A twist of faith in the Syrian desert

A centuries-old monastery in the Syrian desert has been converted into a centre that encourages dialogue among religions and cultures.

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The taxi races through the Syrian desert, bumping along a dusty and unpeopled road. After a two-hour journey from Damascus, I see a handwritten sign to Deir Mar Musa al Habashi, a monastery that has become an unexpected tourist attraction.

My mind, however, is still reeling from my weekend in the oldest continuously inhabited city. To me, it was like a palimpsest – those ancient parchments that have been written on many times so that beneath one layer of text lies rubbed-out or faded notes from an earlier period.

Take the Umayyad mosque, for example, which stands on the ruins of both The Temple of Jupiter and a fourth-century church. Today, Christians make up only a tenth of the population in this predominantly Muslim country but the relationship between the faiths has been long and busy.

Few settings would be more apt to revamp an ancient monastery and turn it into a modern enclave for "interfaith and intercultural dialogue".

On the edge of the desert – 80km from the capital and 17km from the nearest town – the community at Mar Musa has done just that over the past 20 years. Through a wide range of religious and environmental projects it has attracted a diverse range of visitors – pilgrims, scholars, backpackers, sheikhs, students, tourists – from many different countries.

Its goal is to promote relationships between cultures and religions and to foster those connections in the wider world. It is an ambitious aim for a small settlement in the desert.

Perched high on the side of an east-facing cliff almost 1,400m high, the monastery is only accessible by foot. Near the bottom is a neatly sown garden and a pulley system for hauling up fresh produce. Looking up, half-blinded by the sun, I see a large cross silhouetted against the sky.

The monastery was founded in the sixth century, so the legend goes, when Musa, the son of an Abyssinian king, ended up there after forsaking his country's throne for a monkish way of life. The present-day church was built on the site of his grotto in the 11th century. Layers of beautiful frescoes were painted on its walls in successive centuries. The monastic community thrived until the 15th century when it gradually started to decline. The last monk from this line left in 1831.

The climb is steep and difficult but not as bad as I had expected thanks to nearly 350 stone steps neatly laid into the hillside. I had been told to bring a stick to stave off the wild dogs which roam the land, but no such threats appear.

When Father Paolo, a former Jesuit from Italy, first came to the monastery in 1982, the journey was treacherous, the chapel was roofless and the monastery was little more than a ruin.

With money from the Syrian government and the European Union he set about rebuilding it with the help of volunteers from local communities and abroad.

A small band of monks, nuns and novices have lived at Mar Musa since 1991, with about 10 guests staying at a time. The church and its wonderful frescoes were renovated in the 1990s and new accommodation quarters for guests have recently been completed. To stay at the monastery is free but visitors are expected to participate – washing up, making lunch, housekeeping or, if they choose to, taking part in religious activities. In short, at this fabled site there is a thriving community once again.

Mar Musa is part of the Syriac church, a Christian sect originating in the fifth century, but today differences of doctrine are smoothed over rather than highlighted.

The chapel is small, cosy and informal. The floor is covered in cushions and there is a wood-burning stove in the middle. The atmosphere is serene and conducive to contemplation. Frescoes in muted blues and reds cover the walls, with the most complete cycle on the west wall of the nave.

David, a soft-spoken Frenchman with dreadlocks, is showing people around. He is a volunteer who, today at least, is in charge of welcoming and taking care of the steady stream of visitors to the place. He talks about the routines and rituals at the monastery: prayers at 7am, mass in the afternoon, both in Arabic.

Besides worship and meditation, manual work forms an important part of life in the community. Indeed, one of the striking things about the chapel is its aura of craftsmanship. Time, effort and skill have outweighed money – or lack of it – in the success of this project, an attitude that resonates with residents and visitors alike.

The bell rings for lunch. Outside on the terrace people gather for plates of stew, vegetables and bread. The view down the valley and out into the wide and shimmering desert is breathtaking. I find a seat at one of the white plastic tables alongside a mixed bunch of tourists, devotees and other sojourners who have each come to Mar Musa for their own reasons.

Hanne Aspelund, a writer from Norway, is here working on a novel set in the Palestinian Territories. I mention the long tradition of writers in monasteries – from the monks of Lindisfarne in the eighth century to Robert Byron at Mount Athos last century.

The atmosphere and surroundings are, she agrees, very suited to writing. She also tells me about the environmental projects underway, including the development of sustainable farming techniques and the plan to create a national park in the valley below.

I cannot help but be in awe of the breadth of the community's myriad activities and the skill and energy mustered in every endeavour.

Lunch ends with oranges and Arabic coffee. I take my plate to the kitchen and help with the dishes. Outside, the bright light is turning to shadows and the stone terrace's warmth from the sun is draining away ; I realise it's time for me to depart. Though many visitors to Mar Musa spend the night in attached guest quarters, I have to catch a flight later in the evening.

Descending the steps back into the valley I ponder this strange place and how it compares to those old parchments. In a way, Mar Musa's ancient verses are visible in the ageing walls and timeless landscape, but I also know that the people living here are trying to do something that completely erases any tensions from the past and instead forms in their place something new and united.

Building communities from scratch is often bourne out of the utopian dream – a striving to create something that is novel, bold and, most importantly, that works. Yet such pursuits tend to struggle with their own lofty goals.

Utopia, a term coined by Sir Thomas More in 1516, refers to a place where people live under seemingly ideal conditions. But the origins of the word – a compound of the Greek words for "not" and "place" to create "nowhere" – hint at the inherent impossibility of such a destination.

Near the mountain's base, I decide, however, that Mar Musa's success lies not in grand visions or abstract theories. Its ethos is bottom-up: discreet acts and tiny details are at the heart of this remarkable place. The community encourages care to be taken of both inner and outer landscapes, with harmonious physical surroundings cultivating and promoting a more harmonious way of life among its inhabitants. To me, if this is the lesson Mar Musa hopes to teach by example to the world, we'd do well to study it carefully.


If you go
Deir Mar Musa al Habashi is 17km from the town of Nebek, which is 80km north-east of Damascus on the road to Homs. You can catch a bus to Nebek and then take a taxi or take a taxi all the way from Damascus. Arrange for a taxi to return to pick you up. Accommodation at the monastery is free.

If guests would like to stay more than one night or visit in a large group they should contact the monastery in advance. For details about staying at Mar Musa, visit www.deirmarmusa.org