* Was fortunate enough to travel to Syria and see the country in 2008 (when the original article was written), three years before the actual war broke out. This is a reminder, a story about the country with immense cultural heritage, posted here with wholehearted wish for peace to be restored.
One of the places in Syria you would definitely be amazed by is 56 kilometers away from Damascus, among the rocks of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains that separates this country and, well, Lebanon.
High up in the mountains lies a small settlement by the name of Maalula where people still speak the Syrian dialect also known as the Western Aramaic language.
This Christian village is well known worldwide by this dialect which, believe it or not, Jesus once spoke and some books of the Old Testament were written in!
Monastery emerging from the rock
The whole village is packed into the mountain rocks and it gradually goes down. When you approach the settlement coming from the valley, there is a beautiful view of the whole Maalula. Church bell towers were peaking among buildings and up there, at the highest rock, there was the Jesus statue, watching over the whole Christian village. Streets curve between buildings, you can feel that the small town is live and bustling, people were walking, shopping for groceries.
There were private houses, scattered over surrounding rocks, just as they were floating in the air.
Maalula is also famous for housing two monasteries – dedicated to Saint Thecla, and to Saint Sergius and Bacchus. The village is tightly linked to the history of the pagan Saint Thecla converted by Saint Paul. Greek Orthodox convent is erected in the place where she was said to have found permanent refuge. According to the legend, the mountain miraculously opened, creating the narrow gorge in the upper part of the village that allowed the girl to escape from her persecutors.
There were nuns smiling to us while we were trying to climb the stairs towards the church, which was decorated with beautiful Christian frescoes. And while standing in front of the church I have looked up towards the extraordinary sight – a part of the monastery looked as if it was emerging from the rock!
Children’s declamation along the way
The other monastery seems even more authentic. It was built in stone with small courtyard and authentic frescoes inside. Sergius and Bacchus were Roman officials who converted to Christianity in the late 3rd century AD.
Today, after you have come long way and reached the village and this monastery, the monks would respectively invite you to come in and taste their own wine.
There is a small Lebanese restaurant at the outskirts of the village with typical food and various meals where we took our lunch break. There were children on the street who were reciting couple of sentences in Western Aramaic.
Extremely likable and always smiling widely, even though you don’t understand a word. Another way to earn few coins.
Creak of wooden wheels
There is another special town not that far from Maalula, which has been constantly inhabited for five millennia, just like Damascus. The town of Hama flourished in the 2nd millennium BC when it was capital of Aramaic dynasty of Syro-Hittite culture. Subsequently, it was ruled by the Assyrians, the Persians and then the Macedonians. A relative decline occurred during Roman and Byzantine times, while the city’s entry into the Islamic world in 638 AD marked a new period of prosperity.
One of the most interesting and best preserved monuments of the time is without doubt the Al Nuri Mosque on the right bank of Orontes river, built in 1170.
This river is actually very important to Hama since there is the special attraction of the town alluring tourists from around the world right there, on the river. Those are the giant wooden water wheels, also known as the norias, used until a short time ago to draw and distribute water from Orontes to the city.
They are still put to use for several months a year, but with the sole purpose of maintaining the traditional image of the city since Orontes waters subsided over time so much that the wheels cannot even reach its surface at some spots.
They say that it is quite a sight when norias begin to spin because they emit a specific sound, creaking and squeaking, that it is hard to forget the scene. There are still 16 of them, half the number that once existed and almost all of them date back to the Middle Ages.
Fusty odor and crazy traffic
When it comes to the town itself, besides those monuments that give a special atmosphere to the place, there is a smell of stale water in the air you won’t be able to miss. It makes it a bit hard to breath, even more so if you consider those 30 degrees Celsius outside.
There are a lot of people on the streets, like in any other Syrian town we have visited, but the traffic seemed unendurable with everyone seemingly going the way they chose, along with honking to everybody and everything. Although, it did not seem to have any impact on those who walked by, at least not on Arab people.
There were boys sitting on some boxes on the stairs nearby. The way they smiled showing you all their white teeth you would assume they were the happiest in the world. People selling all kinds of goods on the streets lining them up on the floor, another shoeshine boy at every corner, covered women looking at you with their beautiful eyes like you have just landed from another planet or so. What a confusing and interesting atmosphere!