As I look back upon the ride to the monastary of Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi, I have to ask myself if I wasn’t engaging in a bit of self-flagellation. It was certainly painful, if it didn’t exactly bring me closer to God. It started out well enough. I got up good and early and had to awaken the hotel manager to let me out the metal cage. I got on the road at about 4:45am, taking the main road out of Homs. I ended up on the highway for a bit, but exited and pulled a bit of a sketchy maneuver, turning around and going against traffic (I thought it was a two-way road). Soon enough, however, my intended road appeared parellel to the ramp I was on, and I rode this frontage road the remainder of the way to an-Nebek. In most places, it was simply the old Homs-Damascus highway, and it crossed back and forth across the highway every so often, almost always at surface level, with no under- or overpass. There were a number of stretches where it was right next to the highway, which gave me the peace of mind of not having to worry about being run over, while I still had to deal with the consistent engine noise. For the most part, however, the road was a good distance from the highway, and, as was the case the day before, was largely used only by the occassional motorcyclist or over-laden produce truck. I’m not sure why, but I got a particular kick out of one stretch of the road that went through the middle of a wide valley, with the northbound and southbound lanes of the highway on either side of the valley.
It was a long, not-too-steep ascent, but the twinge of knee pain that had developed the day before was getting progressively worse. Riding while seated was particularly painful, so I spent much of the time out of the saddle, grinding up a hill that generally would have been a mild effort.
After passing this rather oddly-designed hospital, where I briefly considered getting a knee operation, I soon arrived in an-Nebek. It was still fairly early, so many places were not yet open. One place whose sign offered foul and hommos in fact only had sandwiches. I’ve discovered that a great many places are like this in Syria. Foul and fatteh shops have turned into sandwich shops, grocers have turned into electronics stores, copy shops have turned into clothing boutiques, all without changing their ownership or signage. Anyway, I bought a yogurt drink and asked about foul, whereupon I was directed around the corner and up a side street. The place, even more laudatory of President Bashar al-Assad than normal (his portrait is everywhere), was thankfully open, and the owner was very gracious, offering me tomatoes, mint, fresh cold water and tea with my breakfast while the pair of soldiers who came in just got their plain ole bowl-o-foul. He did the fairly common thing of telling me that breakfast was on him. To my surprise, however, when I protested, he quite quickly relented, “OK, that’ll be 50 Lira.” I didn’t mind at all, but I was surprised.
I carried on, grumbling silently about the pair of boys who had carelessly knocked my bike over and been unable to figure out how to right it, while my knee still complained loudly about being put back in service. The trip to the monastary had not been planned, so I didn’t have a route plotted, and I took a few wrong turns before finding the right road that went around the old tel and into the mountains. The initial ascent wasn’t too steep, but nevertheless quite painful. Near the summit, there was a major mining operation going on in a nearby gorge and black smoke arose from the opposite side of the road from burning trash. There was a lovely view from the summit, as long as one ignored the dumping of construction materials into the gully one saw in the foreground.
Just as I was about to begin the longish descent, a couple guys who work at the monastary drove by in a truck and offered me a ride. This would have been silly if it were just the descent, but that descent was followed by a very steep uphill, so I accepted. Unfortunately, a kilometer down the road, they realized they had forgotten something in an-Nebek, and apologized that they would have to go back and kicked me out of the truck. The descent was quite steep, and the knowledge that I would have to go back the same way the next day tempered my enjoyment of it. The road bottomed out in a broad valley and I took the left up to the monastary, up a very steep, mostly straight road. I walked most of the 3km up the road, as walking didn’t hurt the knee at all. The two guys in a truck passed me up just as I was reaching the parking lot. I was planning to push the bike the final 200 vertical, unrideable meters, so I changed my shoes. I soon discovered, however, that the path soon turned into stairs, so I had to figure out what to take with me and lock up the rest near the bottom of the path. Tired, overheated and in pain, I took my time walking up the 340 steps to the monastary. I didn’t actually count those steps, but I noticed part of the way up the number 90 written in marker in Hindi numerals on one of the steps. I began counting from there and discovered numbers written every ten steps. There were also occasionally trash bins on the way, also with the number of the step written on them, just as we sometimes write our address on our trash bins in the US. Signs reminding visitors to pack their trash or deposit it in the bins lined the path, mostly directed at Arab tourists who have not had such an ethic ground into them for the past two generations as Europeans and North Americans have.
I was beat when I reached the top, but managed to utter something about being a visitor to a passing figure. That passing figure happened himself to be a visitor, and he directed me to the monastary itself, where the responsibles could be found. I was a bit surprised to find the grounds positively swarming with European and Syrian tourists, and to find so many signs of Deir Mar Musa absolving itself of responsibility for lost or stolen items. A woman eventually emerged to ask if I wanted tea or water, and I declined both, being well-provisioned on both counts. She then asked if I was planning to spend the night and I responded that I was, if that was possible. “Ahla wa Sahla” she responded, and told me I could check out the ancient church and relax a bit.
