Just deserts

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Syria  ,
Tuesday, December 5, 2006

The last three days having been so blissfully quick and easy, I thought the time may be ripe for me to break the next distance barrier- 200km from Hama to Damascus. This was reconfirmed when the Lonely Planet informed me that the only place to stay between Hama and Damascus was a monastery called 'Mar Musa', and described it as 'well off the beaten track... 15km from the nearest town... have to scramble the last 1.5km up vertiginous tracks...'.

Just to be really sure I double-checked the terrain on the way to Damascus with the hotel manager:
-Very flat. There's one hill, but you'll have no problem.
This was not entirely accurate. There was indeed only one steep hill, but the road climbed steadily for the first 100km to a plateau. Although not steep, this slowed me enough that by four o'clock I had only made 125km progress to the town of Nibq. 15km from Mar Musa. 

Scrambling be damned, I'm heading for the monastery. In the town I found a pair of teenagers on a moped, who tried their level best to direct me. It quickly became clear that the route was too complex for mime, even with my experience at this game. Eventually they gave up and gestured me to follow them. Ten minutes later we had navigated the length of the town to a crossroads with one road signed for Mar Musa. The boys turned around and disappeared. The sun was only half showing above the mountains, so I resolved to hitch if the opportunity arose.

Before long a truck came by, unable to carry the bike but willing to stop long enough for me to grab on and take a tow for 3km. As we parted ways the driver started gesticulating strangely, pointing the direction I was heading, putting his hands behind his ears and barking at me. Odd people, Syrians. I peddled on for about 10minutes or so until a tracter approached and I stuck out my thumb again. He stopped, but didn't seem to have anywhere to stow the bike. As I was thinking this he hefted the bike onto the bonnet of the tractor, unsecured and precariously balanced, and indicated that I should get in the cab. Reasoning that if he's happy, I'm happy, I climbed aboard. To my surprise the bike stayed firmly wedged, even when we bounced over potholes that we couldn't spot in the gathering dusk. After a few more kilometers, the tractor too had to go a different way. Mar Musa, it seemed, was not on the way to anywhere.

Before leaving, the tractor driver informed me that the road would go up, then down, swing around to the left, and then I should look for a turning to the left which would take me to the monastery. Useful information, though incomplete. The road duly went up, before descending through a series of switchbacks the steep side of a mountain I didn't know I was on. After leaning into the second 50km/h bend it was clear there was no turning back. I fell to the base of the hill in no time flat and was soon upon the eminently missable turning (thank you Tractorman). The road began to climb again.
The sun had well and truly set by now and the moon was a huge orange disk hovering just above a mountain. I have never seen it so big or so clear. If there were people on it I'm certain we could have waved to each other. If I had paid attention in school I could have labled every sea and crater. I stopped to dig out my headlamp, at which point I heard barking in the not too far (and certainly not far enough) distance. Whether they were wolves or wild dogs I hoped not to find out. In the dark it was impossible to guage the slope of this final stretch, beyond being aware that progress was painfully slow. Finally I saw the entrance gate to the path leading up to the monastery, and next to it a sign

-Please do not approach the monastery after 6pm.

1.5km of 'scrambling' still to go, according to the LP, 140km of riding done that day, heavy bags and no back-up plan. Quick time-check. 17:30

The first 100m were cobbled pathway, up which the bike could be pushed but not ridden. After that a steep staircase had been built since the LP was researched, so I chained the bike to a railing (in defense, presumably, of nocturnal nomadic bike theives) and began the ascent.

Many people have asked me (starting pretty much in Germany), where my favouite place so far has been. I have, up to now, given equivocating responses...  favouite city? -Budapest or Istanbul, favourite building? -Zwinger, stories? -Colditz, people? -The friendly ones. I can now, however, say unequivocally that my favourite single place so far is the monastery of Mar Musa, Syria. It is ancient, beautiful, peaceful, hospitable and spiritual.

When I reached the top of the steps I hadn't gone more than five paces before one of the inhabitants (it was never clear who were monks, nuns, novices, visiters or people who just worked and lived there) met me. Wordlessly, he escorted me into a low, stone building, to a room containing six mattresses, a deisel heating-stove and a German.
From the German (who I will call Hans, to preserve his anonymity [ie. because I can't remember his name]) I got my bearings. He told me that there would be an hours meditation from seven 'til eight, then a mass until 9.15, then dinner. He assured me I would be welcome to participate in all the above, or indeed to spectate the first two, before enthusiastically joining the latter. (another long day with minimal food).

At the appointed hour we made our way down from the living quarters to the monastery itself. This was entered through a tiny door in an otherwise featureless wall, which made what lay behind feel even more like a secret, mystical place than it would anyway. Through the entrance was a hall, with the chapel to the left, and nothing straight ahead. There was floor for maybe 5m, then a sheer drop. The monastery was built into the cliff, and the patio of the monastery was a ledge in the cliff-face, forming a balcony with a stunning, uninterupted panoramic view of the desert. After dinner, before bed, I spent five minutes more contemplating the view from this balcony, the moon, smaller and brighter now fully risen, was still astonishingly clear. It was surrounded by a halo of bright, clear sky fringed with clouds. The empty desert was more clearly illuminated than under the setting sun.

We went into the chapel, which was built around 500AD and decorated with impressive frescoes which are still largely intact. We left our shoes at the door, the chapel being both holy and carpeted with fine persian rugs. There were nine or ten others inside, of various nationalities and religious inclinations. Shortly after we arrived electric lights were turned off, candles lit, and the hour of meditation began. I sat on a cushion, resting my head on the wall (almost certainly doing some subtle but irreparable damage to a fresco of the virgin Mary) and stared at one of the flickering flames. And I thought about dinner. I fear meditation is a skill requiring practice. It was a peaceful and relaxed hour though; a far cry from the hustle of towns, hotels and dormitories.

The service itself was very unusual, held in arabic and with no guide at all for the uninitiated and foreign. I watched in respectful silence as those who were familiar with the form gave appropriate sung responses and followed the readings. By a coincidence of where people chose to sit, western christians were all on the left side, and arabic christians were all on the right. This meant that at certain points in the service when praise was due to God, a file of worshippers on the left would all make the sign of the cross while a file on the right prostrated themselves. It seemed to me an inexplicably moving tableau. As well as being mixed sex and mixed denomination, the monastery is almost mixed religion.

The service concluded with a slightly confused bible study, in which the claim in Luke's gospel that 'faith can move mountains' led to a discussion of whether the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were miracles. Well... they could move mountains...

Dinner was, technically, very simple. Cheese, jam, some preserved carrots, olives, olive oil and an interesting dry spice mix in which we dipped oil-drenched bread. It was my hunger, the free and unthinking hospitality, the location and the tranquility which made it seem the finest feast I'd ever been offered.  Interestingly, over dinner I became vaguely aware of a low level of internal politics within this devout community of maybe 20 people. From the way one persons statements went unanswered, or a Look was exchanged when another entered the room,  I got the impression that even here the kind of 'whose washing-up is this...' strife of small, close communities, still occurs. There's no negating human nature.

I left early in the morning, keenly aware that I would have to negotiate those steep switchbacks again, before I would even be back on track. I would have loved to stay longer. Maybe a week, a month...

When I made it back to the town I once again picked up my moped escort- apparently these lads don't do much else- and again thanked them profusely for their help. I'm a tough nut to crack, faith-wise, but if you're looking for conversion on the road to Damascus, turn left at Nibq.
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