Maaloula and the cloud of Al Qaeda

It seemed almost phonetic to visit Maaloula on the anniversary of what the Syrians call “the  crisis” , or as well call it in the west the “Arab Spring”, or Syrian civil war. You’d not have known it walking through Damascus as the people of all sexes, races and creeds went about their day.

Yet in Maaloula while the day only got scant recognition from our guides, the locals were happy to share their joy at being able to live as Christians rather than under the shadow of the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. 

To read about the Syrian crisis 11 years on click here.

What’s the story with Maaloula?

 Located around 60 clicks northeast of Damascus Maaloula, also spelt Maʿlūlā (Aramaic: ܡܥܠܘܠܐ in Eastern Aramaic Syriac script, מעלולא in Western Aramaic Maalouli script; Arabic: معلولا) is town built into the rugged mountains of Syria and one of only 4 villages where Aramaic is still spoken. 

If you’re unfamiliar with Aramaic then check out the Passion of the Christ, this was the language of Jesus Christ – or at least is suspected to have been. 

Maaloula and the Syrian Crisis 

Fierce fighting for the town erupted in 2013, with the town finally falling to Al Nusra on September 13th. What followed was a number of nuns being kidnapped and used as human shields by the Al Qaeda linked group, fierce fighting, refugees and for those left suppression of their religion.

Finally and with help from Hezbollah the town was freed on April 14th 2014 and is now starting to return to semblance of normality. Ironically the town was to come up in conversation when we visited Mleeta, home of Hezbollah, when asking our guide why Hezbollah was in Syria he replied “You think we did it to prop-up the regime? We did it to fight ISIS and Al Qaeda. Maaloula is the last place where they speak Jesus language. We freed it, where were the Christian countries”. 

To read about Mleeta click here.

Whether you agree with this, or not it certainly shows how complicated the politics and sensitivities of the Syrian crisis.

While not quite as bombastic the locals we met held similar views, stating how happy they were to now have the religious freedom granted to them by the Syrian government. Whatever you think about Assad the alternative was Al Nusra, who while not quite as wicked as ISIS were not exactly teddy bears. 

What is it like to visit Maaloula?

Maaloula makes a great stop on the way to Aleppo and was formerly a place where people would stay for the night. Alas the hotel was used as a shooting ground and that  so that is no longer possible. 

What you do get to see though is a number of sites related to Christendom in Syria as well as technically getting as close to Jesus times as possible. We were lucky enough to hear the lords prayer in Aramaic.

The main sites though are the  Saint Sarkis Monastic Complex, and the Convent of Saint Thecla. There is also now a new statue of Virgin Mary, which was butlt in 2015 to replace the one destroyed by Islamic Militants. 

And lastly there’s the people, all happy enough to not only share their story, but also their homemade wine and arak, something truly not possible when it was under the siege of fundamentalism.

We finished our day in Aleppo which has a very different vibe, but again another place still thankful not to be under the control of Islamic State. It was not without a sense of irony that a date of such infamy was spent in a bar….