Maaloula: Scenes From the World's Most Solemn Celebration of Easter

Michael Teague  |

The town of Maaloula lies roughly 30 miles Northeast of the Syrian capital of Damascus, and, like many of Syria’s ancient cities, has the blood of history boiling in its veins.

Maaloula is unfortunately not the only Syrian city of truly ancient heritage to be reduced to rubble by four years of civil war, nor by any means the largest. One only has to consider Aleppo, long recognized as both one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in human history (second only to the Northern Iraqi city of Arbil by some estimates), as well as the nation’s commercial capital. Aleppo was a rare and unique location on our increasingly beleaguered planet, until not long ago vibrant with centuries of history, culture, and various traditions.

Now, however, it has been reduced to a mound of concrete and mangled rebar at the behest of a ruthless regime desperately clinging to power, no less the equally ruthless jihadi mercenaries in the employ of Syria’s freedom-loving neighbors like Turkey, the Kingdom of the Saudi royal family, and even further afield from places like Pakistan and Uzbekistan (indeed, UN monitors have reportedly experienced difficulties in their attempts to communicate with the fractious Syrian rebels, as many of them are unable to speak Arabic).

Maaloula may not be as important as Aleppo was, at least in terms of money changing hands, but historically the idyllic town is every bit as significant.

Indeed, Maaloula has the distinction of being one of the most unique Christian cities in the world. It is the only place of its size whose inhabitants speak anything remotely resembling the original language of Christ, Western Aramaic. Its shrines and monuments date back nearly to the time during which Christ is thought to have lived and, like many of the world’s oldest religious artefacts, are of importance not only to those of the Christian faith. The town’s churches and monasteries are frequently visited by Muslim pilgrims seeking blessings.

Given the Bin-Ladenite orientation of the armed faction of the Syrian opposition (not to be confused with the far more laudable secular opposition to the regime, as represented by numerous figures including the versatile and provocative writer/film-maker Mohammed Ali Atassi or the former Secretary General of the Syrian Communist party Riyadh al-Turk, who spent some two decades being tortured in solitary confinement at the behest of the late Hafez al-Assad), it was perhaps only a matter of time before Maaloula became a battleground in the wider conflict.

And so it was that late in 2013, the mercenaries of the so-called Al-Nusra front, the Syrian Al-Qaeda franchise, who are not known for their fondness for Christians or Christianity in general, opened yet another front in the conflict by entering the town. This past weekend, and after months of battle, Syrian state media as well as other regional media outlets reported that the Syrian army had finally managed to regain control of Maaloula with the help of the Lebanese Hezbollah (itself ever more willing to make common cause with the Middle-East’s shrinking and justifiably frightened Christian populace).

The residents of the town that had fled in the face of months of hostilities were able to return in time for Easter celebrations, but these were as solemn as they were thankful given the extent of the town’s destruction, the shocking nature of which can be seen in photographs posted to the Syria360 blog (readers should be warned that the images, while undoubtedly authentic, are here provided by a pro-Ba’athist state media outlet).

Though it seems like a distant memory at this point, it should be remembered that it was only less than year ago that the Obama Administration was contemplating the shocking idea of yet another American intervention in a majority-Muslim nation East of the Mediterranean, in the face of evidence that the regime of Syrian “President” Bashar al-Assad had in fact used chemical weapons, including sarin gas, against the Islamist rebels ever-lurking on the outskirts of Damascus.

Unlike the administration that preceded the current one, however, Obama and Co. seemed incredibly sensitive to public opinion on the matter and rather quickly worked out a deal whose terms allowed the Syrian government to relinquish its stockpiles of nerve agents (of which the country is known to have plentiful amounts). Thus was a Libya-style no-fly zone-ignited disaster averted.

But the Syrian civil war continues to devour hundreds of thousands of victims, in the form of both human souls as well as some of the oldest and most important architectural achievements in our collective history.

The oft-cited Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the for better or worse go-to in terms of the war’s death toll, estimates that 150,000 lives have been extinguished as a result of the conflict. Compare this to the last vicious civil war in the Levant that took place in neighboring Lebanon, that claimed the same amount of lives over a period of 15 years spanning from 1975-1990.

The Syrian conflict has also resulted in a staggering amount of displaced persons. Last month, the United Nations reported that some 9 million have had to leave their homes as a result of the war’s brutality. 2.5 million of these poor folks have fled to neighboring countries, and an unfathomable 6.5 million have suffered internal displacement, many likely several times over as the various mini-wars that inevitably result from civil wars in ethnically and religiously diverse countries metastasize.

Be that as it may, the West has all but forgotten Syria. This is perhaps understandable given that the country isn’t a significant producer of oil (unlike Libya, for instance), and especially since Crimea has taken over as the hot new humanitarian cause du-jour. Western Christians, for the most part, seem to have forgotten about Maaloula as well despite the past weekend’s celebration of Easter.

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