Miracles, martyrdom and a magical setting, of small houses -the roof of one giving access to the terrace of the next-- that rise in layers like a birthday cake of pastel blue, lilac and yellow against the rocky halo of a sheer mountain backdrop, all combine to make a fairy-tale of Maaloula, that unfolds "once upon a time".
Maaloula, in Aramaic, means "entrance". The portal in question refers to a legend involving Saint (Mar) Tekla, whose sanctuary nestles in a damp cave, in one of the cliffs that embrace the town. As the story goes, the weary young girl, around the year 45 A.D., journeyed here from near Antioch where her faith, encouraged in the teachings of the itinerant St. Paul, had saved her from a cruel martyrdom; she was to have been burned alive in the town square. And while her own dear lord God had sent a downpour to douse the flames, she was now disheartened and travel-worn, her way blocked by a mountain. As she kneeled in dismay, God again came to her rescue and, says the tale, split the mountain, opening a passageway in the cleft, with a soothing stream at the girl's feet.
Though Maaloula can also be entered along a modern paved road, through an enchanted valley, with orchards of apricots and figs, fields of grapes and stands of poplar, that spread across the pockets in the Kalamun Mountains of the Anti-Lebanon range, more evocative, breathtaking in fact, is the way through the gorge -narrow, stony, uneven, traversed by a stream, the passage often shared with a bearded old man on his donkey - and watched over by caves and passageways in the rocky walls that date from the Cro-Magnon wanderers, who first occupied the site 30,000 years ago, and who used the grottoes, like the saints of the first Christian millennium, for refuge, retreat and tombs.
Maaloula, and the neighboring towns of Jaba'din and Naj'a, are the last three Aramaic-speaking strongholds in an area once completely dominated by a language so common it was freely spoken in Assyrian and Persian courts, Babylonian councils, Hebrew temples, by seamen and shepherds, prophets as they preached and merchants at their trade.
Yet while the Arameans seem to have clarified communication, and in fact employed a written alphabet, they were the disruptive force that contributed to the collapse of one after another of the Near Eastern empires. The general description "Arameans" or "Aramaeans", according to Amélie Kuhrt (The Ancient Near East, c. 3000-330 B.C., London, Routledge, 1995) "masks the fact that they are not a unified group, except in terms of their language", yet they persisted as a significant, identifiable political and cultural factor in the history of the region from the ninth century B.C. on, despite their elusive origins (ostensibly as Aryans from the Transcaspian, or perhaps the Indus Valley) and their inexplicable appearance, all across the Fertile Crescent.
Before 1500 B.C. the Arameans had been described as "roving, hostile bands of marauders, sometimes agricultural workers, often simple pastoralists", yet after a lapse of some three hundred years, during which information became vague and scarce, the record attests to their reappearance as settled groups in a wide range of political entities, throughout the region from the Tigris to the Levant.
The earliest indisputable evidence for the Arameans dates from the reign of the Assyrian king Tiglath-pileser I (1114-1076 B.C.), during which at least fourteen annual policing actions were required against a people called the Ablame-Armaya in the area of the middle and upper Euphrates. The Assyrians, in fact, deported them whenever possible. The Babylonians, without success, built walls to keep them out. In the Levant, already badly affected by the collapse of the imperial superstructures, the small city-states were much more vulnerable, giving the Arameans the opportunity not just of harassing, or raiding, or even settling, but of seizing political control as well. Nonetheless, according to scholars a number of questions about these people remain unanswerable, or the versions collide, and ultimately provide only a limited and distorted picture.
The facts do, however, coincide in the troublesome presence of a people, or a number of peoples, "who sow chaos and unrest wherever they appear", and leave "want, hunger, and famine in their wake". The Aramean states, among themselves, in any case never joined forces. Despite their unhappy reputation, their disassociated hegemonies were inexplicably left in place as long as their loyalties to the predominant authority remained intact, while meantime, according to their own sources, and "in the most innocent fashion", they raised their cattle and sheep and grew their crops, and decorated their royal palaces with exquisite stone carvings, elaborate wooden furniture, and bronze bowls with verbose Aramaic inscriptions.
Though their settlement was piecemeal, often as a result of their own migrations or perhaps Assyrian deportations, or the joining of their ranks by dissatisfied peasants all across the region, their presence spread so quickly and thoroughly that their language, written in their own form of an alphabet, spread with them.
This West Semitic idiom engendered, in effect, Arabic, Hebrew and Syriac, and since it preserved more phonemes than the Canaanite or Phoenician alphabets, it provided more variations in suffixes and prefixes, among other linguistic idiosyncrasies, so lent itself to a greater precision of expression. And since it was already evident and commonplace long before the Persian campaign, it was adopted by the new conquerors as the most widely applicable administrative and imperial language, for while the Achaemenid kings used local languages for their decrees, they came to employ Aramaic as a kind of lingua franca, and thus contributed to the further spread of its use throughout the imperial territories. Aramaic, therefore, came to be employed in parallel fashion to local dialects or languages, and predominated in royal and satrapal directives. Evidence confirms its use in Persepolis, Babylonia, Egypt, the Levant and Asia Minor, and even the Parthians used Aramaic script to write their contemporary Middle Iranian languages.
And while the Arameans adopted the deities of the places they occupied they ultimately converted them into their own proper gods, as with Hadad in Aram-Damascus or Be'el Shamen (perhaps equated with El, the supreme deity) throughout the region; yet their rites remain, to this day, a mystery.
