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Thou hast revealed the earthly majesty of the dwelling place of the holy glory, O Lord, as the brilliance of the firmament on high. Make firm its foundation unto ages of ages, and receive our fervent supplications which are offered to thee, there in, through the intercessions of the Theotokos, O life and Resurrection of all.
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WE WERE HOME. Those words can best describe the entire trip for His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH, and his delegation of seventeen into the Middle East, where the Apostles walked and the Disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). It was home in many aspects: for Sayidna, the land of his birth; for some in the group, the land of their ancestors; but for everyone, the land of our Orthodox Christian spiritual heritage. It was and is Antioch, which breathes its own traditions into the Faith that our Lord Jesus Christ Himself established. Antioch has given us the Chief Apostles Peter and Paul, the great teachers Ignatius and John Chrysostom, the great hymnographers Romanos and John of Damascus, and thousands of witnesses and martyrs throughout the ages, canonized or not, who gave their very beings to establish, defend and keep the real Church alive and thriving in this part of the world. We were privileged to experience this for more than two weeks in November, as we journeyed from Los Angeles to Syria, Lebanon and southern Turkey to visit the apostolic city of Antioch. This page will give a just a small sample of what we saw and did.
Our 16-hour voyage left us somewhat weary when we landed, but we were quickly refreshed by the instant hospitality of the Damascus Airport and one very special man, Mr. Samer Laham, the Director of External Relations of the Greek Christian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East. As we waited and relaxed in the airports VIP room, Mr. Laham ensured that our bags were loaded onto the bus for us. We were then whisked away to St. Christophoros Monastery at Saydnaya to check into our hotel rooms and partake of the first of our many fantastic meals on the trip. (It is impossible to have a bad meal in the Middle East.) We not only gave thanks to God for our safe journey, but for our Bishop and delegation leader—it was Sayidna JOSEPH’s sixtieth birthday, and we surprised him with a birthday cake.
Our first of extremely full days began in Damascus, which is Sayidna’s hometown and where he spent years of ministry as a deacon, priest and bishop. The first stop was to Judas House where, according to the Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Ananias healed St. Paul from his blindness. We also visited Ananias House, which is now maintained by Franciscan monks as a shrine. Forty icons depict major events in St. Paul’s life, through his persecution of Christians, his conversion and eventual martyrdom. We continued our way along the Street Called Straight, which is 1400 meters long, with a column every three meters because it was built for chariots. In ancient times, Christians lived on the north side of the street and Jews on the south.
Midway through the day, the group joined Their Graces, Bishop LOUKA (Khoury) and Bishop MOUSSA (Khoury) at the Patriarchal Complex. Sayidna LOUKA explained that the Cathedral (Al-Mariamiyeh) was a gift to the Christians from the Omayyad Muslim leader in the eight century, when he took St. John the Baptist Cathedral to himself and made it a mosque. The current cathedral has three altars: the center in honor of the Dormition of the Theotokos, the right in honor of St. Nicholas, and the left in honor of St. Demetrios. The cathedral was burned and pillaged many times over the centuries, especially in 1860, when Islamic radicals rounded up some 9000 local Christians, locked them inside and burned it to the ground. The most famous martyr was St. Joseph of Damascus (July 10), who jumped from rooftop to rooftop to commune and anoint his spiritual children before their impending deaths.
Just as St. Ananias protected St. Paul, Sayidna MOUSSA told the delegates that they are protected to continue their work in this part of the world. He said that if people are connected to the Church others will be, especially the children who will realize that it’s their home. Sayidna again stressed that Christians are very well treated in Syria, and even Muslims visit their monasteries. Because Friday is the holy day of the Muslim week, Friday and Saturday make up the weekend in Syria. More Christians go to church on Friday, but the government allows two hours on Sundays for believers so they can miss their jobs without penalty.
Our last stop of the day brought the delegation to Holy Cross Church for Divine Liturgy. Many people, including his family, filled the church with great joy to welcome home their native son, who was instrumental in building the parish and Holy Cross Halls before he left for America. Following the beautiful service, Sayidna JOSEPH addressed the congregation and talked specifically about his delegation’s mission to see the Middle East’s holy sites and get a first-hand understand of cultural and social conditions. He also stressed that there is no difference between us and them. We moved to the Halls for dinner, joined by many dignitaries from the area, including leaders of ladies societies, teachers, principals, orphanage directors and city officials who were all connected to the church. Sayidna asked his priests and two lay delegates to speak on our behalf to introduce us, our lives and ministries in America so that we can find our similarities and bridge any gaps.
