The Islamist extremist destruction of historical treasures in the Middle East is nothing less than a crime against civilization. News accounts do not do justice to the loss these barbarians cause as they work their way across Syria, destroying anything that doesn’t fit into the world as they see it.
In June 2001, just three months before Sept. 11, when Western perceptions of Islam and the Middle East were changed forever, I spent two weeks in Syria, visiting the very foundations of Western culture and civilization. Today, it is slowly being destroyed.
Bashar Assad had just come to power, having been called in from practicing ophthalmology in London when his Stalinist father died, and to fill in for his older brother Bassel, the heir-apparent who had wrapped his Mercedes around a tree at 100 miles an hour in 1994.
Poor Bashar appeared lost in his new role, and left control of the country to the bagmen and thugs who had run things for his father. Politics, however, was not why I went to Syria. Syria was then a gold mine of Roman and Greek ruins, Christian monasteries and churches, an open-air museum with some of the most important historical Christian shrines in the Middle East.
My first stop was the third-century village of Sednaya, the most holy Christian city in Syria, where Aramaic, the tongue of Jesus Christ, is still the dominant language. A nun showed me into a chapel, where a portrait of the Virgin Mary, said to have been painted by the Apostle Luke, held special powers for both Christian and Muslim young women unable to have children.
Here, prayer would enable them to conceive a child. Sednaya, and the icon, had been the cause of Christian miracles for centuries, and would presumably continue to be for centuries more. But it is not to be. Muslim extremists, intent on destroying everything that is not to their liking, have this year simply liquidated Sednaya. According to one press report, “the ancient monastery church and side chapels were stripped completely of their priceless religious icons and other religious objects were urinated and defecated upon.
Christian villagers who were caught in the midst of the rebel assault had their throats slit, or were shot execution-style at close range.” Maalula, just a few miles farther north, is a beautiful little ancient Christian village, built into a gorge, with several third- and fourth-century churches, orphanages and retreat centers. Aramaic is the principal language, these two villages being among the very few places in the world where the language of Jesus is still spoken.
At the top of the hill is the monastery St. Sergius, named for a Roman officer who was martyred in the fourth century for refusing to renounce his Christian faith. A Catholic priest from Lebanon engaged me, in passable English, in a lengthy discussion about early Christianity, appropriate, as he told me that our conversation was taking place in perhaps the oldest Christian church in the world.
The semicircular stone church altar predates the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.); after Nicaea, altars were rectangular. And, he explained, the little stone lip around the altar caught the blood of sacrificed lambs in pagan ceremonies before the birth of Christ. The little church exuded peacefulness and quiet, and I got the sense that it would probably remain unchanged forever. Unfortunately, not so.
According to a London Telegraph story earlier this year, Maalula was “liberated” by the Islamists, many of its inhabitants, among the few souls still speaking the language of Jesus, were assassinated and the rest fled. Shellfire breached the limestone walls of the oldest Christian church in the world and, inside, what had long been seen as a symbol of Syria’s religious freedom broken icons lay on the ground alongside crosses, catechisms and images of the Virgin Mary.
The Syrian Orthodox Monastery of St. George was just a few miles from the Crusader castle Krak des Chevalier where, according to legend, St. George is buried. Among the buildings in the complex was a 13th-century chapel, still intact and good repair, and another built in 515 A.D. was also amazingly well preserved.
The 20 or so monks, all in their 20s and 30s, were overjoyed at having an English-speaking guest and gathered around, after evening prayers, to practice their English and speak of their faith. The place had peacefulness and quiet about it that made it seem almost part of another world. The monastery was attacked in August of last year by jihadist terrorists, but defended by local Christian volunteers, many of whom were killed. During Holy Week this year, a school on the monastery grounds was attacked with gunfire and mortars leaving several children and teachers dead or wounded.
It is just a matter of time before it meets the same fate as Sednaya and Maalula. A couple of days later, in Aleppo, I had lunch with Metropolitan Gregorios Johanna Ibrahim, the Syriac-Orthodox archbishop of Aleppo. A worldly and strong-willed man in his 60s, with a graduate degree from the University of Bristol in England, he was authoritative and gracious; nearly everybody who passed the table, Muslims and Christians alike, stopped to greet him and exchange hugs. As we parted, we agreed that we would no doubt see each other again sometime. It won’t happen. In April 2013, while returning from Turkey with another bishop, his car was attacked by Islamist terrorists, the driver was shot and the two bishops kidnapped.
They have not been seen nor heard from since, and are presumed dead. As Islamist extremists continue to terrorize Syria, more Christian villages will be “liberated,” more priceless historical sites destroyed, and many of Syria’s nearly 2 million Christians will be killed. It’s a tragedy for civilization.