Antiquities Diplomacy

By Aitken, Jonathan | The American Spectator, February 2009 | Go to article overview

Antiquities Diplomacy

Aitken, Jonathan, The American Spectator

SYRIA IS A DIFFICULT COUNTRY POLITICALLY, even for an Obama administration committed to dropping the axis of evil and replacing it with unconditional dialogue. But here is an idea for an initiative that might help to thaw the present frosty atmosphere between Washington and Damascus. The initiative would be focused on "antiquities diplomacy," a more ancient yet no less potentially effective version of the Ping-Pong diplomacy that paved the way for Nixon's opening to China.

Syria cherishes its antiquities and is richer in these treasures than almost any other nation in the world. It offers the discerning traveler the chance to see some of the least visited yet most amazing sites in Christian, Judaic, Muslim, and Roman history. These ancient monuments are a source of great national pride to both the leaders and the people of the country.

It was the holy places of Christian Syria that resonated most deeply with your High Spirits correspondent on a recent expedition to this politically isolated but spiritually fascinating nation. Selecting just three outstanding experiences, I would highlight visiting the Aramaic-speaking village of Maaloula; the monastery of Saint Simeon Stylites near Aleppo; and Straight Street, Damascus, where St. Paul's sight was restored by Annanias.

Syria contains the last communities in the Middle East speaking Aramaic, the original language used by Jesus Christ. One of them is the hillside village of Maaloula, a cul-de-sac of culture and history that stands at the dead end of a serpentine road going nowhere on the edge of a mountain gorge. Its strangetongued inhabitants have preserved their Maronite faith throughout the two millennia since Jesus cried out from the cross the Aramaic words Ehi Ehi lama sabacthani, which translate into English as "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?"

At the whitewashed seventh-century church of Mar Sarkis overlooking the deep Maaloula gorge, the village priest welcomed our group by saying the Lord's Prayer in this same Aramaic language. This was a remarkable link of continuity with Syria's Byzantine heritage. One of its many impressive examples is to be found near Aleppo at the site of a huge monastery venerating a most eccentric saint.

He was Simeon of Stylites, a monk so devoted to ascetic solitude that he spent most of his life on top of a 60-foot-high pillar. Chained to the parapet of this elevated station, he endured almost 40 years of northern Syria's broiling summers and freezing winters, preaching twice daily to the crowds who came to honor his sanctity. His sermons influenced at least two Roman emperors and his miracles were said to heal many pilgrims who came to gaze upward at this bizarre hermit. When Simeon died in 459 AD he was the most famous holy man of the fifth century. The magnificent church his successors erected around his pillar or stylos is the largest remaining monument of the early church, pre-dating by several centuries St. Peter's in Rome and other leading cathedrals of Europe.

To anyone familiar with the story in Chapter 9 of The Acts of St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus, the restoration of his sight by Ananias at the house of Judas "in a street called Straight," and the great apostle's escape from the Jews of the city over the wall in a basket, it is a spiritual adventure to visit the locations of these events. They are commemorated by somewhat down-at-heel chapels lovingly maintained by Syria's small but respected Christian community, which numbers about 7 percent of the population.

Tolerance and respect for all religions is a feature of the Syrian character. The best place to get a feel for this is in the Great Umayyad Mosque in central Damascus, whose architectural and historical splendor exceeds Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock. Westerners are free to wander into this magnificent edifice whose airy spaciousness and exquisite mosaics create a strong sense of the beauty of holi- ness. …

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