Damascus, Saydnaya, and Malloula, Syria
The first visit on the second full day was paid to Mr. Joseph Sweid, a Christian who is Syria’s Minister of Expatriates. He warmly welcomed Sayidna and the delegation to the office and to the country. “I pray the visit is not just a tour, but you get a good picture of what we are doing in Syria,” he said. “You’ll learn that life is different here than what you’ve heard until now.” He encouraged us to discover Syrian society and how it deals with problems and that its government makes no differences between Christians and Muslims who live harmoniously. Mr. Sweid called Syria the cradle of all religions, especially Christianity because the conversion of St. Paul happened here. He added that our visit is extremely important so that we can see Syria for ourselves, to make us “ambassadors” to help others see its real side. He reports 17 million Syrian immigrants throughout the world, so it is important for them to maintain their connections with their homeland. He also shared with us some little-known facts about Syria often missed by the west: forty percent of members of parliament are women, as are the ministers of trade, environment and industry.
We returned to Saydnaya, which means “the place of hunting”, to begin our highly-anticipated tours of the monastic communities, leading off with Holy Virgin Mary Monastery. This grand spiritual oasis was built by Emperor Justinian the Great in the fifth century. Abbess Christina welcomed us in the church, thanked Sayidna JOSEPH and us for coming, and expressed her feeling of privilege to be living there. She reminded us that we were not there to visit her, but the Mother of God. “We thank God for your safety, and for every effort you are making to come,” she said. “From east and west, kings and presidents have come to venerate icons in this monastery. You, however, are far more important than they because you are believers and you know where have come.”This monastery never sleeps, serving everyone who knocks on their door morning, afternoon and night.
We made our way into the shrine is called “Ashagoura” which means “the true message.” The miraculous icon of the Virgin Mary, one of four written by the Apostle Luke in the first century, is kept here and continuously weeps oil. It came to Saydnaya from Jerusalem in 547. Flowing with the oil are many miracles and healings over the years, including recent cancers. Even Muslims come to be anointed for healing, but this practice is kept quiet for their own safety.
Our last stop on this moving day was at Maaloula and St. Thekla Monastery, the oldest in the world. Abbess Pelagia greeted us and taught us about St. Thekla, who came to Maaloula in 55 A.D. She is considered as “equal to the apostles” because she was a student of St. Paul and baptized by him. She came to this mountain which had enclosed the kingdom of Selevkia. The mountain had no water, so she prayed to God for relief and it split for her, producing a spring that she used for drinking and baptizing new Christians. The spring still drips from the rock unexpectedly and miraculously, and two of our pilgrims cupped their hands and received the water. They described it as a refreshing mist that helped them feel St. Thekla’s presence.
The monastery has 15 nuns who care for 27 orphaned girls. Fr. John Ferzili, a graduate of the Balamand Seminary and a dentist, also assists them. We then climbed the steps to an 800 year old apricot tree that covered the entire patio. We venerated St. Thekla’s icon in the cave and heard many stories of healings that took place there, and saw even more gifts these grateful people left behind in thanksgiving. We listened to ten of the girls recite the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, the language of Christ that is still spoken at this monastery. The pilgrims felt a lot of holiness and comfort and it was hard for them to leave.
The pilgrims boarded the bus and drove 90 minutes north to the city of Homs, where we were warmly greeted by the first of Sayidna’s friends from his childhood at the Balamand Seminary. His Eminence, Metropolitan GEORGE (Abu-Zahkem), immediately took us to venerate and pray before the tomb of the protector of Homs, St. Ilyan (Julian) the Martyr and Unmercenary Healer. He was a skilled physician, healing illnesses not only of the body but also of the soul. St. Ilyan never charged for his services and he converted many people to faith in Christ the Savior. He also encouraged them to give up their lives for Jesus Christ, which he himself did in 312 A.D.
We next visited Holy Forty Martyrs of Sebastia Cathedral, the official see of His Eminence. We stood in awe of the iconography of this parish that was written throughout the centuries. Sayidna GEORGE then took us into his chancery, where he discussed life in Homs and Syria in general and recalled the childhood memories that he shares with Sayidna JOSEPH. The entire delegation felt the brotherly love between these two men who grew up to become leaders of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. His Eminence then hosted us at a nearby restaurant to a lunch that was so sumptuous that it did not even feel like it was Lenten for a Friday. Sayidna GEORGE then presented us with a small gift to remember Homs: icons of the Holy Forty Martyrs.
We bid a temporary adieu to Sayidna GEORGE, once he informed us that he would be celebrating the Divine Liturgy with us at the Balamand Seminary. Our next stop was the Krak des Chevaliers, a World Heritage Site and one of the most important medieval crusader castles. The limestone castle was originally built in the eleventh century, with major additions in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The hallways were built wide and tall enough for soldiers to ride through on their horses. The steep floors were made of cobblestones so hard and smoothened to walk on that we wished we had horses! At 650 meters up, Krak des Chevaliers sat along the only route from Antioch to Beirut and the Mediterranean Sea. The castle had all sorts of rooms and living quarters, but also a walk-in baking oven and a chapel complete with altar and bishop’s throne. With the thick limestone walls, even the chanters’ whispers must have bounced throughout the chapel; their singing voices must have been that much more powerful.
