The Word Magazine March 1991 Page 7-8
A Decade of Construction and Modernization
at the Patriarchate of Antioch
by Archbishop Michael (Shaheen)
Damascus, which historians acknowledge as the oldest inhabited city in the world, is where His Sacred Beatitude, IGNATIUS IV, resides. On a recent visit last August, I was immensely impressed and somewhat gratified to note all the progress and growth that has come to this most ancient Christian Church. In July 1979, when the wires of the news flashed the name of the newly-elected patriarch, and the Toledo Blade called me for my views and evaluation, I predicted and was quoted quite correctly; saying he would bring the Antiochian Church into the 20th century. A decade has already passed and I must admit that he surpassed all expectations as well as my prediction. The Church is flourishing with an era of the renaissance dawning on the first apostolic See of St. Peter. The progressive patriarch is well-prepared for the 21st century and even beyond.
Most of the old sections and buildings have been completely demolished, making room for a spacious dining area with modern kitchen facilities. On the second floor are bedroom suites that will house all visiting bishops in the future, providing comfortable living quarters. On the same grounds is the Cathedral of St. Marx; renovated and listed as a main tourist attraction by the Ministry of Tourism in Syria.
DIOCESE OF DAMASCUS
Damascus has experienced a demographic explosion in recent years swelling the population from 600,000 into several million today. This exodus from the rural areas and the influx of refugees from the Golan Heights and Palestine included thousands of Orthodox Christians. Several new churches were built in the most heavily populated suburbs to serve their religious needs. The patriarch recruited a new breed of clergymen from the professions to serve these churches, namely doctors, professors and engineers who answered the call. Serving the diocese are two young bishops who visit the churches on a rotation basis. Finally; at three towns and villages I visited, each had a new building completed and amazingly paid for. There is no such thing as borrowing or financing. And at each Sunday service there was a harmonious chorus filling the air with their beautiful chants.
The See of Antioch numbers some 20 convents in both Syria and Lebanon, of which 5 are under the immediate jurisdiction of the patriarch. The three in Syria are Saydnaya, Maaloula and St. George; the two in Lebanon are the Balamand and St. Elias. The Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya is the most important with the miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary housed in a special shrine. Pilgrims from around the world keep this convent humming with activity all year long. A Mother Superior, Catherine Abi-Haidar, and 22 nuns are the pious and gracious hosts of a constant stream of visitors. They also look after 32 orphan girls. The large complex of solid buildings dates back to the 5th century and is located on the highest hill overlooking the town below and miles of surrounding areas.
The large structures covering the entire hilltop include a church, a well-arranged museum, patriarchal quarters, rooms for visitors, nun’s residence, girl’s orphanage, a grand salon for meetings, a dining room and kitchen facilities. To visit these, one must climb 72 steps that lead to a low and narrow entrance hewn into a massive rock, the only passage requiring a prostration. In recent times several hundred Lebanese have found refuge here due to the war and some with no homes to return to call it home. Many improvements, repairs, and essential renovations have been done lately. A new central heating system has been installed and the fresh-drinking water system is in the process of being placed. A cold water fountain to quench the thirst of visitors is a real blessing in summer, indeed a rare fixture in Syria. It was donated in everlasting memory of Khouria Joan Allen of the U.S.A.
THE NEW CONVENT OF ANGELS
This new convent is an extension of Saydnaya and is 7 kilometers north on the highest peak of the mountains, some 2000 meters above sea level. The work began in 1982 through the tireless efforts of the Mother Superior, who was able to retrieve acres of land once belonging to the church. A large cross adorns the highest peak and can be seen when lit at night in all four directions. The panoramic view is almost infinite, covering Syria and Lebanon. The once barren land is now blossoming with greenery surrounding a church, shrine, living quarters and planned lodging rooms for visitors. A newly-paved road links the new convent with Saydnaya which has assigned 2 nuns to serve there. It is truly the closest place to heaven and an ideal
place to pray and meditate.
Saydnaya convent in Syria
THE ST. GEORGE MONASTERY
Located near Homs, Syria, this third patriarchal institution has been renovated with several needed buildings added for school rooms that serve the children of nearby villages. Patriarch Ignatius held dedication ceremonies last August.
THE CONVENT OF
ST. TAKLA IN MAALOULA
The village and shrines date back in 300 A.D. with people in the community still speaking the Syriac language of Christ. The Shrine of St. Takla, surrounded by the church and monastery, is a popular attraction to pilgrims and visitors alike. Two younger nuns from Saydnaya have been assigned there in August with the task of making improvements and enhancing this ancient, historical shrine. A modern luxury hotel overlooks the whole village and furnishes modern rooms for visitors.
UNIVERSITY IN LEBANON
This institute of higher learning stands as the ultimate and most notable achievement of the decade. Located next to the Balamand Seminary near Tripoli, there are three colleges: a liberal arts college, a college of education and a school of theology. Seminarians no longer need to travel abroad to further thcir education. Some 1400 students are enrolled this year. The newly-appointed President is the distinguished journalist, a former minister and ambassador of Lebanon, Ghassan Tueni. Bishop George Abou-Zakhim was recently assigned to head the school of theology. This university is the only one of its kind in the whole Middle East, and perhaps the largest in the world. It is open to all students of all religions and persuasions. It is easy to see why it is the joy and pride of our ambitious patriarch. An academic at heart, Patriarch IGNATIUS has fulfilled his long-time dream. Under his illustrious leadership, it should be smooth sailing for the Antiochian Orthodox Church well into the year 2000 AD. We wish him many many years!
