Hidden Treasures: A Night in a Syrian Convent
Thirty miles or so northeast of Damascus, not far from the Lebanese border, is the tiny town of Maaloula. It's one of only three communities in Syria that still speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and it has a couple old monasteries too. Most travelers visit Maaloula on short day trips from Damascus; I came hoping to stay the night.
I hitched my way here, to the center of town, and then walked uphill to the Convent of St. Thekla, a Greek Orthodox institution home to both nuns and orphan girls. I had heard that when rooms were available the convent would accept guests for a small fee, and I asked a sister if this was true. "Yes," she said, and then led me to a basic room with a balcony. I put down my bags and promised to pay approximately $10 when I checked out in the morning.
Inside the monastery were chalices on metal doors, the occasional tour group from Iran (Iranians are among the most common visitors to Maaloula), and nuns making apricot jam.
Apricots on their way to being jam
And outside the convent were men with Aramaic tattoos, like the one below that says, "I love Maaloula."
There were beautiful viewpoints as well, like the one below where you could look down on your home for the night -- that's the convent down there, on the left half of the picture.
That evening I ran in to a French couple in their late 50s. They too were staying at the convent and had walked here, from France. That's right, they were walking, for many months, and naturally had many stories to tell, a few of which I pried from them over dinner at a nearby restaurant (owned by the family of the guy with the "I love Maaloula" tattoo).
I slept well this night and was glad I hadn't come to Maaloula for just an hour or two.
Joel Carillet, chief editor of wanderingeducators.com, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, follow his regular photoblog, or purchase images, visit www.joelcarillet.com or www.istockphoto.com/jcarillet.