As of today, approximately 900 Christians and 50 Muslims have returned to Ma’loula, an ancient village founded in 90 AD, and considered by many to be the second most historic Christian site after Jerusalem. In 2011, before the start of the Syrian conflict, the village was home to some 5000 people, 80% Christian and 20% Muslim.
Over the past five weeks, this observer has been surveying and updating data as part of a research project on a modest number of the 152 archeological sites here in Syria, now severely damaged over the past four years. Ma’loula, is among the nearly 7000 historic places in Syria that have either been looted, burned, or bulldozed as the object of mindless jihadist iconoclasm for being ‘un-Islamic” or have sustained general damage because of the war.
In some ways it has been a daunting task to visit these sites, given the security situation and the various kinds of authorization and official permits that are now required. Obviously, this takes time, due to current conditions in Syria. There are also such issues as the intense Summer heat, finding a driver willing to make the trip for a reasonable fee, assembling crucial local experts at the site in order to get solid information, and other related difficulties.
On 7/27/2015, this observer and his friends from Ma’loula, Jesus and Moses (Issa and Musa), were delayed for two hours at the Ministry of Information, awaiting the green light from the Syria army that the road was now safe. On the previous night there had been heavy jihadist shelling from the East Gouta\Jobar suburb of Damascus. Some of these mortars had hit near our planned M-5 route north.
Despite losing a few hours of daylight, our third visit to Ma’loula (the village is just 35 miles northwest of Damascus) turned out to be a spectacular impromptu seminar in heritage restoration. We were able to see firsthand the results of the ongoing reconstruction work being done on the town and its religious sites. The experience was exhilarating, to say the least.
It is impossible to overemphasize the scale of the preservation, restoration, protection and security projects that are urgently needed to salvage what remains of our shared global cultural heritage in Syria, a history which spans over 10 millennia. Added to this monumental task is the effort required to ready these sites for the return of international visitors, including the archeologists who have worked here for many years. Yet there is some very good news coming out of Ma’loula: many local villagers have returned and they are deeply connected to this cradle of civilization. They are not waiting for the end of hostilities to begin the restoration and repair work on their homes and Ma’loula’s heritage sites.
The assaults on Ma’loula began in September 7 2013, when jihadists quickly seized control of much of the rugged surrounding hills some 1,700 meters above sea level. From above, they swarmed into Ma’loula without warning. The siege finally ended when the jihadists were finally driven out of the village on April 14, 2015 by a combination of Syrian army, Hezbollah fighters and approximately 70 partisans from Ma’loula. After striping the village of much of its antiquities and then torching it, most of the jihadists then retreated to Lebanon or to the suburbs of Damascus. Others have made their way north to Aleppo and Idlib.
Christian clerics and scholars worry that Ma’loula’s priceless medieval icons and other works of art may have been destroyed or looted and will never be recovered. However, some items are being founds and returned.
Residents who have returned recently to Ma’loula salvage and repair what they can. About ten percent of the village unanimously related their shock, to this observer, that the town was attacked at all. The ancient village is a tight-knit community, where Christian and Muslim women dress alike in traditional garb and are indistinguishable by sight. Their children often attend the French Institute here which teaches Aramaic, the language of Christ, which is still spoken here (and also in parts of Afghanistan and by immigrants to the United States, to cite only two examples). The people of Ma’loula have always celebrated each other’s religious holidays.
Issues of religious conflict rarely existed here before the war. Sadly, three Muslim families from Ma’loula had recently become infected with the poisonous hate-filled sectarianism sweeping this region. One Ktaiman Kamar reportedly boasted to his Christian neighbors “We will crucify all of you”. The Rafic Al Shami and Souhail Fadel families are also still fighting with jihadi rebels and are forbidden to return to their former homes in the village. As of today, approximately sixty Muslims have returned to Ma’loula and they appear to be living in harmony with their Christian neighbors, if amidst some mutual unease.
Ma’loula has never had the strategic value of other nearby areas, such as the city of Yabroud to the north, but it does possess a vivid symbolic religious importance and has long been a signature site for Syria’s diverse assemblage of faiths and ethnicities. Our guides suggested that this is perhaps the main reason the unprotected and unsuspecting village was invaded, occupied and severely damaged.
There is also some good news from this incomparable community. The 13 nuns abducted by Jabhat al Nusra rebels, recently been freed in a prisoner exchange, are now regularly visiting Ma’loula to help restore the Nunnery and St. Teccla Monastery, as well as their orphanage. This observer was told that they plan to return and live full-time in Ma’loula by late August and will then re-open the orphanage. Several of the 40 damaged Churches and affiliated religious sites are being restored by good, solid workmanship from both local and foreign volunteers: new electric lines, water pipes, roof and window repairs, and painting.
To the credit of Lebanese authorities, the 1,700 year old door of St. Trecla (shown below, with an American visitor and Ma’loula guide/ historian, Issa) stolen on 9/13/2013, was returned in February 2015 when it was discovered in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley.
Approximately 65,000 archeological artifacts stolen by terrorists over the past four years have been recovered so far, around 10% of the total looted from Syria during this period. Turkey and Lebanon receive the greatest number of these stolen antiquities.
During the occupation of Ma’loula, the jihadists removed just about every cross of any size that they found. Many of these have already been replaced and work continues on other painstaking restoration work, wherever possible, on religious art and icons. Paintings and frescoes were slashed with knives, and the eyes from portraits of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the disciples, were dug out with chisels, among other acts of vandalism and sacrilege.
Some townspeople advised this observer that the obsession with gouging out the eyes of these pillars of Christianity was so that Jesus could not see what they were doing and punish them. Others speculated that during much of their time in Ma’loula, the jihadists were high on drugs such as captagon, and that they drank regularly from the village cellars full of thousands of bottles of wine. In Roman times, this place was dedicated to the pagan god of wine, Bacchus. This observer has also repeatedly become aware of the fact that the jihadist “religious” militia in the area, who condemn alcohol so vociferously on youtube, are among its most fervent partakers. Many jihadis also appear to be addicted to courage-enhancing drugs such as cocaine. They are sometimes able to fight for two straight days or more, before finally collapsing on the battlefield in exhaustion. They are then discovered by their enemies fast asleep or in a drugged- out stupor.
Space does not allow here for a more detailed chronicle of all the work being done by those noble citizens who have returned to Ma’loula, or by the Syrian people all across this cradle of civilization, to restore the great damage to our common cultural heritage. These brave people continue the work without any international aid and little local funding, while they face the daily problem of their own survival.
It is true beyond a doubt that the noble Syrian people are deeply connected to a cultural heritage that is the patrimony of all the peoples of the earth. Under great duress, they are attempting (and achieving) nothing less than the preservation of our collective identity as a species and the protection of the past for the people of the future.
Bless every one of them. May the hell they endure end now.