As the deaths in Syria and conflicts in Egypt capture the world’s attention, we rightly focus on the plight of the thousands of victims of violence. In particular the Christian residents of these areas are plagued with displacement, kidnapping and murder. While the human suffering takes precedence, as an art historian, my own thoughts also go to the cultural patrimony of those afflicted areas, in particular the handful of remaining Christian sites that mark the passage of pilgrims, saints, and, in the case of Egypt, even the Savior himself. Some of these have succumbed to vandalism and destruction.
Sadly, the loss of these ancient structures has uprooted the testimony of almost 2,000 years of Christian presence in these regions. Meanwhile, the living genealogies of Gospel witnesses are not only being decimated in number, but also being left bereft of their ancestral spaces, losing even the bricks and mortar of the churches that attest to the continuous presence of generations.
Syria plays a fascinating role in the apostolic history of the Church. Saul was on the road to Damascus when the encounter with Christ changed his life and, ultimately, the world. In Rome, pilgrims tread in the footsteps of St. Peter every day, going from his residence on the Esquiline to the site of his death and burial at the Vatican, while the fateful road to Damascus — the path of conversion par excellence — is being crushed under tanks.
The ancient garrison town of Dura Europos in Syria, albeit long since excavated (and its treasures exported), contains the oldest extant domus ecclesia or Christian “home church,” as well as a third-century Jewish synagogue, and a pagan cult cell, all situated side by side. It would be a sad irony if this testimony of peaceful co-existence was obliterated by war.
Historians of Romanesque art are always delighted by the images of the Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, built during the 12th century for the Knights Hospitaler. A monumental piece of architecture, just outside the city of Homs on the border of Lebanon, the exceptionally well-preserved castle was damaged in an air raid last July. UNESCO, the cultural arm of the United Nations, has been monitoring this and other world heritage sights in an attempt to assess the losses to the patrimony of humanity.
One unique testimony is in grave danger of being lost. The village of Maaloula, 35 miles north of Damascus, is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It is one of the last places on earth where inhabitants still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. In this case more than the shrines and the icons, the very language used by God on Earth, is at risk. To its credit, the BBC has been keeping a close eye on the situation in Maaloula, drawing worldwide attention to this serious menace to Christian culture.
At the heart of the fighting we find Aleppo, one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world with 6,000 years under its soil, and, in this sense, Rome’s big sister. What will happen to these dense layers of human history, one wonders. Twenty miles outside its walls lies the unprotected church of St. Simeon Stylite, dating back to the fifth century, which contains the pillar upon which St. Simeon lived for 37 years.
To date, reportedly 20 churches and religious sites have been damaged since the beginning of the armed conflict. Patriarch Gregorios III of the Greek Melkite Catholic Church described a situation to the Christian Post where churches “have been destroyed, damaged or abandoned. The believers of Our Lord and priests have been evicted. The priests have not reached their people or prayed liturgy for over a year.” In Qusayr, Mar Elias Church was completely destroyed last month and the 9,000 Christian residents were forced to leave town under the threat of death.
The personal witness of generations of families is in gravest danger. From an approximate 30% of the population in the 1920s, Christians have dropped to a mere 10%, with more dying or fleeing daily.
Egypt, the land that welcomed the Holy Family as they fled from the wrath of Herod, has fared even worse. An estimated 40 churches have been looted, burned or destroyed during the period hopefully hailed as “Arab Spring.”
Shortly before the uprisings, Egypt was working on a pilgrim’s road tracing the footsteps of Christ in Egypt. While most of us are only acquainted with the brief passage in the Gospel alluding to His sojourn in Egypt, the Coptic Christians have charted the path of the Holy Family in the first Gentile land to experience the presence of the Savior.
The Coptic Senexarium, which documents the visions of Pope Theophilus, follows the journey of Christ, Mary and Joseph from Sinai to Sakha to Tel Basta to the Church of St. Sergius in Cairo. The plans for this sacred route are clearly not proceeding now and the question becomes: How many sites will survive all the violence?
St. Catherine’s Monastery, built in the sixth century AD, perched on the mountain where God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, has been shut down, and many residents have been left without adequate food or water.
The fourth-century Virgin Mary Church in Delga, the oldest Christian church in Egypt, was destroyed three weeks ago. Samuel Tadros’ eulogy to the shrine published in the Wall Street Journal evokes the profound sense of loss of a building that had survived so much, only to be swept away in what he feels are the worst attacks against Copts since the age of the Mamluk dynasty in 1321.
It is puzzling that for such wreckage of 2,000 years of history, Western Christians have remained relatively silent. Indeed, many other religious leaders are surprised at how unaware Western Christians are of the persecutions in the cradle of Christianity.
Lord Jonathan Sachs, the former chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, has spoken out on several occasions in defense of the Christians of the Middle East and writer Rod Dreher has called (perhaps in slightly more strident tones) for Christians to wake up to the plight of their brothers and sisters as well as of their cultural and historical patrimony.
Much of the present-day sufferings of Christians mirrors the most vicious persecutions of the Roman Empire under Diocletian. Roman soldiers, informed about what was dear to their prey, looked not only for the Christian hideouts, but also confiscated their books and their relics, to eradicate their memory and fracture their history.
True, Christians have never put their hopes in brick and mortar, but in the living witness of Christ. The Holy Land saw dozens of churches erected on the sacred sites shortly after the legalization of Christianity, only to be swept away by the Persian conquest in 614. The Crusades regained the land and oversaw the construction of new churches in a grander, more modern style, but those too were later destroyed by the Mamluks and the Ottoman Turks.
The steadfast Christians who remained in their ancestral home, aided by the Franciscans, kept alive the memory of where the churches had been and where the stories of salvation had unfolded and 400 years later, they built a third generation of churches according to the plans of the architectural genius Antonio Barluzzi, many of which recount the history of destruction and regeneration in their design.
A constant in our 2,000-year history is renewal. Even Rome has seen its fair share of destruction, expropriation and loss, but has always bounced back newer and fresher. Knowledge of the history of these sites, appreciation of the beauty of faith expressed in sacred objects or personal holiness, and gratitude for the preciousness of our hard-won religious freedom have contributed to the Christian ability to overcome devastation.
The long history of our Church has demonstrated one thing: violence can never ultimately conquer beauty.