In Troubled Syria: Ancient Monastery Welcomes All Comers

deir-mar-musa11.jpgDeir Mar Musa
Equidistant between violence-wracked Homs and the Syrian capital Damascus, the mountainous Nebek region has always been a frontier land: between speakers of Arabic and Aramaic; between human life and the fathomless Syrian desert. Thanks to an eccentric Jesuit monk in recent years it’s also become a gathering ground for thought and faith in a divided region. Six weeks before the March 2011 uprising I visited this unlikely stop on the Middle Eastern tourist trail…

Stooping to waist-height and parting faded rugs drawn against the desert light, I enter Deir Mar Musa chapel. As an experience, it’s close to time-travel, albeit without the nuisance of vaporizing or sprouting pointy ears; the teleporter being calibrated, give or take, a millennium.

In front of me is a nun, folded in white robes and chanting in Arabic, her face transformed by a flickering candle into a macabre play of light and shade as she kneels before a shimmering altarpiece fresco depicting the Last Supper. As my eyes adjust to the gloom, fresco cycles come into focus on every wall of a peculiar, cellarlike space: Gabriel and the Virgin Mary flank the small east window mid-annunciation, a glowing infant Jesus rising above them; haloed evangelists gaze upwards from the chapel’s four columns towards a Syriac text; martyred saints, painted as knights, ride east to fight the battle of faith across the highest part of the nave. Nearby, someone emits a low, damp cough and softly jabs me in the shin. That’s my cue to tug the door-cum-rugs together and take a seat, in silence.

Mar Musa’s frescoes

Deir Mar Musa, or the Monastery of Moses the Abyssinian, is remote. Clinging to a mountain precipice in west-central Syria, it’s reached via a dusty 80km taxi or bus-ride from Damascus; the last connecting to a car at the thirsty, desert-edge town of Nebek. You undertake the final 20 minutes on foot, padding up a precipitous, peach-sandstone stairway that snakes up the mountainside, as tiny windows gouged out of the sheer façade of the monastery wink down from above. In such a location, you’d imagine its small community of Catholic monks and nuns to be in determined retreat, with their time-weathered wooden door bolted against the gaudy excesses of the modern world. Far from it. As Mar Musa’s daily hour of silent contemplation draws to a close, electric light unveils the surprising collective who’ve come together for today’s evening Mass. Amongst the monks and nuns – themselves both Middle Eastern and European – are sun-bronzed antipodean, a trio of Icelandic gap-year travellers, several middle-aged academics in sensible knitwear and two confused-looking South Korean pilgrims.

“Korea won at football today! This is a reason to praise the lord – isn’t it, my friends?” Bearded and ebullient – in this, and his booming bass-tones calling to mind Brian Blessed – Father Paolo Dall’Oglio stalks out of the shadows. Dall’Oglio – or Paolo in the casual lingua-franca of Mar Musa – is both the head and the raison d’être of this singular desert community; a charismatic 55-year-old Italian Jesuit monk who chanced upon this abandoned Byzantine monastery ruin – and its remarkable 11th century frescoes – in the early 1980s. Trace of the site’s many layers of history had been preserved, perhaps most importantly the chapel itself, built by the eponymous Moses; a 6th century Abyssinian king who first gave up worldly pleasures to become a monk in these inhospitable hills. In the late 80s, Dall’Oglio stepped in to prevent the Syrian Catholic church handing the crumbling cluster of buildings to the Syrian Government “this would have been a true tragedy”, and quickly set about giving Mar Musa renewed purpose. It was to be no workaday Catholic monastery. Dall’Oglio’s founding principles were strident: poverty, chastity, hospitality and – controversially in this pocket of the world benighted by religious and political conflict – inter-faith dialogue.

