For many Christians in the East, Saidnaya ranks alongside Jerusalem as a must-visit pilgrimage site. It has been so since the 6th Century, when the emperor Justinian decided to build a monastery in honour of the Virgin Mary, who, legend has it, appeared twice to the Byzantine monarch.
Text and potos: Pablo Sapag M.
One of these apparitions took place while he was hunting a gazelle. According to some, it is from this that the city, 37km to the north of Damascus, derives its name.
However, for the majority, Saidnaya means “Our Lady” in Arabic and Syriac Aramaic; clearly alluding to the Virgin Mary, honoured by Justinian with the construction of the Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery. This is also reflected in the convent’s greatest treasure – a painting of the Mother of Jesus – painted by Luke the Evangelist in the 1st Century.
The icon is known as the Shaghoura, which means “the Venerable” or “the Illustrious”. Today, it is housed in a small chapel, next to the Convent of the Sisters of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. The painting is protected by a white curtain, behind which lies a silver screen adorned with rosaries, crucifixes and bracelets, given as offerings since time immemorial. As such, the Shaghoura, in practice, is not seen. As for the other icons in the small room, which one enters barefoot, they are barely noticed.
The icons and gratitude plaques bear the mark of all the candles burnt as offerings to the Virgin through the centuries; offered by both Christians and Muslims in thanks for favours and miracles attributed to the Shaghoura.
One of the latest such miracles took place in 2013, when it is said that a terrorist, pretending to be a pilgrim, placed a candle in the chapel. He was fleeing at full speed down the steep monastery steps when he suffered a heart attack.
His haste gave him away, and soldiers from the Syrian army and local self-defence militias discovered that the candle was in fact a stick of dynamite, about to explode just centimetres from the icon painted by St. Luke.
The 25,000 Christian and Muslim residents also attribute the town’s evasion of capture by jihadi extremists to the Virgin Mary. Between the end of 2013 and the start of 2014, jihadists managed to forcibly occupy the neighbouring town of Maaloula, which is also a pilgrimage site and where, just as in Saidnaya, the language of Jesus Christ, Aramaic, is still spoken today. Like Maaloula, Saidnaya is in the foothills of the Qalamun Mountains, which separate Syria from Lebanon. Arid and full of caves, these mountains were occupied by armed groups, from where they launched their attack on the two cities.
In this region, the jihadists also took Rankus, a stone’s throw from Saidnaya and from where an assault on the city was attempted on several occasions.
These armed groups also tried to free their comrades from Saidnaya Military Prison; prisoners convicted of taking up arms against the secular Syrian state in order to replace it with a strict Caliphate.
Some Western non-governmental organisations have denounced summary executions in the prison, allegations which have been denied by the Syrian government.
Despite all the propaganda around it, the now infamous prison has not managed to dissuade Christian and Muslim pilgrims from visiting Saidnaya en masse.
Now that the situation has stabilised in large parts of Syria, Saidnaya welcomes pilgrims from Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Russia, as well as Syrians who emigrated to Latin America. The presence of Russian pilgrims is not new, nor does it have anything to do with the crisis that Syria has been experiencing since 2011.
Orthodox Christianity was introduced to Russia by Syrian missionaries. Over the centuries, the Russians have returned the favour, firstly through mass pilgrimages to Saidnaya and other places in Syria, such as Maaloula, Aleppo and Damascus.
They also funded several reconstructions of a monastery that, despite being saved from assault by crusaders seeking to repress Eastern Christianity (as shown by Amin Maalouf in The Crusades Through Arab Eyes), had previously and subsequently suffered at the hands of other invaders. It also fell victim to restrictions – imposed by the Ottoman Sultan when Syria was under Turkish rule – on extending or renovating the main monastery and the 14 others the city boasts today.
Thanks to this solidarity from those who share the same faith, but above all to the will of Christian and Muslim residents to preserve Syria’s multi-faith essence, today Saidnaya is a town in continuous state of growth and the most important Marian pilgrimage site in the Middle East. Saidnaya, like Maaloula, is in Syria. Saidnaya, like Maaloula, is Syria.
(Translated by Rebecca Ndhlovu – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)