A place called

- An encounter with history -


By Carlos Malem

Maalula has a unique landscape: Intense, Vital50 kilometres from Damascus, at an altitude of more than 1500 metres, in the direction of Lebanon, Maalula perches on the slopes of the Kalamun Mountains as if it were in reality a gigantic bee-hive on the edge of a precipice. The landscape is bathed in an unreal luminosity. A vast gleaming carpet of green is found at the base of the mountains made up of figs, flowering damsons, grapevines and poplar trees ill at ease with the presence of tiny birds......This exceptionally hospitable village seems to float above implacable nature. Maalula has a mellowness of character which it has known how to preserve during its many centuries. It is now many years since the early days, when it was a settlement in the Homs kingdom..... or during the Roman era when it was called Seliocopolis. 

Maalula will always be an authentic encounter with history. Nowadays it has a population of 2,000. The peaceful and hardworking inhabitants devote themselves to the fundamental task of living in dignity. A hardworking atmosphere does not mask the principal preoccupation, that of preserving its language, its traditions and its rich history. The least mysterious way of safeguarding a necessary future. From the moment of arrival, the visitor has the sensation of having been transported into a magical world where the things that happen to the characters follow each other at a fierce rhythm. The first thing that touches the spirit is the beauty of the faces, the great charm of the orient. But later there are the gestures and smiles that permit one to perceive the natural disposition that the Maalulis possess to convey what at first sight seems invisible. Maalula is above all a facet of the sensual world. Maalula is a place of images: images that devour and tear the observer to pieces; rude, coarse, perfect, sublime images that cannot be evaded. Maalula is the vines creeping through the balconies. A peasant drinking the best home-made arak in the world. And always the young Maaluli girls with their sun-drenched bodies. But Maalula is also a winter of hungry snow. Maalula is an unforgettable blueness. 

The Aramaeans 

The inhabitants of Maalula are the natural descendants of those Semitic tribes which populated the Syrian desert and part of Mesopotamia 14 centuries before our time. Old manuscripts reveal that these tribes went by the name of Aramu or Ahlamu. The Aramaeans were in reality composed of a multitude of kingdoms which did not have strong ties of union between themselves. Towards the year 1000, the Aramaeans occupied a vast territory which extended as far as the banks of the Euphrates. But the power of its armies was systematically weakened by the assaults of the kings of Assur. Decadence started to become apparent. The different principalities and Aramaean kingdoms were incapable of co-ordinating their efforts and were defeated one by one. Arpat, Cobah and Hamat lost control of their possessions. The Assyrians won. In the year 730 BC their luck had run out and Assur formed the border with Egypt.. 

Aramaic, The Language of the Future 

The Aramaic language was the main language used for intercommunication between the Semitic peoples in the ancient middle east. Around the 8th century BC, the empire of the Aramaic language extended from Egypt to remote and isolated regions in Asia. The first documentary evidence of the Aramaic language was found on the tomb of king Kilamu (4th - 8th century BC), or in Neirab on the funeral remains of the Moon god south of Aleppo. 

As of the 7th century AD, Aramaic was used throughout the Assyrian empire. Furthermore, the Persians adopted Aramaic as their official language around the 5th century BC. Writing with alphabetic characters spread rapidly. The book of Esdras shows us that Aramaic was also used in Palestine. Once the size of the Persian empire had increased, the use of Aramaic became universal. Documents found in India (3rd century BC) show that Aramaic was used throughout Asia Minor. The Jews of Palestine used Aramaic until the second century AD. After the finding of the Qumran manuscripts on the banks of the Dead Sea, the overall opinion about spoken and written Aramaic has been noticeably modified and it is possible that it will continue to be modified in proportion to other discoveries of this type which come to light. In any case, it is a language in full development, rich and dynamic. It is clear that the words of Christ were disseminated in Aramaic because it was the language spoken and written by him and his disciples. What we today call Syrian is in reality a dialect of Aramaic spoken in Mesopotamia (nowadays known as Urfa in Turkey), which later became the language of the Christians in Syria. At the same time, pressure was exerted on Syriac by the Arabic invaders especially after the 5th century AD. Syriac succumbed to this pressure in the end. The Arabs won the battle. However some pockets of resistance still exist. Maalula is an example of this. It is very difficult to know with any certainty if Syriac will have an assured future. In any case it is hoped that Syriac will become a language of the future. It comes as no surprise that there is a feeling of solidarity among the people who currently speak it:- the Jacobists of Turkey, the mountain dwellers of Mosuk (Iraq), the Nestorians and the Caldeos. The distinction between Eastern Syriac and Western Syriac (the latter is spoken in Maalula) also appear in the written script. Eastern Syriac uses the old uncial characters, or in other words it is written in capital letters whereas western Syriac is written in italics. Regrettably, in Maalula there is currently an almost complete loss of Syriac script. It is to be hoped that some of the young people, who have a strong respect for the culture of their elders, will assume the task of reintroducing the Syriac script into daily life. 

