Four years ago, at noon on Good Friday, I stood by Bab Touma (Thomas’ Gate), the ancient gate into the old city of Damascus. Suddenly, simultaneously I heard the midday call to prayer from the muezzin on one side of the square and the Good Friday service from a church on the other side. It was a sublime moment, and a lens into how, until the civil war, Christianity and Islam had coexisted throughout most of Syria. Not far from Damascus is the town of Malula, with its ancient houses clinging to a dramatic cleft in the mountains, and where some of the townspeople, Greek Catholics, still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Another sublime moment was visiting Malulah on Easter Sunday, and hearing not only the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic but from the convent of St Thecia, a whole Easter service in Aramaic.
Syria is a land of contrasts, reflecting its rich and storied history: crusader castles, often perched precipitously on high ridges, the valley of the assassins; early Christian monasteries; the pillar of St. Simeon, the pious and ascetic monk who lived atop the pillar, attracting pilgrims from as far away as Britain and France; glorious Roman Ruins in Palmyra; the Umayyad Mosque, a place of beauty serenity, meditation, and prayer in Damascus, and one of the most notable buildings of Islam and an important structure in Syria; cities like Aleppo, long inhabited and an important stop on the Silk Route, with its imposing citadel and ancient and labyrinthine souk; the stark and arid beauty of the desert; the coast, with the ancient city of Ugarit where the Ugaritic alphabet was first developed, and Latakia, astride the Mediterranean. Syria, a country of stunning beauty, whose population is a religious and ethnic patchwork, is now ripped apart by a complicated and bloody war, with no end in sight.
The human toll of this conflict is devastating, and tens of thousands of refugees are leaving Syria and relocating in surrounding countries, with many more being displaced internally within Syria. Christians and Druze are among the most adversely affected, with those who escaped the fighting going mostly to Lebanon. Millennia-old communities will be uprooted and will potentially never recover, not to mention the reprisals and group-based violence that will take place. And as the LA Times reports this week, the violence is escalating, and “armed rebels appear to have attacked Christian churches and a Shiite place of worship, a rights group warned Wednesday after visiting the Syrian countryside.”
On a personal note, my daughter lives and works for a large American company in Abu Dhabi, and just took part in a fundraiser from which all donations go to UNICEF and will be distributed to Syrian refugees in the Sa’atari camp in northern Jordan. There are currently 90,000 Syrian refugees in that camp. Her company will match all donations.
The fundraiser was a 75km run through the Hajar Mountains on the tip of Oman in Dibba and took seven to eight hours to complete. The American company for which my daughter works was able to recruit three full teams, and they have raised over 10,000dh so far (over $2,500).
My daughter’s company’s team had runners coming from Saudi, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. Each team had to have at least one female runner according to the organizer’s rules. They left Dubai at 2AM on Friday morning in a caravan of cars and drove to Dibba (three hours away). The team had to cross the border to start the run at 6am.
Meanwhile, what is life like in the Sa’atari Camp? Many of the 90,000 wake up early there not to run, but to figure out how to get water for the day. The article titled Life in a Syrian refugee camp: ‘You have to walk over an hour to get bread’ shows the daily hardship, and the toll on families, both physical and emotional, of life in a refugee camp.
Syria has faced many struggles in its thousands and thousands of years in existence, but surely this recent civil war will be one of its bigger tests.