Ancient Christian Sites in Syria Threatened

ICC Note: The Syrian government claimed there was extensive damage to ancient Christian sites in a small town outside of Damascus. In this small town, Aramaic, the language of the New Testament, is still spoken. In the midst of all of the political upheaval, several churches have been looted while others have been emptied to protect religious artifacts from being stolen or destroyed. As this vandalism increases, the government is slowly taking steps to acknowledge the effects of the civil war on the Christian minority.

By: Martin Bailey

5/28/14 Syria (The Art News) – The Syrian government claims that there has been extensive damage to ancient Christian sites in Maaloula, a small town where Aramaic (the language of Jesus’s time) is still spoken. It lies 35 miles north-east of Damascus, at the base of mountains rising up from the desert. There has been extensive fighting around Maaloula since last September and in April president Assad’s government forces regained control from the rebels.

Earlier this month, the Syrian directorate general of antiquities and museums published a report of a mission to Maaloula. It is difficult to verify their claims, and it is not clear who inflicted the damage, but the survey presents disturbing evidence of destruction. Many of the rebels are unsympathetic towards the country’s Christian minority. Although the government report accuses rebels of looting religious artifacts, it is possible that some may have been removed to safety.

The Greek Catholic monastery above the town, dedicated to Saints Sergius and Bacchus (Mar Sarkis and Bakhos), dates back to the fourth century AD. It is one of the world’s oldest churches and was built on the foundations of an earlier pagan temple.

Part of the monastery’s walls have been damaged by shelling and the Syrian government report claims that the church’s main dome has been “destroyed”. Some of the roof timbers date back 2,000 years and these may have been damaged. The ancient marble altar, probably also pagan, is said to have been destroyed and “drilling operations were carried out under the altar in search of treasures”. The government report claims that “all of the movable antiquities and holy items inside the monastery have been stolen, including the most important Maaloula icons”. The oldest icon, depicting the two saints of the monastery, may date from the 14th century.

The monastery occupies a strategic position, on the cliff that dominates the town. Just beneath it, the hillside is riddled with caves, some of which were occupied by prehistoric humans over 50,000 years ago. Many of the caves and rock-cut tombs are said to have been “vandalised, sabotaged, drilled, door-smashed (in a bid to search for treasures) and turned into fortified barricades”.

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