Inventory of Historic Monuments 

The past, which is present at every turn in Maalula, is found in the Monastery of Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius). The monastery was built in the fourth century on the ruins of a pagan temple. It's Byzantine style and lean shapes contain one of the first Christian altars. Since its construction until the present day, this monastery has been used as a place of worship which gives it an even greater sense of mystery. The monastery owns a very interesting collection of religious icons from the 16th to the 18th century; among which the most noteworthy are: the beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary and another of the martyrs Sergius and Bakhos. Furthermore, the monks have inscribed some prayers in Western Aramaic for the visitors. This monastery was named in honour of Saint Sarkis who died as a martyr during the reign of Maximillian. On the road that leaves the the village there is a steep path on the right that leads to a terrace where a small waterfall welcomes the pilgrims. Here we find ourselves in the Convent of Mar Tekla, of the orthodox faith. The building was constructed on several levels which gives it a sumptuous feel. Following the stairs, we arrive on the top floor where we find a modern church with a dome and a cave into which filters water with miraculous properties. This curious religious monument receives an unending stream of devotion not only from Christian pilgrims but also from many Moslems who are convinced of its holiness. The convent jealously guards the remains of Saint Tekla, daughter of prince Seljukida, a follower of Saint Peter. Other religious relics can be found in the convent but what strikes one most is the peaceful atmosphere of the place. It offers an unbeatable opportunity to meditate and enter into a communion with the beauty of the landscape. It is also worth mentioning that there is a mosque. 

Festivals and Commemorations 

The Maalulas have a collection of religious and festive songs that are unique in their variety and imagination. They have a great sense of community and festivity. There are three big folklore festivals which mark out the year for the inhabitants of this wonderful place. The first is on 14th September to pay tribute to Saint Cross, there is another on 22nd September which is the festival of Mar Tekla and on the 7th October there is the festival of Mar Sarkis. Hundreds of visitors attend these celebrations and they enjoy some of the most imaginative festivals in the whole of Syria. 

How to get to Maalula. 

There is no international airport in Maalula so it is preferable to fly to Damascus and catch the minibus which takes approximately 1 hour. To get to the minibus station, catch a bus from Choukri Kouatli Avenue in the direction of Kabun and get off at the Abassidas Square next to the football stadium. Go down the Boulevard of Nassirah and keep going until you find the minibus station for Maalula. It's impossible to get lost. The minibuses don't have a fixed timetable and they leave when they are full. The last minibus, in both directions, is at 5pm. The drivers are extremely kind. If on your journey you are lucky enough to be driven by Elias Malem don't forget to send him the regards of his cousin Carlos (a price reduction of the fare is almost guaranteed). 

Where to stay 

There is only one four-star hotel which is the Hotel Safir. It has a restaurant, bars and a swimming pool. It was built in 1988 right next to the Mar Sarkis Monastery. It has magnificent views and gives very good service. It is well worth it if you can afford the expense. It costs approximately 85 dollars per room. For those with more limited budgets it is a good idea to stay in Damascus and travel there each day. On the other hand there are several places where you can eat well without spending too much.

Copyright Carlos Malem.

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