Wadi al-Nasara enfolds travellers entering from the dusty yellow plain in a blanket of green and silver – the green of well-watered fields and the silver of the leaves of olive and eucalyptus trees.
The transition from desert to townland is abrupt, stunning. Wadi al-Nasara, the Christian Valley, is as rich in produce as in history, religion and culture. At the bottom of the valley, a Christian centre since the 6th century, my colleague and I see little evidence of the war that has ravaged Syria since 2011.
We pause at the village of Mishtaya at the Greek Orthodox monastery of St George where we visit the imposing modern church, built in 1857 above the 13th century chapel and the original 6th century monastery.
In a storeroom near the front gate we find a framed manuscript, a treaty detailing relations between Muslims and Christians. The pact dates to 637 when the caliph Omar marched his army into Syria and Palestine. The lengthy document pledges protection and freedom of religion for Christians and defines their status in the Muslim empire. It became a precedent in Islamic jurisprudence.
Krac des Chavaliers
We wend our way through hill villages equipped with hotels, restaurants and shops catering to foreign tourists and summering Syrians who come to the valley to escape the heat of the cities. The 900-year old Crusader castle of Krac des Chavaliers looms massively, standing sentinel above the peaceful villages. The site was first occupied by Kurdish warriors before relays of Christian Crusaders built multiple fortifications on the site.
Poised to defend the route to Jerusalem, the Krac, one of the world's largest and best preserved castles, betrayed Wadi al-Nasara when it was seized in 2012 by radical fundamentalist fighters who terrorised villagers before the Syrian army routed the jihadis.
The Christian villages appear untouched by the conflict but a Muslim village, al-Hosn, below the castle is devastated. The 2014 battle for possession of Krac des Chevaliers was crucial as the engagement ended infiltration of jihadis from Lebanon. The Krac's thick stone walls withstood artillery fire and aerial bombardment.
The caretaker, who had been imprisoned and beaten by the jihadis, guides us to the top where we admire the fantastic views and examine both war damage and repairs.
Survey of damage
Following a fortunate meeting, archaeologist Zsofia Csoka takes us to Zsolt Vagner, head of the Hungarian team from Pazmany Peter Catholic University, which is conducting a detailed survey of damage before restoration work can be done here and at Margat castle near the coast. He estimates the cost at €1 million.
“We received money for documentation but not restoration,” he says, “even though this is the fourth year after its liberation.” The Hungarian team is the only foreign mission working in Syria these days.
A French survey group came under Unesco’s auspices but stayed only a few days. “Zsofia is documenting the water management system,” he says. Hungarian experts come and go, giving their time for little pay. “We are not [archaeological] colonisers.”
Zsofia points out that the Hungarian connection to these castles dates to the Fifth Crusade, 1217-1221, led by Hungary’s King Andrew II, who failed to wrest the holy land from the Muslims. The Hungarian monarch visited the Krac and Margat in 1218 and donated 20kg of gold to maintain the fortresses. The team are following his example.
On our way out of Wadi al-Nasara, we stop to view the memorial to Christian soldiers and civilian martyrs of this war. The next morning we visit Maaloula, the ancient Christian village savaged and emptied by al-Qaeda's Jabhat al-Nusra (now Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham).
Seized by the jihadis in late 2013, the town, built into the rugged rockface of the hills, was freed by Syrian troops in April 2014 in an operation I witnessed. Since then the 5th century Greek Catholic convent of St Sergius and Bacchus and the 18th century Greek Orthodox convent of St Takla have been largely restored and the UN Development Programme has rebuilt the underground water, sewage and electricity networks in the old village.
The French institute, which fostered the preservation of Aramaic, the language of Jesus still spoken here, is being reconstructed and villagers are gradually mending their homes with financial aid from the government.
Former director of antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim says that since the Syrian government remains shunned by the international community, foreign archaeologists who used to work in the country no longer come and there are no international funds for reconstruction.
“Once the country is stable and peaceful, it could take 10-15 years for foreign missions to return,” he says. By then, the current generation of veterans who previously worked here will have retired and a “new generation with new ideas and new methods” of tackling research and reconstruction will take over.
“Before the crisis there were 140 missions, national and foreign; now there are five, four national and one foreign – the Hungarians,” says Abdulkarim. “It is impossible for [foreigners] to come back. Before the crisis Syria was one of the safest places in the world; now it is one of the most dangerous.” Not just because of war, but because of criminals who flourish thanks to the breakdown of law and order.
There is no restoration in medieval Aleppo or 2nd century Palmyra because there is no money. "We prepare studies so that when peace comes, we can reconstruct slowly and without mistakes."