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.
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.