Sunday 30 May – We attended Orthros and Liturgy at the Dormition monastery, where we had stayed the night. It was a lovely service — Orthros especially. The town the Dormition monastery is next to seemed to be focused primarily on greenhouse plants, especially tomatoes. After breakfast and a bit of salon time with the villagers who came to the monastery for Liturgy we left for the port city of Latakia, about an hour drive away.
We went first to an old church dedicated to Saint Nicholas, which has relics of St Moses the Black. For some reason about which I was unclear they had all of us, including the girls, go back behind the alter — I think because of the relics. Fr Isaac told a story about a man who came there to light a candle in the church because St Nicholas had rescued him in a storm at sea. Often in Syria the buildings are 4-6 stories high, of concrete, with shops in the bottom level and apartments (probably owned by the families living in them) above. We walked through several streets of these, and then kind of tucked away underneath one of them was an old stone church to the Theotokos. It was lovely, and Fr Isaac told a story about a Muslim man who lived next door and every day at a certain time during the first weeks of August would see a woman go into the church, so one day he asked and found that that was when they had Paraklesis, but she wasn’t someone anyone had ever seen attending the service. For some reason the oil in the vigil lamps turned blue, and I think someone was healed at some point in the story. I found it mildly baffling.
We were supposed to go to a shrine to St Thekla over a well/cave where she and others were baptized back in the first century. The person who had the keys to open it wasn’t there, so we waited in a park for a while while Fr Isaac tried to get someone to meet us there. It was a lovely little park near an inlet from the Mediterranean — I think where boats unloaded cargo — with old shade trees and vendors with hookahs, coffee, and roasted corn. Finally someone said he would meet us at the shrine, so we drove over and waited some more, as he didn’t show up. After perhaps half an hour he said it would still be some time so we started driving away, but when we’d gone a mile or two the man called again and by the time we came back he was there and we went inside. There’s a church built over the well/cave/baptismal, and then steep stairs cut in the rock going down to a little room carved out of the rock and a pool of water. I think they said that it was surprising for there to be fresh water at that place, because of the sea.
We started driving up the coast again, with no clear destination anyone was willing to say, except that there would be dinner. Eventually, after perhaps another 40 minutes, we came to a lovely restaurant on the coast, where we had a good meal and then looked out at the sea for a while. Coming back through Latakia we stopped for another hour and a half or so because Fr. Isaac said he needed to talk to someone and get sweets for the nuns we were staying with. It ended up being much more epic than we had expected, so that we split up, some people went to an internet cafe, some to a museum, and myself and some others followed Fr Isaac and got to meet his family at their pastry and pizza shop. We also stopped by a church in the neighborhood Where Metropolitan Saba apparently served before he was bishop, which is known for the parishioners shooting guns into the air to celebrate Pascha. There were, as it happens, a number of bullet holed in the stone of the church. We didn’t get to go in, however, as there was a wedding in progress. Apparently nothing says “Christ is risen!” quite like nearly killing one’s neighbors…
By the time we returned to the Dormition monastery it was past ten, so we didn’t get to speak with the abbess. They had made us some very good pizzas that were not especially pizza-like, and then two of the nuns spoke with us about what life is like at their monastery.
Monday 31 May – We had to be on the road by 6:15, and so didn’t get to go to orthros again at the Dormition monastery, which was too bad, as it’s a lovely community there. During the three hour or so drive to Palmyra, in the desert of central Syria, the main sights of interest were sand, olives, mud houses, bedouin tents, and Russian tanks. Even in a bit of a hurry we were a fairly leisurely group, so we stopped at one point along the way for coffee, tea, cheese sandwiches from the nuns, and fresh tomatoes and cucumbers at a restaurant. We got into Palmyra at around 11 when it was quite bright and hot in a dry, Tucson kind of way, and immediately took a tour of the ruins there. There had at one time been a massive temple to Bel there, which was turned into a church under the Byzantines, but when the Ottomans came in they took the lead and iron out of the cracks in the walls, so when the next earthquake hit the area the roof collapsed. The Bedouins used the walls to surround their town there until the French made them leave so that they could have it as an archeological site. Next to the temple is the ruins of the old Roman city that was there before the area became a desert; it is also very impressive, and has several thousand stone columns. There was a little amphitheater in the Roman part, where a TV crew was filming for a docu-drama on Cleopatra (that’s why there are those red flags and people in costume in some of the pictures). The history, architecture, and religious importance of the area would be worth knowing, but I don’t remember most of it and so won’t write about it here. We also toured a museum, went to a Bedouin dinner, and suffered from low-level grumpyness.
Other posts on Syria
Opening travels — Dubai, Damascus, Sweida, Phillipi, Bosra
Road Trip part 1 — Damascus, St Thekla’s Monastery, Valley of the Christians (St George Monastery, Crusader Castle)
Road Trip part 3 — Homs, SaidNaya (Theotokos Monastery, St George’s Monastery, Cherubim Monastery), Vision Church
Road Trip part 4 — Golan Heights, Revolution Museum
Back in Sweida — Mounted icons, Tissia, meeting people, candles, Izra