Aramaic takes its name from Aram, the fifth son of Shem (Sam or Cham), the first-born son of Noah (Genesis 10:22), whose name in turn provides the root of the word "Semitic". The descendents of Aram, according to the Old Testament, dwelt in the fertile valley of Padan-aram, also known as Beth (House) Nahreen.
With the defeat of the Persians by Alexander in 330 B.C., Greek displaced Aramaic as the official language of the Achaemenid territories. The Romans required the use of Latin. Both Latin and Greek persisted under the Byzantine Empire, but much of this was swept away in the Arab expansion of the seventh century, which carried nearly everything along in its path. So while Byzantium endured until the onslaught of the advancing Ottomans, who by the fourteenth century had overrun most of the Balkan Peninsula as a prelude to the conquest of Constantinople, the lingua franca became, for ordinary- civil, judicial, mercantile-purposes, Arabic, and for the intelligentsia, Persian, considered the language of poetry.
Of the approximately 15,000-18,000 people left in the world today who still speak Aramaic approximately 2000 live in the Syrian Christian town of Maaloula. And while even there the language is on the wane -- victim of satellite television or young people who depart their homes in search of employment in nearby Damascus, some fifty kilometers distant -- the appeal of Aramaic is on the rise among the survivors of the Diasporas in Great Britain or the United States, where it enjoys the mystique of having served as "the language of Christ".
Maaloula might nevertheless have passed into oblivion had it not been for the Edict of Milan of 313 A.D., issued by Constantine the Great, granting Christians the freedom to worship and express their religion according to their personal conviction. The First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. further regulated the basic elements of Christian worship, thus permitting the building of a church and monastery in the name of Sergius and Sarkis, two soldiers from the army of Roman emperor Maximian, martyred in 297 A.D. because, according to the record, "they refused to worship Rome's pagan gods." Though beatified and buried in Justinian's one-time stronghold at Rasafa (Resafa), in northeastern Syria, now a beautiful ruin abandoned to the desert, the church in Maaloula keeps their memory, and so has won its fame as "the oldest church in the world still in use".
Temple ruins of an earlier cult still survive under the church's foundations, though most of the stone blocks, and the Ionic capitals from the ancient columns, were incorporated in the construction. A semi-circular stone altar at the far end of the sanctuary, the iconostasis, the cool and sober white limestone interior, and walls and gate confected of the wood from Lebanon's precious cedars, all predate the Nicean ruling on the use of platform altars, thus testifying to the structure's antiquity. The most valued and unusual icon in the collection, at least four hundred years old, depicts both the Last Supper and the Crucifixion. Though stolen a few years ago, according to Father Tawfiq, overseer of both the church and the monastery from his Holy Savior order in Sidon, in southern Lebanon, the Syrian security police, as well as St. Sergius himself, assured its return.
The Greek Catholic (Melikite) Church has been in full union with Rome since 1724 and recognizes the Pope as its head. With churches as well in Damascus and Aleppo, among other Syrian cities, this singular Christian denomination claims about 300,000 adepts within Syria alone.
Yet it was the "once upon a time" cave of Saint Tekla, where she prayed and fasted, preached and baptized, healed the ailing and comforted the forgotten, that became the soul of Maaloula and the heart of its pilgrimage and passion. After passing through the gap in the mountain, living on fresh grasses and water from the stream, the virgin girl -- who had survived her trials in a fire doused by the rain, wild animals tamed by light, a pit of vipers turned away by prayer, and the order to behead her countermanded by the Governor's pity -- was eventually placed in the sepulcher named for "The Mother of the Sick People" (maaloulin in Arabic).
She is still called Brikhta, or "blessed" in Aramaic, "for she bestows her blessings on the pilgrims who visit this grotto, and drink of the water that drips through the walls, and pray at her tomb, even after her death." An enormous grapevine, nourished by the ever-dripping spring, has grown inside the cave. It has covered the entire grotto, until it reaches with its tendrils toward the light, through the mouth of the cave, that faces the terraced town rising along the opposite cliff face. For many, it is the essence of the compassionate young girl, her living memory, her struggle and her consecration.
Saint Tekla was called the "first martyr" because she was the "first Christian woman subject to torture and persecution in the name of Christ" and was considered to be a messenger of the Church, akin to an Apostle, so she was termed "Mar", an Aramaic word applied to those who baptize. With this, Maaloula became an Archbishopric in the fourth century and so it continued until the eighteenth century.
The twenty-fourth of September is the Day of Saint Tekla, whose name was given to the Nunnery just below the grotto, sacred to pilgrims of many sects, both Christian and Muslim. A visit here is considered a prior requisite to the trip to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem or the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in its day the holiest site in Islam. Under the patronage of the parent institution in Damascus, the nuns devote themselves to prayer and worship but also to attending visitors to the sanctuary, caring for the small on-site historical museum, and preparing the Raising of the Cross, an annual event celebrated each fourteenth of September.
The most colorful tradition, however, is the "festival of the fires", still lit on the peak behind the town in commemoration of the mountaintop fires that lighted the way between Jerusalem and Constantinople, "the route of saints, the caves of hermits, the tombs of St. Elias the Zealous, Saint Barbara, Saint Lavenduis, Saint Georgious, Mar Touma."
And so the fairy-tale of Maaloula continues, and "they all lived happily ever after".
Maaloula: 'Star of Christendom'