In the mountains to northwest of Damascus lie the towns of Sayidnaya and Maaloula, the centerpieces to Syria’s Christian heartland. The first one you come to is Sayidnaya, the larger and more visited (by Syrians) of the two due simply to Notre Dame du Sayidnaya, a legendary chapel known since before the Crusades for its holy miracles and its painting of Mary allegedly done by St. Luke, but there are plenty of other convents, monasteries and churches to be found as well.
Getting to Sayidnaya is an easy minibus ride from Damascus and lakes little over an hour. It’ll drop you in the center of town from where you can climb the hillside to the Convent. The structure of the convent itself is a rather modern one, although a place of worship has existed here since the reign of Justinian in the 6th century. The entrance is through a steep set of stairs (although an elevator is available) that take you through a passageway and into the courtyard of the convent.
Depending on what day you arrive, the number of people accompanying you will vary, but you will never be alone. This shrine is one of the largest pilgrimage centers in Syria. It not only constantly draws Christians from all over Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but it also draws crowds of Muslims who come, mostly on Friday, to venerate Mary. If, however, you happen to be in Syria on September 8th, then you will have the occasion to come to Sayidnaya to celebrate festival of Mary. The town is flooded with Christians and Muslims alike who gather on the hills and celebrate into the night, dotting the countryside with campfires.
While the convent itself is nice, the real prize, and the reason everyone comes to Sayidnaya is to see the painting of Mary. It is hidden in a cave in the back of the convent, through a small entranceway. A sign on the outside (only in Arabic) reminds you to remove your shoes. On the way in you pass by various crutches, bandages, and remnants of other answered prayers. Eventually you reach a small room, decorated in paintings, but with the painting of Mary at the center and a small bowl of oil in front of her. Visitors will cross themselves upon entry, kiss the painting, cross themselves some more and then have one of the nuns anoint them with some of the oil. The nun will even dip a piece of cotton in oil for you to take home to someone who couldn’t make it. Once respects are paid, visitors cross themselves and leave.
Although the convent is the main focus of pilgrims to Sayidnaya, as just a traveler you may find Sayidnaya’s other sights more interesting. One of them is the Chapel of St. Peter, a converted Roman temple and the oldest church in town. The other, my personal favorite, is the Convent of the Cherubim, only accessible by a long winding road that climbs high into the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the convent looks more like what a convent should be, isolated, on the top of a mountain and (in winter) covered in snow and cold. When you arrive on the grounds there will likely be nobody about, so what you need to do is just knock on the entrance and one of the monks will open up, likely it will be an affable monk with a long dark beard named Efram. Efram speaks no English, so unless you have some Arabic skills, communicating may be hard, but he’ll still be delighted to show you around the grounds.
The convent’s main sight is the Chapel of St. Thomas, another converted Roman temple that still has its columns. The inside is decorated with frescos and icons depicting scenes from the Bible. Outside of the church, Efram, will show you numerous caves that used to be the cells in which monks lived (the now have small apartments) as well as the large cross on the top of the mountain from which you can get spectacular views of the Syrian desert and the Anti-Lebanon mountain range.
After the tour (which I shared with two Lebanese guys from Montreal), Efram invited us in for tea and cookies and proceeded to tell me how wonderful my name was. “Nathanael,” he said giving it its beautiful Semitic pronunciation “is such a fantastic name. He was the first man to believe that Jesus was the Son of God without asking for proof. It’s a good name to have.” It was good to hear. Having traveled extensively in the Arab world I was used to Arabs bungling my name… “Nathna? Natooo? Naytnal?” But among Arab Christians it was always a hit.