Today Dall’Oglio’s Syrian community is held up as a beacon of hope. Much of this, of course, is down to a tragic past decade – in the Middle East and beyond – in which religious difference has become, as in the darkest periods of history, a catalyst for war and extremist acts. Dall’Oglio has long disagreed with what he sees as a woolly secular approach to the Middle East: cultural relativism as a cure-all. Now, with the world coming round to Dall’Oglio’s way of thinking (or, at least, striking around for an alternative to the current political and religious impasse) all eyes are on Mar Musa. And the Syrian Government’s eyes, even before the uprisings were also trained on this peculiar gathering ground. Dall’Oglio raises his eyes heavenward when asked about the Syrian Government’s response to his project. “It’s unpredictable, but – on the main – the regime has always viewed us with suspicion. One of the problems is google. You google Syria and we’re one of the top hits, before the Government-sanctioned tourist-trail.”

Views from the edge: Father Paolo at Mar Musa

For now, there’s the business of smoothing immediate differences. Conducting an inclusive international Mass, in alternating Arabic, French and English, for everyone from obedient monks to curious non-believers is not a task for the faint-of-heart. But it’s one Dall’Oglio – with his ready wit and bone-rattling delivery – attacks with relish. “Today I have been writing my monthly article – which is always a tragedy,” he sighs richly, as he beckons me to bring the communal bread to him for blessing, with a wish. “But soon, we will go upstairs for a felafel party; which will make us all smile, no?” I offer the bread, and a hope for the happiness of nations, and take my seat again, cross-legged on a padded cushion.

Communion over, Dall’Oglio bounces questions around the room as if he’s spin-bowling, switching between tongues with ease and a magpie attention-span. His gaze alights on a young Korean girl who has, through two Arabic gospel readings, prodded away at her mobile phone. I’d thought her impossibly rude, but it seems she too is evidence that Mar Musa is no ordinary monastery. “Our friend Shin here has been translating into Korean on her Bluebird, haven’t you?” Dall’Oglio beams. “What have you learnt Shin?”. Falteringly, she answers: “That Jesus says we need to put ourselves in the shoes of other people.” “Amen,” says Dall’Oglio as he rises on sprightly feet that belie his six feet and two inches. “Now – felafel time!”

Dinner is served in a makeshift tent, which balances on stilts above the terrace of the main monastery building, food being served on the latter when the weather is fine. Today it’s winter and chilly at this high altitude, but wood-burning stoves – fed today with discarded shoe-trees – keep us cosy before our ground-floor feast of tomatoes, olives and labneh, the ubiquitous yoghurtlike Arab cheese (all organic and from Mar Musa’s twin monastery of Mar Elian Qaryalier, 50 miles to the northeast), with Middle eastern flatbreads (one of the few things the community buy in from the nearby town) and, of course, those good-time felafel. Despite our babel of tongues and breadth of back-grounds, the atmosphere amongst the 20 or so monks, nuns and visitors is one of easy bonhomie. Over dinner and – later, as I offer the help expected from all guests in clearing and washing up – I ask those around me why they’re here.
Hale and healthy Edward, a 29-year-old Brit and his 15-year-old Russian girlfriend Anya arrived here by bicycle from Turkey. They’re travelling the world propelled by their rock-hard gluteals and and are over-wintering at Mar Musa. They love it, though they’re finding nighttime segregation into monks’ and nuns’ quarters a little challenging. Martin, whilst admonishing me for my haphazard job pre-washing the monastery plates, tells me he’s a 45-year-old German Jesuit schoolteacher on sabbatical. This is his second year-long sabbatical, after being “in a place I can’t mention here in this area of the Middle East”. His life mission, he tells me” “is to see all sides; without judgement. But we’re flawed creatures; this may take a life-time”.

Mar Musa at sunset

Later, a 40-something nun called Carol leads me across the knee-weakening metal bridge that spans a gorge leading to the nun’s quarters and my bed for the night, the jangling keys in her hand echoing in the cool desert silence. Of German and Lebanese parentage, Carol is a postulant, on the long path to nunhood. She’s just come out of retreat, she tells me: a 40-day period the monks and nuns pass in solitude in the natural grottoes around the Mar Musa cliff-face; the aim of each of these retreats to question their choice to move to the next level of their commitment to God. Another nun, Liz, is currently living in solitude in the grottoes set high above the nun’s quarters so – as the heavy iron door to the nuns’ quarters swings open – Carol hushes me, and points to the sign importuning all visitors to observe complete silence.

