Syria’s Christian Valley

Rolling hills and verdant pastures shelter a Syrian Christian community

by Sean Sprague

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T.E. Lawrence called it “the finest castle in the world.” Paul Theroux described it as “the epitome of the dream castle of childhood fantasies of jousts and armor and pennants.”

Krak des Chevaliers overlooks the Homs Gap in Syria’s Al Ansariyah Mountains, near the border with Lebanon. Built in the 11th century by the Muslim emir of Aleppo, the castle was later rebuilt by the Knights Hospitaller, a European Catholic military order that wrested control of it and the surrounding area during the Crusades. For 150 years, European knights and their descendants inhabited the region, until the Muslim Mamluks chased them out in 1271.

The fortress is a lonely relic of Syria’s European Christian past. But the region it dominates, Wadi al Nasarah (Arabic for Valley of Christians), remains home to a flourishing Christian community rooted in the early church of Sts. Peter and Paul.

Though known for its support of Syria’s Christian minority, the Syrian government recently renamed the region, calling it Wadi al Nadarah, Arabic for the Green Valley. This subtle but essential variation in name, however, has altered little about the region. Most Syrians still refer to it as the Valley of Christians.

“There are about 40 villages in the area, most of which are Christian,” explains Carmen Nehme, a young woman from the settlement of Al Meshtayeh.

“One notable exception is Al Hosn, the village below Krak des Chevaliers, which is almost entirely Muslim,” she says, her long dark hair framing her chiseled face. Wearing jeans and a turtleneck, the 24–year–old Christian speaks fluent English and works at a local hotel popular with tour groups.

“We were traditionally farmers, harvesting our olives and growing grain crops and keeping animals. But these days, very few of us Christians are involved in that kind of work. We have prospered and have received a good education, going to university in the towns, so we either work in tourism or are professional people,” she continues.

Ms. Nehme’s generation is not the first to have left its rural roots: Her father is an electrician; her mother teaches at a local school.

Syria is a cradle of Christianity. The word Christian was first coined in the ancient Syrian city of Antioch — which has been a part of Turkey since the borders were redrawn in 1939. The apostles Peter and Paul settled there, nurturing a church that eventually emerged as the center of Christian thought in the eastern Mediterranean. Antiochene theologians, from both the Greek– and Syriac–speaking communities, played leading roles in the Christological controversies that eventually divided the early church, differences that are now understood as cultural and linguistic.

Even as masses of Arab Muslim troops invaded and conquered the Middle East in the seventh century, eventually receiving the majority of its population into Islam, Syrian Christians persevered, living peaceably with their Muslim neighbors.

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