Published: January 25th 2005January 25th 2005
Hike to Mar Musa
I'm really beginning to appreciate the Desert. The buildings in the valley are essentially folds for sheep; on this particular day there was a lot of activity and pickup-trucks full of them were being carted to Damascus to be slaughtered for the festival.
Ever thrilled to be back in Syria, I spent my first couple days wandering through the old city and the various souqs and talking to the many people who all want to know where I'm from and whether or not I'm a muslim. I'm beginning to get worried that I'll miss the attention once I go somewhere not-quite-so-friendly. One set of people I met in the fruit-and-vegetable souq sat me down and spoke for hours, asking what I thought about George W. Bush, and explaining how superior Islam is to other religions. One of them described Cat Stevens' conversion, but apparently didn't know who Cat Stevens is, and referred to him only as "Yusuf". Another (a 16 year old kid) took me back to his house and recited portions of the Qu'ran to me, stopping every so often to ask "how do you feel", presumably expecting an instant conversion. The whole experience was very positive. I also toyed with the idea of buying an aba
(a long cloak that the bedouin wear), but I still haven't made up my mind as to whether I'll use it enough to justify my carrying it around with me for 8 months (probably not).
Almond Trees in the Snow
Not exactly your stereotypical desert scene, is it? Again, on the way to Mar Musa.
I took a day trip to Quneitra
in the famed Golan Heights (the very small portion which is still administered by Syria; the rest is under Israeli occupation). I first had to get permission from the Ministry of Interior (which took an hour, not counting the time it took me to walk there), and then Quneitra itself is an hour away from Damascus, so I basically spent 3 hours getting there and back, but only spent 10-15 minutes there because the fat lazy soldier who was accompanying me got tired and didn't like the fact that it was raining cats and dogs. Needless to say I was not amused, but was somewhat placated when I sat next to and talked to a cute chick on the way back. Quneitra
is a city completely demolished by the Israelis when they withdrew from it: they removed everything that could be (down to the light fixtures), and then systematically tore down all the houses with their tanks and buldozers, presumably so no-one would want to return(?). I'm not good at guessing the mind of a psychopath so their reasons elude me. I had taken photos but don't have them with me at the
The place was apparently abandoned for over 100 years until an Italian Jesuit "rediscovered" it; he's currently the Father Superior, and it's apparently taken over 8 years to fix the place up, and there's still plenty of work to do. You may be able to spot a small dark hole on the face of the wall: that's the main entrance to the monastery, no more than 4 feet high.
moment, so you'll have to visit the official site for pictures.
Since life comes to a standstill during Eid, I decided to head out to a monastery in the desert called Deir Mar Musa (Saint Moses), to while away at least the first day of the feast. It turned out to be possibly the best decision I've made in a while. The monastery is literally in the middle of nowhere, a fact that was underscored when the shepherds who gave me a lift told me the monastery was "ahead" and I found myself in the midst of snow-covered desert hills, looking for the flashing neon sign saying "Mar Musa this way". I eventually found it, in the middle of a deep gully, overlooking the desert plains and the small hills that rise like islands from it, and blending in to the surrounding landscape. This was my first time in a monastery, and the first time I've seen an ancient church (a la Cappadocia with frescoes dating back 7-8 centuries) in use, and the experience of everything combined was amazing. In fact, it was so amazing that I'm not going to cheapen the experience by trying to describe it here.
The View from the Top
This is what you see when you wake up in the morning and look down on your way to morning mass. In the fog the hills look like islands in an immense sea.
Suffice to say I ended up staying 4 days, and didn't want to leave.
Returning from there to Damascus I decided I'd walk back to the nearest village (14km or so away), and take the shortcut over the mountain rather than follow the road which skirts it. All good in theory but I basically took a wrong turn somewhere and 2 hours later ended up essentially where I started. It was a lovely day so I didn't really mind too much. From there I stopped at Maulula
, a predominantly Christian town on the way, with Cappadocia-like caves and its own set of monasteries. It is also one of the very few places in the world where Aramaic (a la "The Passion") is still spoken in day-to-day life. That too was gorgeous. To top it all off on the way back I met a young guy studying computer engineering and ended up spending the rest of the evening with him and one of his friends.
And today I was in Seidnaya
, hanging out with a guy who was staying in the same room as myself in Mar Musa, and we spent the afternoon checking out the ancient churches and
Maybe it was the fresh air and the clear blue sky, but I found this view the most striking. You essentially walk through this narrow canyon a few feet wide with steep cliffs on both sides, and emerge to see this view. Very beautiful.
monasteries and talking about Muslim-Christian relations. Tonight I'll be heading out to Palmyra to visit the old stones and (more importantly) to obtain a fake student ID (yeah!).
It turns out that I was wrong in assuming Syria is friction-free, but apparently the government is doing a very good job at punishing the trouble makers so there's very little inter-faith strife. One exception is Maulula where apparently the Christian majority is pretty pissed off about the Muslims and the fact that there's a big concrete mosque under construction, and apparently there have been fights in the past with at least 3 casualties on the side of the Christians (not sure what happened to the Muslims). The guys kept making jabs at Muslims and saying how Muslim women are loose and the men are uncouth and a bunch of other stuff... Interestingly enough, my friend in Seidnaya said that the older men of both religions get along fabulously, and it's mainly the younger generation which have problems, something which he attributed to general insecurity on both sides. This ends my sociological survey of Christian-Muslim relationships in Syria. I may have been overly optmistic in my initial assessment of the situation,
I promised my friend I'd upload plenty of pictures of the place so more people would visit. I doubt my pictures will have the desired effect, but oh well. Here's a Greek Orthodox monastery.
but I still think it's safe to say Syria is much better off than many other countries that I know of.
There are more photos below