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Deep Roots in a Fertile Land

Christians in southern Syria stand fast in the face of emigration

text by Marlin Dick
photographs by Armineh Johannes


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If it is Thursday, it must be time for “Sunday school” in the village of Iselha, deep in the south of Syria

A deacon and several volunteers assemble in the afternoon at the Greek Orthodox bishopric in Suweida, the chief town of the Jabal Al Arab region, and travel by van for about 15 minutes to reach the village, downhill and toward the plain of Houran.

Dozens of enthusiastic youngsters and teenagers have gathered outside the village church, St. George, and wait for class to begin, signaled by the ringing of the church bell.

Deacon Ghazwan Nuzha holds a discussion with the older group, some of whom sit on a row of old black stones, the kind used in buildings here centuries ago. Carmen Eid, a volunteer, takes the younger group inside for class.

“Who was Moses?” Ms. Eid asks the students, who call out their answers. “Where did he live? What did he give us?”

Christians have thrived for centuries in this village of about 400 people, three-fourths of whom are Greek Orthodox.

Next to the church, a Byzantine-era cross is etched over the door of an abandoned dwelling. The present church, built in 1934, lies above the ruins of a much older stone building.

Iselha straddles the Jabal Al Arab region – the mountainous home of Syria’s Druze community – and the fertile Houran, famous as the granary of the Roman Empire. Further east are the Golan Heights and the snow-capped peaks of Mount Hermon.

Christians are a small but significant minority throughout these regions, dotted with black and gray basalt stones left from volcanic eruptions thousands of years ago.

Used to build temples and churches in the past, today the stones are used in homes and buildings, as well as in the low walls that border small farms and plots of land.

Inscriptions in Greek, symbols like grapes and wheat and bits of columns are ordinary finds in or around homes. Locals casually point out where the huge black stones of a Roman road lie below the modern asphalt or where churches and columns lie buried below villages and towns.

Other impressive ruins are aboveground and attract tourists, like the amphitheater and church town of Bosra or temples and other buildings in Roman-era Qanawat and Shahba, the birthplace of a Roman emperor, Philip the Arab (A.D. 244-249).

A strategic area when part of the Roman province of Arabia, the region became an important Christian center during the late Roman and early Byzantine periods.

The Houran and Jabal Al Arab were full of churches, sending several bishops to the famous church councils of the day, like Chalcedon in 451. However, the region lost much of its significance after the Islamic conquests of the seventh century, probably due to changing trade routes and instability.

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Tags: Syria Christianity Emigration Houran