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Today, Christians make up about a tenth of Syria’s 22 million people. Half of these two million souls belong to the Orthodox Church of the Patriarchate of Antioch, the preeminent Christian institution in the country. As many as 500,000 people belong to the Syriac Orthodox Church, and another 125,000 belong to the Armenian Apostolic Church. Catholics number around 400,000 people and belong primarily to the Armenian and Melkite Greek Catholic churches.

The vast majority of the population of Wadi al Nasarah are Christian, 98 percent of whom belong to the Orthodox Church. The rest attend Melkite or Roman Catholic churches.

The region’s oldest extant Christian site, a sixth–century Orthodox monastery dedicated to St. George, is located near Al Meshtayeh and faces Krak des Chevaliers from the opposite side of the valley, three miles away.

The monastic foundation consists of several buildings, including two churches, and a cloistered courtyard. A newer church, built in 1857, houses an intricately carved wooden iconostasis that frames a rare collection of Arab icons. Across the courtyard stands a 13th–century church. Its vaulted apse, largely hidden behind a 300–year–old ebonized iconostasis, dates to the monastery’s foundation in the early Byzantine era.

In its heyday, the monastery served as one of the region’s major theological centers. Scores of monks once lived, prayed, studied and worked there, and its seminary trained the region’s priests. But dwindling enrollment forced the monastery to close its doors not long ago. Father Andrew, a priest in the nearby village of Amre, studied at St. George’s.

“We are sad that St. George’s is no longer a seminary,” says the priest, adding, “there is talk to start it up again. There is a convent in the nearby village of Marmarita, where students can study theology for three years and then go on to Lebanon to finish their studies.” But only three monks remain at St. George’s, which has become a favorite stop for bus loads of pilgrims and tourists.

“We get up at 5 a.m. to pray in the chapel and then do various chores like cleaning or working in the library, until breakfast at 8:30,” says Mar Christo, the monastery’s energetic abbot. Cloaked in his traditional black cassock, his woolly hat outlining his pointed beard and laughing eyes, he says that soon after breakfast, “the tourist buses start to arrive, so we show them around.

“Our two big feast days are Saint George’s Day on 6 May and the Triumph of the Cross on 14 September — plus of course Christmas and Easter,” he continues. “On feast days, many pilgrims come to stay at the monastery. A big market is set up outside selling icons and food. On Sundays, the villagers come to the liturgy, but not so many.”

Walking to the monastery’s kitchen garden, Mar Christo points to his beloved vegetables. “I love to do the gardening myself. There is no time I feel better than when I am watering the tomatoes and lettuce.

“We also have land belonging to the monastery that we farm,” he adds. “We do the work ourselves, but we also employ women to help with the hard labor and at harvest time.”

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Tags: Syria Christianity Village life Monastery Syriac Orthodox Church