“Oh! So you don’t understand. I thought you were deaf”. These words used to be the opening of an anecdote every time I recall my experience, in a peaceful place, once upon a time, in the middle of the Syrian Desert.
In March 2006, I joined the Syrian archaeological mission in the project of Deir Mar Elian (deir: monastry) in Al Qaryatain (literally: the two villages). At that time I was a freshly graduated architect, with some experience in archaeological documentation and excavation gathered through a couple of student jobs over few years. I used to recall, with enjoyment, the above words of the querwani (originally from Al Qaryatain) worker, who assisted me in measuring out in the field. He yelled several times, asking me to move, and I kept shouting “What?” After several exchanges of screaming between us, he stood up staring at me. He found out that I wasn’t deaf, or suffering from serious hearing problems (as he told me later). It was simply that I couldn’t understand a single word of his dialect. I used to recall the story with laughter; now my heart is hollow.
In May, this year, the so called ISIS attacked the town, a place where Muslims and Christians have long lived peacefully together. Men were killed, women and children kidnapped, and Father Jacques Mourad, the wholehearted priest of the monastery, was hold as a hostage. In August, the same group bulldozed the Monastery, which had been, for both Muslims and Christians in the village, a place to visit, as it is believed to be connected with healing miracles of Mar (Saint) Elian, known among Muslims as Sheikh Ahmad.
In 2001, a British project in the Monastery began its work directed by Emma Loosly. The work was followed later in a joint mission, managed from the Syrian part by Woroud Ibrahim. The most significant archaeological findings were the sarcophagus of Mar Elian and the small gate of the monastery, a door of the cloister of cedar wood decorated with animal and floral motifs dating back to the 7th century (now the National Museum of Damascus). Among the main objects that were found in the church are a cover of a relic box that was found under the floor of the sanctuary, as well as the graves of the monks, a cross and a bronze fibula, a glazed oil lamp made of clay, polychrome glass fragments, a comb made of bone, and fragments of embroidered garments.
While harsh weather and lack of resources deprived the querwanis of wealth, they bestowed them with kind-heartedness. The monastery itself is neither on any world heritage list, nor a famous tourist destination. Yet, for the locals, it was indeed significant, and any stranger, or curious visitor, was warmly welcomed.
The brutal destruction of the Monastery, is more than the loss of material evidence of the past, which had peacefully survived over 1500 years, shared and cherished by one group of people with two faiths. The destruction of the monastery is a rupture in the continuity of an inhabited, and lived, heritage, where stones and artefacts could not ever speak out for themselves, without the memories, stories and believes of people who were there.
In April 2006, the same year of my querwani stay, I took a short leave back home for my engagement party. When I came back to Al Qaryatain, a servant in the monastery asked me when my fiancé (today my husband) and I were planning to get married. I just laughed and said it’s a matter of mutual understanding. He immediately said “look, if things are not okay from the very beginning, he shall stay with his parents, and you stay with us!” Although things went okay, and we got married four months later, a small part of my heart did indeed stay there. Wishing to know that they safe. Wishing to see them, one day. Until then, Mar Elian will remain a story to tell. Once upon a memory….
Zeina Elcheikh, Syrian architect and planer, holds a M.Sc.in Integrated Urbanism from Stuttgart University. She worked with German International Cooperation and the French Institute for the Near East in Syria, and the UNESCO office in Egypt. Zeina is currently a PhD student at the Institute for History of Architecture, Stuttgart University. She is also a member of AiP’s Advisory Board.