Maaloula: An Oasis of Faith

by Michael J.L. La Civita
photos by Joseph Cornelius Donnelly

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“…Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’”

These last words of Jesus from Matthew’s Gospel are recited every Passion (Palm) Sunday and Good Friday in churches throughout the world. Heard in the climax of the penitential season of Lent, they reveal a complex yet profound message: though he felt abandoned by God, Jesus never lost his faith in God.

Unlike the rest of the Gospels which were written in Greek, Jesus’ words from the cross were left in their original Aramaic.

As the spoken language in the Semitic cultures of Babylonia, Palestine and Persia, Aramaic flourished until the rise of Islam and Arabic. Today approximately 20,000 people speak this ancient Semitic language, 5,000 of which are residents of the Syrian Christian village of Maaloula.

Perched in the Qalamoun mountain range 30 miles north of Damascus, Maaloula is an oasis in the midst of a desert, its isolated location symbolic of its history.

Maaloula has striven for centuries to retain her cultural and religious integrity. Her people have wrestled with schism and internal differences as well as standing out alone as a tiny minority in a Muslim nation. Such circumstances created a people who tenaciously adhere to their roots and to signs of their faith. With the introduction of television and other modern conveniences, however, many of Maaloula’s young leave for the cities in the search for jobs and a better life. There they speak Aramaic less frequently and grow accustomed to Arabic, the national language.

Inevitably those who remain in Maaloula must strain to maintain their identity. Arabic, not Aramaic, is taught in the schools. Because the Aramaic dialect spoken in Maaloula is never written, it is less open to change, adapt and expand as languages must in order to express modern ideas and vocabulary. Hence, Aramaic has eroded as a vernacular language and is now exclusively a language for scripture scholars.

Not only is Aramaic’s existence eroding, but Christianity itself is threatened. This struggle for survival is not unique to Maaloula; survival cannot be taken for granted by any minority in the Middle East. Once a church of philosophers, theologians and artists, the church in the Middle East today faces possible extinction. Creation and preservation of a supportive faith community is not a luxury; for the ancient convent of Saint Sergius in Maaloula it is essential.

Built in the fourth century, the church commemorates two Syrian soldiers, Sergius and Bacchus. It is one of the oldest continuously active churches in the world.

The architecture of the church reveals a strong influence from the Byzantine East. Like the Haghia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul), though on a much smaller scale, Saint Sergius has a similar basilican plan crowned by a dome which floods the interior with light.

The altars in this ancient church still resemble pagan altars with one difference; absent is the hole which allowed the blood of the sacrificed animals to freely flow. Capped with semicircular marble slabs, the freestanding altars, unlike any other in the Christian world, testify to the survival of an ancient culture and the livng church’s roots.

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Tags: Syria Middle East Christians Christianity Cultural Identity