For three days, in the heart of the Syrian mountains, the volunteers of SOS Chrétiens d’Orient attended the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross in the small village of Maaloula. Celebrated with pomp in the Middle East, this feast invites us to remember with joy the object of our salvation: the Cross.
When we see Maaloula in the distance, the Syrian sitting next to me and who will guide me throughout the day, begin telling me the story of this village. “The big door in front of you was destroyed by the jihadists in 2014! They threw a car bomb to force entry," he told me, his voice shaking with emotion.
I just smile at him, and nod, not sure what to do or say not to hurt him. This day will probably bring back some painful memories. So I don't insist.
The car continues its way along the bends of the Syrian mountain. I am not yet in the village but I already hear cries of joy and songs! I'm quite surprised because the feast is announced for tonight and it is not yet noon. What a funny notion of time! Am I missing something? Another mystery that will be resolved as quickly as it came. In Maaloula, the feast of the Exaltation of the Cross is celebrated the day before and throughout the day the city take a festive air where crowds gather to sing and dance together. The women prepare tea, as well as the evening buffet for family and friends.
I already know that the welcome will be warm and the table well furnished. In fact, I am already preparing to exert myself physically by visiting the village so as not to feel too guilty tonight about eating plenty. For me, who has only been in Syria for a few days, the discovery of these customs of hospitality is a windfall and brings a new perspective on Western ones.
In the street, the children, excited by the feast atmosphere, play with their friends and from time to time one or two jostle us. But with a small nod of apology, they quickly walk away, a little embarrassed.
The walk with my guide continues in this solemn atmosphere which in no way suggests that the fighting took place here. The ghosts of jihadists no longer roam the streets. For a novice, Maaloula has always been a city of peace! And yet if they knew!
My steps lead me in front of a small chapel where Orthodox songs resonate. In front of the door, I listen ceremoniously, not wanting to interrupt the hymns that priests and nuns, dressed in long black robes, endlessly recite. A culture shock succeeding another, I meet fully veiled nuns as it is common in the orthodox tradition.
Relaxed and conquered by what I discover, I continue towards a small staircase that leads to a panoramic promontory. My curiosity is stronger than the fatigue. Few steps behind me there is a small door which does not look pretty but seems to invite us to enter.
With my guide, we look at each other a little taken aback before starting a silent speech where our closed lips let our eyes and smiles speak. We open the door ... to an Orthodox nun who invites us to take off our shoes out of respect for the holy place. I take a photo, but only one, I am not allowed to capture more. On the rock walls hang the icons of Christ and the Virgin and Child. The Maaloulites approach them with reverence, raise their foreheads in a sign of meditation and humility and embrace them while signing themselves. Through what is materially only a painting on wood is manifested as in a mirror of heavenly realities, the spiritual and invisible presence of the one represented. I look with amazement at the sublime colors, gold for example, which stands out thanks to the reflections of the candles left by visitors. By my side, the nun says nothing. Time seems to have stand still. She is in communion with Christ. Her hands, wrinkled with life, painstakingly craft little cotton bags that she coated with oil for visitors. Now is the time to go, and leave this peaceful place behind.
Once at the bottom of the steps and after a short break in the shadow of a path, we continue our discovery of this magnificent place, camera and bottle of water in hand. There, a small rather narrow passage beckons us. We rush into it without knowing where it will lead us.
The high mountains are far beyond me giving me the impression of being very small while a few minutes ago, I was overlooking the village. My steps lead me between steep cliffs where the whistle of the wind breaks the silence of the groves. Here and there, troglodyte caves dot the path. For sure, the monks took refuge there in 2014 during the occupation of the village by the jihadists of Al Nosra. They do not look anything special and yet they conceal hidden treasures. With difficulty, I continue my journey, clinging to the stones above me so as not to fall.
Under an old bridge announcing the end of the pass, I take a few minutes' break. But I am not forgetting the goal. Exhausted by the crossing, because the sun, higher in the sky, does not spare me, I raise my head a tenth time trying to see the end of the bridge and there...
Surprise! The Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint Thecla, built around the tomb of the saint, a young Seleucid princess, disciple of Saint Paul, appears in the distance.
No time to fall into contemplation, my guide continues on his way. I am not very athletic by nature and the few meters that we have covered in several hours weigh heavily on my legs. Finally, we both arrive at the monastery, where, thank God, a fountain in the center of the inner courtyard allows us to quench our thirst.
