x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

In the town of Ma'loula, a belief in the divine spans faiths

The Syrian town of Ma'loula has cultivated a curious mix of traditions over the centuries and shows how respect for different faiths can abide in the region

It was a tree - thin, gnarled, weighed down by having witnessed decades of pilgrimmage - that first caught my eye. Delicate in its contortion, its branches stretched protectively in front of an altar to the patron saint of the Syrian monastery I had come to visit on a cold Saturday night.

Behind it, a statue of St Thecla - the saint said to have lived in the church-cave as a Christian exile - gazed down at us. Around her, against a backdrop of pocketed limestone rock, prayers were scrawled in ancient Greek, Arabic and Aramaic.

The three languages embody the curious religious mix that the Syrian town of Ma'loula has cultivated for itself over centuries. As an early centre of Christianity that traces its roots back to the church of Antioch, Ma'loula is a mix of Catholic catechism, Greek orthodoxy and Islamic interpolation. Like the layers of the town, different beliefs and sacred spaces have stacked themselves upon each other century after century. One lone mosque squats at the base of the crowded town, its sombre azan a counterpoint to the hymns that spring from the churches above.

More arresting than the town's history or its landscape, however, were the pilgrims who had come to visit that night. Iranians - women clad in black chadoor and men in burly overcoats - crowded the church's small square as they listened to the tale of a Roman girl fleeing persecution and the water that kept her alive for decades after.

Their visit was part of a tour package organised for the Nowruz holiday - the Iranian new year celebration whose roots are Zoroastrian. "It's cheap, and there's no visa required," a Syrian shopowner at the bottom of the church told me between puffs of cigarette smoke. "So they come and tour all the sites." In his shop, statues of saints mixed with keychains of Islamic verses.

In the church, few pilgrims seemed as interested in the story of the saint than they were the water that springs from a crevice of the cave, whose salubrious quality is said to have extended the years of Thecla's life. As I looked on at the crowd jostling each other at the base of the spring, eager to sample water blessed by the monastery's nuns, I felt a tug on my sleeve. A woman, her flushed cheeks bright against her black hijab, gestured to the tree. Was this where the water was? I looked down at her daughter, a thin, translucent stream of mucus running down her red nose, eyes gazing up curiously. No, I said with a shake of my head - it's over there.

Eagerly, she rushed forward and hoisted her daughter up to the water. Was there a sickness that compelled her, I wondered. Or was it simply the same desire that drives many seekers to these sites - the desire to be acknowledged by something bigger than themselves, to receive comfort and solace from that which carries the mark of the divine?

The site reminded me of a similar place in Istanbul on the island of Buyuk Ada, where an old Greek orthodox church draws thousands each year in a centuries-old tradition of wishmaking. In April, pilgrims - mostly Turks, by the monks' accounts - can be seen climbing the steep cobblestone path as they bring prayers and supplications to Saint George.

Many burn candles, walk the path with bare feet, or tie wool balls along the steep hill, hoping to be healed of ailments like infertility, chronic diseases, or simple aches and pains. I remember a stooped, Turkish grandmother, swathed in black, wiping the silver icons as she mumbled prayers, moving methodically around the small chapel in clock-work reverence.

And it was this that struck me most at the spring of St Thecla. Despite differing religious beliefs or backgrounds, the basic human desire to be healed, to be comforted, and to find hope, knows no prejudice. For many, sacred space is simply this: a holy ground where miracles can happen, where the divine can intercede, and where it doesn't really matter how a miracle is invoked, as long as it happens.

"We believe in many of the same saints, you know," an Iranian friend pointed out to me as we watched the tour group file out. I know we do, I answered - but the buzz words we've come to associate with religion - "sect", "branch", "church", "mosque", - make me often forget that the commonalities are far greater than the differences.