Riif Dimashq (Ma'aloula, Seydnayya, Deir Mar Musa, Bloudan and the Barada Valley)
Part III - Damascus Countryside (Riif Dimashq)
The Damascus Countryside is technically a separate Governorate of Syria, and covers quite a large area. It offers the country's greatest experience to the Christian pilgrim. Seidnayya was considered number two in holiness, second only to Jersualem, by the Crusaders - due mostly to the presence of an image of Mary supposedly painted by St. Luke, and now houses a very spectacular convent/monastery. Ma'aloula is a naturally and culturally intriguing city placed between several mountains and two gorges, and is now home to the last remaining Aramaic-speaking (the language of Jesus) population in the world and several noteworthy monasteries. Deir Mar Musa is a remote monastery which exchanges monastic life with bed and pillows to any visiting tourist, as well as one of Syria's only eco-tourism opportunities. Though the river which now flows through Damascus is only a shadow of its former glory, the valley once carved by this river offers some of Syria's most scenic and well-developed towns.
Convent of Our Lady of Seidnaya
Perched atop a hill in full view for miles around, the spectacular Convent of Our Lady of Seidnaya is both one of Syria's most famous vistas as well as most holy sites. With the Icon of the All-Holy Virgin, to which all kinds of miracles have been attributed, the town and the convent sees a large turn-out both of Christian and Muslim pilgrims seeking the virgin's blessings. In fact the Crusaders considered the place second-in-importance only behind Jerusalem itself. To those who cannot relate to these sorts of ideas, the convent offers a spectacular view (both of it and from it).
Due to the short duration of my stay in this place, I cannot unfortunately provide a more comprehensive guide to the city.
Ma'aloula is singular in many ways. It is the last-remaining place on earth which speaks the language of Jesus - Aramaic, and its 4th and 5th century monasteries offer insight into Christianity before the systematization of its religious practices by the Catholic and various Orthodox churches. Nestled between two gorges and several mountains at 1,500m above sea-level, it is also a natural landmark. Visiting Ma'aloula on a day-trip from Damascus is very much possible, and if you are only visiting the churches, it can be combined with a visit to Seidnayya on the same day. Microbuses in Damascus leave from the Ma'aloula Garage.
Monastery of St Thecla
St Thecla was an early Christian convert and is sometimes referred as a martyr, though subsequent miracles and other incredible feats saved her from the constant threat of death which the Romans hung over her head. She was a disciple of St. Paul and left her fiancee for Paul's teachings on virginity. The monastery is built into the mountain where several of her feats were supposedly carried out. The gorge directly behind the monastery is one such keepsake, which was torn asunder by lightning to facilitate her escape by Roman captors. Make sure to catch a prayer in Aramaic before you leave, either here or the Monastery of St Sergius. If there is no mass during your visit, any of the nuns are happy to show you around or perform a prayer for you.
Natural Landmarks of Ma'aloula
As stated above, Ma'aloula is nestled between two gorges and several mountains at 1,500m above sea-level. Each of these mountains can be scaled and the gorges provide a convenient footpath between the monasteries of the city. Be careful, however, tourism in the city is not very-well developed and the gorge gets narrow at many points where one has to balance on a small pipe which lines the floor of the gorge. For those who have visited Petra in Jordan, the gorge is in many ways similar to the famous Siq through which one enters the ruins.
Monastery of St Sergius
After passing through the gorge beyond the convent of St Thecla, and head another kilometer or so up the road beyond (be careful, signposts are rare and uninformative, so bring a map), you arrive at Ma'aloula's second significant historical landmark, the 4th century monastery of St Sergius/Sarkis. The construction of this monastery outdates most structured Christianity and carries signs of practices which shortly after would be the arena of Paganism (such as the round altar whose design was prohibited by the Council of Nicea in 325AD).
Barada Valley and Bloudan
The Barada Valley (Wadi Barada) is a favourite spot for wealthy Damascenes seeking fresher air and a break from the smoldering heat of the summer season. There are various towns full of Lebanon-style red-tiled roofed villas, a fertile valley below, and cooler mountains above. In the winter season, these are covered with snow, and just a day trip from Damascus. The Lonely Planet suggests taking the old railway to Zabadani, but by travels took me to the town of Bloudan.
The Town Itself
Though we did not spend too much time in the town itself, what we saw convinced us that the average owner of a house in this city was most likely about 30 times as rich as the average Damascene. There were huge and beautiful villas with swimming pools and tennis courts, as well as trees aplenty (a rare sight in most other places in the country), churches and mosques, and large modern restaurants with inexplicable infrastructure (one restaurant sported a 50-meter long cable car between the restaurant and its adjoining hotel). What speaks mostly in its favour, however, is that it offers a break from the pollution and heat of Damascus - and trekking opportunities!
Being a Norwegian, I could not resist the sight of snow. Thus my eye turned towards the mountains above and offered me one of the best days I had had in Syria. Though it does not offer the beauty of the mountains back home, it is still a stunning sight, especially after a while being cooped up in the desert-like and colourless landscape I had become more familiar with, though my visit here was still a ways away from the fertile season, which is at is best in April or the end of March.
Deir Mar Musa
Links to other entries
If you are interested in knowing more about other places to visit in Syria, I have several other blog entries covering other regions.
All of Syria: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/
Part I - Damascus and Introduction to the Country: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/3/
Part II - The South (Bosra, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/4/
Part III - Damascus Countryside (Ma'aloula, Seydnayya, Deir Mar Musa, Bloudan, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/5/
Part IV - The Road to Palmyra (Tadmor): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/6/
Part V - Central Syria (Crac des Chevaliers, Homs, Hama, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/7/
Part VI - Aleppo Governorate (Syria's Second Capital): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/8/
Part VII - Euphrates Pt. 1 (Deir Ez-Zor Governorate): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/9/
Part VIII - Meditarranean Coast (Latakia, Tartous,...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/10/