Once inside the door, we barely have time to drop our bags off when someone come to meet us. A gentleman, quite old, but very elegant, noticing that we are not from the village and recognizing the T-shirts of SOS Chrétiens d'Orient, invites us to participate in the baptism of his grandson. Delighted, and very honored, we follow him. This is the first time that I attend an Orthodox baptism ... I can't wait to see how things will go, as I heard that the child receives 3 sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation and Communion. Just before the latter, I am given a lighted candle and like the faithful I go around the church three times, while reciting the Epistle and the Gospel.
Delighted, and very grateful to have been able to attend this baptism, I come away smiling and more impatient than ever to discover what the rest of my day has in store for me.
Children throw firecrackers, the music gets louder, many dance on their balconies or crowds the main street, singing or spraying the sky with bullets.
The atmosphere is electrified. I do not stay long to watch because I am expected at the top of the mountain of the Catholics. While seeing the cross far above my head, I know that the journey will be tough, but for such a beautiful goal, I am ready to take up the challenge.
The summit is not far away, I can tell. Often very young children run to meet us, older people rest on the sidewalk and eat after what can be called a feat. All made the trip, at their own pace, even Monsignor Absi, the Greek Melkite Catholic patriarch. Like his flock, he is standing next to the cross of the Lord. What an example of faith and courage.
I am dealing with steep slopes, stones polished by time and multiple passages. It is not really an easy and safe crossing. But yet by dint of mutual help and outstretched hands, I finally arrive very close to the cross lighting up the mountain. The spectacle is grandiose.
From the top, the crosses of the illuminated houses transcend the blackness of the sky announcing the night. The sun is setting, but the inhabitants of Maaloula are only beginning the festivities...
As I photograph the beautiful landscape, fireworks are sent up into the dark sky. Cries of joy resound from everywhere. The children get excited, while the more tired ones sit down, but all have their eyes fixed on the sky.
The fiery suns spring into action, the iron filings ignite. Tracer bullets streak the darkness.
I am captivated by these ballets of sparks which do not weaken. The temperature must have dropped a lot since my arrival and yet I am embraced by the heat of the feast.
Syrians approach, asks me questions, tell me legends and introduce me to the traditions of Maaloula.
A young mother comes to see me with her daughter and thanks me for being there ... She tells me about her escape from Maaloula when the jihadists arrived and shares her pride with me to be able to celebrate the feast of the Cross here today.
We are quickly interrupted by a group of young people who have also come to meet me. With tears in their eyes, they tell me what they went through before they could celebrate the Feast of the Cross on September 14th. They had already met other volunteers last year, and were wondering when we would be back. I am touched by such joy, because I did nothing but being here today.
Surprisingly, the discussion gradually turned towards a real improvised French and Spanish course. Smiles and laughter follow tears! Who would have thought that at this late hour, on the edge of a cliff, it was possible to remake the world in another language?
But every good things has an end, and after taking some pictures, we start to gather our things to go down. I know that these testimonies will remain etched in me forever because they truly touched me, and I was certainly not ready to hear all of that.
They all have their own way of telling the story of the village, of its takeover by the jihadists and of life during the war, but all are proud to be here in Syria and to meet us.
The descent on a night devoid of star is perilous and last for as long as the ascent. But, as on the outward journey, hands remain outstretched to help distressed neighbor.
Back in the village, we attend the shows from the terrace of the place where we are staying. Fireworks, firecrackers, and now tires are thrown from the top of the mountain. There, a fireball leaves a glowing imprint on the dry grass in its wake! But little by little everything goes out in order to start again an hour later. Tonight, I won't get much sleep! Joy is intoxicating and communicative. Sleep will bide its time because today the radiant Cross makes everything new.
Maaloula has such beautiful, local and unique traditions that exemplify the redemption of a country that is doing everything to recover.
I had heard of this tradition of the feast of the cross, but never thought I could live it and share it with the Syrians. Once again, I am discovering what Syria really is: a country to be rebuilt, but one with a deep history, and whose people are proud and strong. They always welcome you warmly, dance on their balconies and sing along with you. Their courage uplifts me and leaves me speechless.
Joséphine, volunteer in Syria.