Gutted and brutalised, Syrian town will not rise again for long time
Pointless battle for Maaloula is over as Syrian army takes control of region
Inside the damaged church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in Maaloula, north of Damascus. Photograph: Youssef Badawi/EPA
Two Syrian soldiers sit under an awning beside the church smoking a water pipe and ignoring a long burst of gunfire. Photograph: Michael Jansen
Maaloula is wreathed in acrid white smoke. At its upper entrance a burnt-out car and pick-up have been pushed to the side of the road.
We swing into the parking lot of the blasted and looted Safir Hotel, climb crumbled steps, and crunch across broken glass, picking our way around door frames and other rubble on the lobby floor until we reach the terrace. The heavy thud of explosions and rattle of machine gun fire reverberate between the walls of the valley.
Although Maaloula fell to the Syrian army on Monday, scruffy soldiers are still mopping up. Most insurgents have fled but suicide snipers lurk among the wounded homes in the deep cleavage of the mountains and up their rugged slopes, the mouths of caves black against the dark brown stone.
Maaloula was one of the world’s few cities where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, was not only still spoken but taught to children, cultivated, cherished. Maaloula’s citizens, Christians and Muslims alike, fled in December last year when al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies seized control and kidnapped a dozen nuns from the convent of St Takla, its red roof below us down in the valley.
Poised to fire
Syrian soldiers and Hizbullah fighters stand at the rail, peering into the smoke to try to locate sniper fire. A soldier on an outcrop near the fifth-century convent of Saints Sergius and Bacchus next door is poised to fire. Explosions and heavy machine-gun fire come in waves, washing over us; the crackle of light weapons startles. Arabic accents of Lebanon mingle with those of Syria, Aramaic is no longer the lingua franca. A large black, white and red Syrian flag balloons in the wind. Two soldiers sit under an awning smoking a water pipe with a bright yellow mouthpiece, chatting, ignoring a long burst of gunfire.
Ahmad is a painfully thin soldier from Aleppo, a hospital theatre nurse specialising in anaesthesia. He believes the fighting could go on for another year but the government will win. “We have no choice. We cannot live under those takfiris.”
Two pink-cheeked lads wear headbands proclaiming “Martyrs of Hussein”, identifying them as Shias. Other soldiers wear no sectarian identification.
Dating from the fourth- to the sixth-century Byzantine period, the convent of Saints Sergius and Bacchus has been gutted, looted and brutalised. Paper icons, books, glass and plastic litter the floor in the main hall, rubble from collapsed stone walls covers the floor of the church. Once, the convent possessed two of the most ancient icons in the world, one of the Last Supper. Long gone.
A young Syrian solider who introduces himself as Pierre, from a village near Latakia, hands me a silver ring taken from the trashed gift shop. His eyes are brimming with tears. “Why, why did they do this?”
One soldier insists on offering me a plastic bracelet with tiny oval portraits of saints. Jars of preserved quince nest in a box, untouched, among the litter. The convent sold the produce from the rich green valley: grapes, wine, dried figs, jams and preserves.
As the explosions become less frequent and the roll of machine gunfire dies down, soldiers gather behind the convent and begin the walk into the valley, kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. Pierre pauses to say goodbye. The pointless battle for Maaloula is over.
On Monday, Syrian television broadcasts images of exiles from Maaloula cheering when the village fell. Today no one here is cheering. This will not be a joyous Easter for the people of Maaloula. Their city, assaulted and looted over the centuries, will not rise again for a long time.
My driver, Joseph, says, “Maaloula is not a strategic site – it is off the main road between two mountains. They [the jihadis] attacked it just to insult the Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox.”
As he was taking his daughter to school near his home at St Thomas’s Gate, in the Old City of Damascus, mortars struck the Armenian school killing two children and wounding 36. Nevertheless, he came on this heartbreaking journey. Death is constantly at one’s elbow in Syria.
We speed away in convoy: a couple of dozen journalists, translators and drivers following an army car into the Damascus countryside towards the industrial city of Yabroud, which fell a month ago to government forces. Yabroud, which had been under insurgent control for more than two years, unlike Maaloula, is strategic.
Mansions built along the road display its former wealth. A few people remain. There has been little arson. The battle for this area, known as Qalamoun, is also coming to a close, leaving the Syrian army in control of towns, villages and countryside.