The monastery stirs to life at 6am. At 7, I pad down the irregular rocky stairs to the main monastery as a spectacular panorama opens up to my right – mid-blue skies, softly etched desert mountains peaks pricking the horizon. To my left the monastery buildings look aloof and brooding in the pale morning light, the mountainside beyond them ignited by the occasional flash of a the red neckscarves worn by the Syrian builders constructing Mar Musa’s new building.

Over breakfast on a sun-dappled terrace, I ask Javier, a young Spanish monk, what they’re up to. “It’s a new cheese-making building,” he says, tracing an arc behind him with his arm. “We have a herd of goats up there on the hills beyond Mar Musa.” Harry, yesterday’s teak-tanned antipodean, picks up the theme: “Yeh mate; I walked up to take a look at those goats yesterday. The goat-herd’s a cool guy. He gave me a cup of tea and we watched what a think was Syrian ‘Days Of Our Lives’ on his tiny TV – all arguments and soft-focus close-ups; couldn’t make a word of it out though, mate.” Indeed Mar Musa’s eco credentials extend far beyond the monastery’s immediate consumption, Javier tells me. “We’re trying to set up a new model for durable farming in the desert, by planting sustainable fruit trees, building reservoirs and creating protected environmental areas at both our sites. It’s difficult though – we’re fighting a battle against the desert.”

It’s a theme I return to when I achieve an audience with Father Paolo, not easy for a man with the world in pursuit of him. “Desertification has been an increasing problem here since the Gulf War,” he tells me, with a rueful tug of his beard. “Farmers and drivers were forced to overgraze and abuse water supplies. Mechanical transport made things a nightmare… and now there’s the internet.” The internet? “Grazers track water via satellite maps and then converge on the sources en masse with their cattle.” This rebalancing of humans’ skewed relationship with nature is one of Paolo’s many ambitions: “It has to stop, this making a slave of earth… we need harmony between beings and nature.”

Harmony between beings, however, is the priority. In this, Dall’Oglio is achieving some success. Everyone from Harvard professors to theologists, protestants to politicians pitches up at Mar Musa’s gates. Dall’Oglio is most propelled by his work in Muslim-Christian dialogue – as the title of his memoir “Believing in Jesus, Loving Islam” – attests. This, of course, is the regional faultline that’s has become increasingly entrenched in recent years. It’s a calling requires a sleight-of-foot no lesser man could achieve: soothing suspicious authorities, pirouetting around difficult political and religious terrain. But today, Muslim visitors come in their thousands, especially on Fridays, the beginning of the Syrian weekend. “Some come because Moses is in the Qu’ran, as a companion to Al Khudri; himself one of the prophet’s companions,” says Dall’Oglio. “But may come in curiosity and to simply to talk.”

Night falls abruptly over these parched hills and Dall’Oglio’s rare dominion. Looking out at the endless black, I ask Dall’Oglio if he nurtures any hope for the troubled region he now calls home. “You know, in the village I come from in the South Tyrols we have a peculiar festival that dates back centuries,” he replies. “We gather one day a year in the town square and pelt each other with oranges. Out comes the aggression and we get back to our peaceful civic lives. You know, I often think how much simpler life would be if the world threw a few oranges once a year.”; +963 11 7280137. It is free to stay at Deir Mar Musa, although most visitors leave a donation of around SYP 1,000 a day. If you are part of a large group please inform Mar Musa of your intention to visit by fax in advance on +963 11 723 0335. Unfortunately Mar Musa cannot accept large parties of tourists on Fridays, Sundays or religious festivals, both Christian and Islamic, or on National (Syrian) Feast Days.