobbled onto the site, and Christians and Muslims shared the space for prayer. In the early eighth century, with Damascus now the capital of the Muslim world, the basilica was converted entirely to a mosque at enormous cost and grandeur, with rich mosaics and precious stones. Some say it took seven years of tax to pay for the grandiose building.
Though now it is exclusively a Muslim place of worship, non-Muslims are welcome to visit. The mosque is always buzzing with visitors, from Americans to Iranian pilgrims.
Syria had temples before it had churches, churches before it had mosques, so there is a lot of historical overlap at houses of worship. The Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers has a sacred room with both Christian altars and Muslim prayer niches, as one example.
The history of the Jews in Syria has been more tumultuous. In Roman times, there were as many as 10,000 living in Damascus, by some accounts. Jews migrated to Syria after the Crusaders moved on Jerusalem. Today, there are just over 100 Jews left in Syria. Legal restrictions put on the community around the time of the founding of the state of Israel caused many to leave. That included restrictions on travel, so Jews would not visit Israel.
Syria, a predominantly Muslim country, is technically speaking at war with the Jewish state. Some of those restrictions have been lifted in recent years. Indirect talks between Syria and Israel were gathering momentum until late last year.
Today, 10 percent of Syria’s population is Christian. St. Paul converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus, and the country just recently celebrated 2000 years since his birth, in a year-long nationwide commemoration.
In the town of Maalula, just outside Damascus, many people still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. It’s one of the very few places in the world where that tongue is still spoken. Some children don’t even learn Arabic, the official language of Syria, until they start school.
The buildings of the mostly Greek Catholic town of Maalula cling to the side of a steep hill. Many of them are light blue in color, giving the landscape an otherworldly feel, something fragile yet lasting, and completely unusual.
The fourth century Monastery of St. Sarkis (or Sergius and Bacchus) is also and example of tradition laid upon tradition. The priest pointed out a formerly pagan altar with a special rim for draining the blood of animals that were once sacrificed right there. The father tells me the church was built on the ruins of a temple to Apollo.
He recites the Lord’s prayer for me, in Aramaic. He tells me that Greek Catholic mass is read each day in the church.
At the Convent of St. Thekla the Mother Superior, Pelagia Sayaf, talks of all the miracles which have been attributed to St. Thekla. People travel from near and far to the convent in search of healing.
St. Thekla was a doctor, according to Mother Pelagia, and a martyr, according to legend, because she was persecuted for defending her faith. The story goes she escaped death when, fleeing persecution, while being chased, lightning struck the mountain, opening up a cleft, into which she disappeared. It then closed behind her, locking out her persecutors.
Mother Pelagia claims several miracles happen each month.
“Many visitors come here—I can’t even count them. Americans come. The people who come here ask about their health. Ask about babies. Then the next visit they come to St. Thekla to thank her for everything.”
Mother Pelagia has 33 orphans. We meet some of them—Noor, Silva, Reem, Hoosam and Julie, little girls, not more than eight or ten years of age, who come out to recite the Lord’s Prayer for us in Aramaic.
It seems some of them do have one parent, but one who can’t care for them. So the Mother Superior does. She tells stories of marrying some of her girls off over the years. Stories that set her eyes atwinkle. And suddenly Mother Superior looks less severe.
In one case, she tells me, a visitor of Arabic descent from Chicago came to the convent of St. Thekla, saw one of the older orphans, and fell in love. The Mother Superior appears very pleased with this story. She arranged for the two to meet, properly. She approved of the man and the rest is history. Her little charge moved to America and so far, so Mother Pelagia swears, is living happily ever after.
On another occasion, a Bishop from the Santa Barbara area sent one of his congregation to Maalula to study Aramaic. He saw one of Mother Pelagia’s young ladies in the library one day, and also got impaled by Cupid’s arrow. The rest of that story is also happy history.
St. Thekla might be looking after more than just health—she may in fact be also looking after affairs of the heart.
This is the fourth in a series of reports by Fox News Correspondent Amy Kellogg, who recently returned from a 10-day trip to Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government. This report covers the long Christian heritage in Syria. Tomorrow Kellogg will report on her trip to the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.