Akkar and Tripoli, Lebanon
The delegation said goodbye to Syria and crossed the border into Lebanon, where a full day awaited us. Our driver, Samir, zipped us through the streets of Akkar in the north to our first official stop at the Archdiocesan headquarters of His Eminence, Metropolitan BASILIOS (Nassour). He was a former student of His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH and, although the original schedule did not include a stop at the archdiocese, Sayidna BASILIOS insisted we visit him. The group was not disappointed, as he welcomed us warmly.
Metropolitan BASILIOS has the third-largest archdiocese in the Middle East, which is the only one to stretch across Lebanon and Syria. Sayidna explained that he splits his week between both sides to minister to his clergy and laity. He inherited one of the poorest archdioceses, but said that he is working to build it back up, establishing schools, departments and other ministries. Sayidna BASILIOS added that the schools are open to Christians and Muslims alike, providing education for both groups to foster understanding between one another, and that Christians do not continue to flee the Middle East due to lack of economic opportunity. He also said that Syria fears a Christian mass-exodus will lead to the collapse of its society.
After Sayidna BASILIOS treated us to a large, festive lunch at a hilltop restaurant owned by one of his parishioners, the group made its way south along the coast to Tripoli, Lebanon’s second city and northern capitol. Here, we were welcomed by His Eminence, Metropolitan EPHREM (Kyriakos) at his archdiocesan headquarters, a five-story building that includes a chapel, meeting rooms, offices and his personal residence. Sayidna is the newest Metropolitan on the Holy Synod of Antioch, but his experience as a humble abbot and spiritual father spans decades. He took over for the legendary Metropolitan ELIAS (Kurban) of blessed memory, who shepherded the archdiocese for 47 years. Sayidna EPHREM speaks softly, but his message knocks down walls. He taught us that Christians must live in two ways, according to the Bible (in particular St. Paul) and to the Church Fathers: as members of the body of Christ, freely contributing our special gifts to the whole body; yet constantly perfecting ourselves to maintain Christ’s image within us. He called them both sides of the same coin.
Sayidna EPHREM then joined us at St. George Church in nearby Kfaraka, where he presided over Great Vespers. He and Sayidna JOSEPH graciously allowed two of our delegates the honor of chanting the service with the parish choir. They were small in number that night, but their voices, which can be described as “not of this world”, could have filled ten churches. Sayidna JOSEPH then introduced his delegation, some of whom had the unexpected fortune of meeting people from their ancestral villages at a reception next door. The delegation finished the day with another sumptuous meal, then turned in for the night in preparation for a jam-packed Sunday at Balamand.
The delegation awoke especially early to attend Sunday Orthros and the Hierarchical Divine Liturgy at the Balamand’s Church of the Dormition of the Theotokos. We were greeted by His Eminence, Metropolitan GEORGE (Abu-Zahkem) of Homs, Syria and His Grace, Bishop GHATTAS (Hazim), the new president of the seminary and abbot of the monastery. Sayidna JOSEPH had the honor of presiding over Orthros at his home of many years, where he studied at the feet of some of the greatest church leaders and professors of theology, including his spiritual father, Patriarch IGNATIUS IV. Sayidna had two of his delegates chant in English with him for the benefit of the rest of the group, and they were complemented by the awesome voices of the seminarians. Our priests helped serve Orthros, and they both remarked that they just wanted to stand there and listen to be seemingly carried into Heaven like the rest of us. Fortunately, we recorded the choir’s majestic voices and will post the tracks on this website for everyone to hear.
The three hierarchs concelebrated the Divine Liturgy that no one wanted to hear come to an end. Sayidna JOSEPH preached the homily in which he discussed the day’s Gospel lection, and also addressed the delegation’s purpose to Balamand students and parishioners. He said that we are in the Middle East to reconnect with our roots in this holy land, both spiritually and with our families. Sayidna JOSEPH stressed that both sides have much to offer to each other and we must take advantage of our time together to share our talents.
The group had lunch with the seminarians and then met with Sayidna GEORGE and Sayidna GHATTAS to discuss the seminary and the Church at-large in the Middle East. On the latter subject, Sayidna GEORGE said the Church continues to be a beacon of hope and social change in the Middle East and hopes to eradicate any misperceptions in the eyes of the world. He reminded the group to constantly check with several sources, especially in the newsmedia, to get the right story so that they do not think of a region simply ripped apart by a constant state of warfare. Sayidna GHATTAS, who took on his new roles only within the last month, then discussed Balamand’s role in training future clergy and monastics that can minister in the twenty-first century. Many parishes must share their clergy, so Sayidna GHATTAS hopes more graduates can fill the leadership voids and keep people connected with Christ and His Church.
