Exploring Modern Syria's Christian Heartland
By: Habeeb Salloum/ Arab America Contributing Writer
The cool morning air was invigorating as we left Homs – the Emesa of the Romans – driving westward on an excellent four-lane highway. We had spent a day in this ancient town touring its historic places of worship. The sites where we tarried most were the mosque and burial place of Khalid ibn al-Waleed, the commander of the Muslim armies who in 636 A.D. brought Islam to Syria, and the Church of the Girdle where the belt of the Virgin Mary is kept.
Now as I reflected on our tour of the city, I felt content. Our visit to a good number of Homs’ churches and talking with their parishioners had set the background for our intended exploration of modern Syria’s Christian heartland.
As we drove I felt in a good mood. My haggling with the cab driver had brought down the price of our taxi from $120. to $80. The U.S. for a full-day. It was to be a fulfilling journey to a part of Syria unknown to many tourists or even the inhabitants of the neighboring countries.
There had been some rain a few days before and the countryside seemed to be sprouting new life. Our taxi driver who had made this trip hundreds of times explained to us the significance of every landmark edging the road.
As we drove along what is called the ‘Homs Gap’, a passage edged by the Alawi Mountains to the north and the Lebanese Mountains to the south, he talked about the many conquerors that had taken this route. “Everyone who invaded our land had to leave eventually. Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, and French came this way, stayed awhile, then were absorbed or faded away. No one was able to rule us forever.” Like the majority of his countrymen, even though he continually complained about his government, he was proud of being a Syrian/Arab.
A short distance from Talkalakh we turned northward. Before us we could see, towering in the distance, the majestic Crac des Chevaliers, the best preserved of the Crusader castles. Known in Arabic as Qal’at al-Husn, it is located 65 km (40 mi) west of Homs in the heart of a Christian part of Syria known as Wadi al-Nadara (Valley of Freshness). Once called Wadi al-Nasara (Valley of the Christians), it has remained a Christian area for hundreds of years, through the Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, Turkish and French eras.
From the main road, we made our way upward toward the 650 m (2,165 ft) high castle, which dominates the Homs Gap and the surrounding countryside. About halfway up the hill, we passed through the town of Al-Hosn, which, in Crusader times, used to furnish the fortress with provisions. In a few moments, we stopped by what every child struggling to build a sandcastle on the beach tries instinctively to copy. Crac des Chevalier hovered above us, a marvelous structure – the paragon of castles.
We took one of the guides waiting at the entrance and made our way by an ordinary gangway which has replaced the former drawbridge, then through a passageway, bristling with defenses, to the inside. For an hour we explored its well-preserved interior, roaming through galleries, massive halls, and impressive towers. In one of these we stopped and surveyed for a long time the magnificent green countryside over which, through the centuries, much blood has been shed.
All around, the mountainous land, heavily forested in places, was more like a part of Europe or North America than the arid Middle East. To the south, one could see the snow-capped Lebanese mountains and to the north and west, the Alawi mountains which from time immemorial have been dotted with fortresses, in the majority of cases, built during the Crusades. Besides Crac des Chevaliers, the most famous of these is Qal’at Marqab, overlooking the seaport of Banyas, and Qal’at Salah al-Deen – formally Sahyoun – between the Mediterranean and the Orontes Valley, east of Latakia. Like dozens of others, they are strategically located and gave this part of Syria the label ‘land of fortresses’. Today, instead of armies, these citadels draw thousands of tourists.
We refreshed ourselves in a restaurant inside the castle that has one of the most breathtaking views in the world, then departed for our exploration of Wadi al-Nadara – the main purpose of our visit. We wanted to drive through its neat clean villages and savor for a while this tiny part of Christian Syria.
The approximately 20 by 20 km (12 by 12 mi) valley stretches from the village of Jiblaya in the east to Tannreen in the west and from Anaz in the south to Jinkimra in the north. Inside this area, divided by the summer-dry Raweel River, there are 56 towns in which about 100,000 people live. Ninety percent of them belong to the Antiochian Orthodox faith. The other ten percent are made up of a few Catholics, Muslims, and Alawis – an Islamic sect.
Beyond the perimeter of this small enclave, in the area of Syria between the Orontes Valley in the east and the Mediterranean in the west and from Turkey in the north to Lebanon in the south, there live, perhaps, another 300,000 out of the country’s some 1,220,000 Christians which form about seven percent of Syria’s inhabitants. Great entrepreneurs, they have been responsible for making this tree-filled section of the country – much of it government protected – a tourist paradise.
After passing Al-Hwash, which appeared to be a fast expanding town, we stopped in Mishtayeh where the Convent of Deir Mar Jirjis (Convent of Saint George) is located. According to legend, Umar, the second Caliph in Islam, is said to have visited this ancient Christian landmark and exempted it from taxes.
We roamed through this attractive village and talked to a number of its friendly people. They all suggested that we should visit the town in the first part of May for the Feast of St. George celebration or the third week of September for the Elevation of the Holy Cross. During these two periods every year a weeklong fair is held where everything under the sun is sold. Most of people from the surrounding villages take part in the singing and dancing that continue until the wee hours of the morning. Many people travel from as far away as Hama and Aleppo to attend the festivities.
From Mishtayeh we drove to adjoining Marmarita, the largest urban center in the valley. With 15,000 inhabitants, it is considered the capital of Syria’s Christian heartland and its Marmarita Casino was the first hotel built in Wadi al-Nadara. After parking our taxi, we strolled through the town, refreshed by the cool mountain air. While we were examining an ancient dwelling, its owner came out and, in the true tradition of Arab hospitality, invited us in for a cup of coffee. We politely excused ourselves, but as we moved away he walked with us, “Are you from Allentown in America?” Apparently, due to our accent, he believed we were from the U.S.A. “No, we’re Canadians of Arab descent”, my daughter smiled. “Canadians!” He seemed puzzled, “Is that the same as Americans?”
We were not surprised when he asked us if we were from Allentown. This Pennsylvanian city is the second home to the people of Wadi al-Nadara. About ten percent of Allentown’s inhabitants originate from this part of Syria. Almost everyone who lives in the valley is familiar with that American city. The children in the villages even before they hear of Aleppo or Damascus know that they have a relative in Allentown.
For the remainder of the day, we drove through a large number of the remaining quaint towns surrounded by wooded-hills and small vineyards of grapes, olive groves and citrus orchards, many newly planted. The roads, much of which have been recently built, connected with every village – all in the midst of a building frenzy. New homes were sprouting up everywhere and this seemed to enhance the towns enveloped by the green countryside.
Before the current war against Syria, Wadi al-Nadara and its environs, in which are located the towns of Kafroon, Meshta el-Hilu and Safita with their well-run hotels, had become a tourist destination. The valley’s location close to the Mediterranean, yet in a mountainous region makes its weather very comfortable, especially in summer and the recent connecting of the villages with new roads has given the region a new lease on life.
There was a great push for tourism in Syria before this recent war: lodging and eating-places had sprung up in many towns. Besides the Safita Cham Palace and those in Mishtayeh and Marmarita, there is a hotel in Zweitini, a large one in Amar and others under construction, being built by Syrian immigrants who had returned to their home villages. Along with these fine-lodging places are a number of fine restaurants in Marmarita, Nasra, Mzeyeni, and a famous one in Zweitini, called Al-Fawwar.
During the summer months, the valley is flooded with visitors, mostly returning immigrants and formerly tourists from the Arabian Gulf countries.
Money sent home by emigrants and the construct
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