I spent the next several hours hanging out on the open plaza of the monastary, admiring the striking view. I resisted the urge to take a picture, having seen such pictures and knowing that they didn’t capture the grandeur of the place. Meanwhile, volunteers and guests worked together to prepare lunch. I was still completely beat and so slacked in this regard. I didn’t really have much energy to chat either, but exchanged a few words with some of the Syrians.
Eventually, a couple of Frenchmen came by, and I was compelled enough by their story to engage more with them. They were traveling from India in a tuk-tuk they purchased there. I had gotten used to being told that mine was a crazy way to tour Syria, or the Middle East in general, but I think this takes the cake. You can read more about their story here.
After a wonderful lunch of soup with toasted bread and salad, I had enough energy to help out with the dishes. I was then shown to my quarters, a medium-sized room in a newer adjacent building with three beds. I took a nap for a bit and then decided to go get some massage cream out of the stuff I left on my bike to use on my knee. So, I descended those 340 steps, got my little bag of toiletries, applied the cream (which did indeed work almost immediately), then returned back up those 340 steps. In retrospect, I think those 680 steps did more to exacerbate the condition of my knee that the cream did to help it. Once back at the monastary, I took a shower and headed back to the church for meditation time.
While the place is very ecumenical in nature, it was started by a Jesuit priest and the dominant denomination is Catholic, so upon entering, apparently a minute late, I felt the urge to cross myself and realized that I actually had no idea how to do so properly. I’m sure in some parts of the world, how you cross yourself says a great deal about you. I was slightly embarassed not to know even one way. The ancient church was indeed beautiful, and this was enhanced by the candlelight. The majority of the structure seemed not to have required much restoration, but the wooden roof was of course new. The murals, depicting the apostles and a number of other scenes I didn’t have the background to analyze, were largely in wonderful condition, although the artistry from this early stage looked almost cartoonish. This led me to think about cartoons, and the comic-book version of the Bible that was my introduction to Christianity some time ago, and the fact that, when it comes down to it, one of the things that unites almost all religions is their tendency to present major figures, whether human or divine, as characatures, even if there may be an injunction—as in Islam—against graphic depictions of these characatures.
On the floor before the altar was a small chalkboard flanked by candles with the readings of the day from the Bible, including passages from Ecclisiastes, I Corrinthians (I think), and Luke, dealing, respectively, with freedom and social justice, the distinction between dogma and moral self-restraint, and faith. Behind the chalkboard were two books, each resting on its own rihal, the traditional seat for the Koran. While I didn’t check to make certain, I gather that one was a Christian Bible and the other the Holy Quran.
The priest was away, but the most experienced of the monks led a prayer in Arabic, and the hour-long period of silent meditation began shortly thereafter. I appreciated that there was a time set aside for such things, and spent much of my time meditating upon what it means to be agnostic, and in particular to be militantly agnostic (“I don’t know and neither do you”). I found myself reciting the Lord’s Prayer, just to see if I could remember it, after having not thought about it in some 18 years. There were a few words I forgot. I also meditated upon the value of ritual and realized that for many years I had been neglecting the weekly and seasonal rituals that I had previously set aside for contemplation and celebration of a more spiritual life (in a very loose, agnostic, sense). I resolved to make an attempt to bring some of that back into my life when I move to Washington, DC. Syria has thus inspired me to bring two things back to the US from this part of the world: spirit and hospitality.
The evening sevice started after meditation, and we were handed Bibles in our native languages, if we didn’t already have them (Arabic, English, French and Bulgarian were represented here). The sevice was mostly in Arabic, with one of the religious students of the monastary occasionally noting in English the chapter and verse being read. In each case, I was too caught off-guard by the sudden English utterances, and the non-correspondence with the verses listed on the chalkboard, so I wasn’t following the service very well. There were some readings from the Psalms, some discussion of a passage from the Gospel according to Luke and a period set aside for expression of personal prayers, most of which, from what I could understand, consisted of prayers for loved ones and for the continuing success of Deir Mar Musa in its mission promoting ecumenical relationships, social justice and sustainable land use.
A wonderful dinner followed, including most of the same food from lunch, with the addition of some cheeses, olives and mezza, along with some pleasant conversation, mostly with the French visitors and a volunteer who was also French. Needing to get up before dawn, I excused myself and went to go turn in. Between the monastary and the residential building, the view of the sky was amazing. The Milky Way was clearly discernible, and I think I saw more stars at once than I ever had before. I regretted not having the opportunity to spend more time looking at the sky.