His Eminence, Archbishop MICHAL is the auxiliary of our Archdiocese and resides in Toledo, Ohio.
Convent of Angels (Cherubim) Inside the Convent Church
The Word Magazine May 1984 Page 8-9
THE SAYDNAYA CONVENT
The Saydnaya Convent is located in the mountains not far from the city of Damascus, the seat of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch. The village of Saydnaya has many ancient associations with the Holy Bible. The local inhabitants can show you the reputed place where Cain slew his brother Abel. It is also an area renowned for its faithfulness to Orthodoxy. In former times when many cities and villages in Syria apostatized from Christianity, Saydnaya always remained a zealous defender of the Orthodox Faith.
The convent rises above the town like a veritable fortress and is dedicated to the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos. One may not enter the small chapel without removing one’s sandals; inside, the walls are covered with myriad signs of gratitude to the All-pure One. The Icon of the All-holy Virgin is believed to be one of four icons extant that were painted by St. Luke the Evangelist himself. In the Syriac language this icon is called the Chahoura or Chagoura, which means “The Illustrious, Celebrated, or Renowned.” The word is a loan-word from the Arabic Chahira or El Mash Hura which have the same meaning. There are also many other fine icons of the Holy Virgin and the saints, which date from the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries.
There are about fifty nuns in the convent, presided over by an abbess, and it owns several inalienable properties in Syria and Lebanon. Thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the world visit this holy place every year, particularly for its feast, the Nativity of the Theotokos on the eighth of September. In its library, which contains hundreds of valuable manuscripts, it can be documented that the convent was founded about the year 547.
It is said that Justinian I, Emperor of Byzantium, while crossing Syria with his troops either on his way to the Holy Land or on a campaign against the Persians, came to this desert, where his army encamped and soon suffered thirst for lack of water. When they despaired, the emperor saw a beautiful gazelle off in the distance. He vigorously gave chase, hunting the animal until it tired and stopped on a rocky knoll and approached a spring of fresh water, but without giving the emperor the opportunity to shoot it. Suddenly, it transformed into an icon of the Most-holy Theotokos, which shone with a brilliant light. A white hand stretched forth from it and a voice said, “No, thou shalt not kill me, Justinian, but thou shalt build a church for me here on this hill.” Then the strange heavenly light and majestic figure disappeared.
Upon his return, Justinian related what he had seen to his subordinates and ordered them immediately to draw up a plan for the contemplated church. After some time had passed and the architects were unable to resolve the problems of the plan, the Holy Virgin — the gazelle — reappeared to Justinian in a dream and confided a magnificent plan to him for a convent, of which she would be the Protectress. It is said that the basic structure of the convent follows this plan to this day. The convent soon gained such renown that it came to be ranked second only to Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage, and nuns from every corner of Syria, Egypt, and other lands flocked to it.
The holy Icon El Chagoura appeared many years after the convent was constructed. In the late eighth century, a certain venerable Marina was abbess of the convent, and she was widely revered for her piety and sanctity of life. It happened that a hermit monk, a Greek pilgrim from Eygpt named Theodore, stopped at the convent on his way to the Holy Land. When he was leaving, Abbess Marina asked him to buy in Jerusalem a precious and fine icon of the Holy Virgin. While at Jerusalem, he utterly forgot the task entrusted to him and started on his return journey. However, when he had not gone far from the city, he was stopped short by an unfamiliar voice: “Have you not forgotten something in Jerusalem? What have you done in regard to the commission from Abbess Marina?” Monk Theodore returned at once to Jerusalem and found an icon of the Theotokos. During the journey back to the convent, he was astounded by the miracles accomplished through the icon. He and his whole caravan were ambushed by bandits, and then attacked by wild beasts. Amidst these dangers, the hermit always invoked the aid of the Holy Virgin while holding her icon, and he and all the caravan were saved from every peril.
When Theodore returned to the convent, these events tempted him to keep the valuable icon for himself, and he decided to bypass Saydnaya and sail back to Egypt. However, he was unable to set sail, for such a fierce storm arose, it seemed the ship would inevitably sink.
The Saydnaya Convent
The domes and belltower of Saydnaya Convent
His conscience was pricked, and he quickly left the ship and returned by way of Saydnaya. After spending four days in the convent, he was again possessed by an irresistible desire to make the icon of the Mother of God his own. He apologized to the abbess, pretending that he had been unable to buy the required icon, and then he decided to leave the convent secretly. The next morning, as he was about to set out on the journey back to his own country and approached the convent gate, he was amazed to find that an invisible power barred his way, and it was as though a stone wall stood where the gate should have been. After many futile attempts, he was forced to hand the icon over to the abbess, confessing his intention. With tears of gratitude she glorified the Lord and His All-pure Mother. Since that day, the holy Icon has remained in the convent and has been the object of great veneration.
Many other churches have been built in the village from donations of Orthodox rulers, wealthy persons, and by others in the fulfillment of vows, but in the course of centuries, few remain.
The terraces and domes of the convent are the subject of many stories and accounts of miracles, similar to those we hear about the towers of Constantinople, where many special processions and intercessions were celebrated during the wars, plagues, and other dangers that assailed the Christians of Byzantium.
The interior of the main church.
General view of the Patriarchal Convent of Saydnaya — Vue general du Couvent Patriarcal de Saydnaya.