Beneath its fortress-like appearance, the Antiochian Orthodox Monastery of Our Lady dominates the heights of Saidnaya, a mountainous village located 4 hours northwest of Damascus, on the first foothills of the Mount Anti-Lebanon. Built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, it is, after Jerusalem, the most visited Christian sanctuary in the Middle-East, especially on 8 September, the feast of the Nativity of the Virgin. It houses the incredibly famous icon of the Virgin Mary, reputed to be the source of many miracles.
The church of the monastery was built in the year 545, on the pilgrimage route between Constantinople and Jerusalem, on the very spot where, according to tradition, the Virgin Mary appeared in the form of a gazelle to Emperor Justinian 1st. As his army crossed Syria to attack the Persians, he ran out of resources in the middle of the desert. The emperor went in search of food, and a gazelle suddenly appeared to the emperor. Just as he was about to shoot the animal, it metamorphosed into the Virgin Mary and asked him to build a convent.
Our Lady of Saidnaya is today a large Greek-Orthodox pilgrimage center, run by about fifty nuns who watch over the rich history of this shrine and its many precious manuscripts.
Thousands of pilgrims come every year on pilgrimage to the chapel of St. Mary's, which is called the "Lourdes of Syria". Pilgrims and visitors are invited to take off their shoes before entering the chapel, where there is an extraordinarily strong mystical, silent and peaceful atmosphere that is accentuated by the candles, golds and icons that adorn it. Men and women, kneeling in front of the sacred icon, smell the air in the hope of smelling the pleasant and bewitching perfume which, they have been told, is released from time to time from the icon.
If the high and solid walls of the monastery, large stones gilded by the sun, fill with wonder, the interior of the building is a strange tangle of rooms, corridors and staircases following the many irregularities of the terrain. It contains a precious Shaghoura, an image of Mary that was painted by the evangelist Saint Luke or could be a replica of it, which is said to be miraculous. It is said to have been introduced long after the construction of the sanctuary by a monk, a pilgrim from the Holy Land. *
Many other Catholic and Orthodox churches and monasteries have been built in Saidnaya throughout history, such as the Orthodox monasteries of St. Ephrem and St. George, and the Catholic monastery of St. Thomas.
Nearby, a monumental statue of Christ, overlooking the Cherubim Mountains, was erected in 2013 by the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine and Russia. Placed at an altitude of 2100 meters, the 32-meter high bronze sculpture, nicknamed "I have come for the world", can be seen from Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel. It embodies "a hope for peace in the entire Middle East region.”
The sculpture is the image of the Parousia: Christ blessing, treads the serpent that personifies evil. He is flanked by Adam and Eve whose heads are bowed. "We wanted Christ's name to stop the bloodbath that Syria is currently experiencing. I believe that our sculpture is unique in the world: the only one that looks to the future, not to the past. We place all our hopes in Christ because it is from him that we expect salvation," said Samir El Gabban Chakib Samir, director of the Foundation of St. Paul and St. Peter, to a journalist of Aleteia.
The project was initiated in 2005, before the outbreak of the tragic events taking place in the country today, and blessed by His Beatitude Ignatius IV, Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and all the East.
But the installation took place in a particularly tense context at the very heart of the military operations in Syria. It was only thanks to the mediation of the Russian Orthodox Churches and the Orthodox Churches of Antioch that an agreement was reached to establish a truce of military operations for a few days while the statue was being installed.
The legend of the monastery
* At the time when the Byzantines were masters of Syria, a holy widow, wanting to flee the tumult of the world, withdrew six miles from Damascus to a place called Sardanaï, and having built herself a house there, as well as an oratory dedicated to the Mother of God, exercised hospitality there towards the poor pilgrims.
One day, she welcomed a monk from Constantinople. Having learned that he was going to Jerusalem, she very humbly begged him to bring her from the holy city some image or picture of the Mother of God which she would put in her oratory.
He promised to return with a picture for the cenobite. When the monk had finished his pilgrimage and visited all the holy places of Jerusalem, forgetting his promise, he wanted to leave and set out on his journey. But as soon as he left the city, he heard a voice from heaven saying to him: "What? Are you going back empty-handed? Where is the image that you promised to bring back to the holy cenobite?”
The monk then remembered the word given, and having returned to Jerusalem, he looked for stores. Among those that were offered to him, one pleased him more, and having bought it, he took it with him and went out of the city. On the way he came to a place where a lion devoured all those he could reach. The wild beast came crawling up and licked his feet.
And so he escaped from all danger by the protection of heaven. Several robbers who wanted to lay hands on him were suddenly struck with terror by the threatening voice of an angel.
With God's help, the monk continued on his way. Thinking that he possessed an image with miraculous virtues, he decided not to abandon it to the holy widow and to take it back with him to his homeland.
Having reached Acre, he embarked on a ship to Constantinople. After a few days' sailing, a horrible storm suddenly arose. The sailors, in order to lighten the ship, began to throw everything on board into the sea. And as the monk prepared to throw the bag containing the icon, an angel said to him, "Beware of throwing the image into the sea, but lift it up to God." He obeyed, and as soon as the storm had subsided, the sea became calm again. The ship, not knowing which way to go, returned to Acre.
When the monk saw what was happening, he recognized the will of God and, determined to keep his promise, went to the cenobite, carrying with him the sacred image.
But the widow, not recognizing her visitor, did not ask him for the icon. Seeing this, the monk thought again of keeping it and taking it with him, and, having taken his leave, he entered the oratory to pray before setting out again.
But when he wanted to go out, the door of the oratory had disappeared. So he laid down the icon he was carrying and saw the door, and having taken up his precious burden again, he could not find it. This phenomenon was repeated all day long, the door disappeared each time he took up the image again.
Bowing to this miracle, he laid the icon down and went to tell the cenobite all that had happened to him, adding that it was certainly God's will that the icon should remain and be venerated in that place.
The cenobite then took it and began to bless God and the glorious Virgin with everything she heard. The monk pledged himself to serve God in this place for the rest of his life. The image, which aroused great veneration, soon secreted a liquid that healed all the sick who were touched by it.
Soon the fame of these miracles spread, and the sick were flocking in from all over and returning in good health.
- Editions Lépinois. Pilgrimage of Thetmar and Burchard, page 26.
- Assemam. Catal., Manus., Syriac. Vatican, Volume II, page 26.