We then toured the monastery and seminary grounds, which offer simple accommodations that are still sufficient for those who live there. (The doors to the cells are no more than four feet tall.) Next, the delegation rode around the rest of the campus, which stretches beyond both historic institutions and includes the full-fledged University of Balamand. It features several schools of various academic disciplines that also welcome Christians and Muslims alike.
A full day at Balamand was not the end of the group’s activities. We continued in the area to two historic monasteries: Deir El Natour and Deir El Nourieh Monasteries. The first means “the protection” and is named in honor of the Virgin Mary, in particular for the feast of her Entrance into the Temple in Jerusalem at age three (November 21). Deir El Natour has only one resident: the abbess, Mother Katerina, who with God’s help has protected this monastery and the surrounding area for more than forty years. She used to house a school for mentally-challenged children and never stopped serving the surrounding area, which came under attack several times during the Lebanese Civil War. Mother Katerina herself was attacked by thugs, hit in the head with blunt objects that left her with a neurological ailment that does not allow her to stop shaking. Nevertheless, she has been undaunted in her ministry, telling her visitors that constant hope and persistence in our work and daily lives—without complaint—will reap greater rewards.
Our trip to Deir El Nourieh was a quick one, but this monastery is not without significance. It means “the light” in honor of the time when a sailor was stuck on the nearby Mediterranean Sea on a sinking ship. He could not find the shore in the middle of the dark night, so he prayed to the Virgin Mary for help. She revealed herself in a bright image (like a lighthouse) and directed the sailor to safety. After this, the light ran out on our day, so we concluded with a group meal and went to rest for the next day.
The delegation ascended through the mountains of Lebanon to the country’s most prized natural treasure: the Cedars of Lebanon. The forest’s elevation is well over a mile above sea level (which provides the crispest air in the entire region) and its trees can grow 130 feet above that. Trunk diameters span more than eight feet and roots reach 330 feet. The Cedars of Lebanon are more than 3000 years old and are a source of Biblical and national pride, as writers and artists throughout the ages have been awestruck and inspired by their beauty. The Prophet David said they were planted by God Himself (Psalm 103) and the Hebrew prophet Isaiah used the Lebanon Cedar as a metaphor for the pride of the world (Isaiah 2:13). The Cedars have been subject to deforestation and disease over the past century, but the government and the people lead constant efforts to save the rest.
The next stop was to the final resting place of a national treasure, the famed artist, poet and writer Gibran Khalil Gibran. He wrote the famous work “The Prophet” and is the third best-selling poet of all time behind William Shakespeare and Lao-Tzu. Gibran led a complicated life, constantly suffering by the untimely deaths of his mother and sisters, and disappointed in one romance after another. Through all of this, he never gave up on humanity and the inner good it possessed, and this is reflected in all his works. The museum constructed in Gibran’s honor is built around his grave, which includes the furniture of the two rooms in his family’s nineteenth century home. Next to his casket, the inscription reads, “A word I want to see written on my grave: I am alive like you, and I am standing beside you. Close your eyes and look around, you will see me in front of you.”
The group then trekked into Beirut, Lebanon’s cosmopolitan capitol. We were greeted by the standard rush-hour traffic that swarmed the city. Like the rest of Lebanon, Beirut is in a state of constant renovation and rebuilding after fifteen years of civil war and periodic attacks by Israel. Brand new buildings have gone up right next to their shelled neighbors along the coast. We quickly checked into our latest hotel before making our last stop of the day at the Archdiocese of Mount Lebanon in Broumana. Welcoming us was the famed and beloved Orthodox Christian scholar and teacher, His Eminence, Metropolitan GEORGE (Khodor), who addressed us on a wide range of topics and answered our questions in Arabic, English and French. Before our meeting, Sayidna JOSEPH confessed to the group that he hoped he did not have to translate for his one-time teacher because his train of thought is so deep that the challenge could make his head spin. Sayidna GEORGE is considered the Patriarchate’s foremost theologian and canon scholar, yet in his humility takes a page from the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates: “All I know is that I know nothing.” His Eminence pulled no punches in defending Orthodox Christian teaching, yet did so in a loving manner free of all arrogance.
Baalbeck & Zahle, Lebanon
The biggest and best preserved Roman ruins are not in Italy, but at Baalbeck, Lebanon. It is considered the largest and most noble pagan temple ever built and one of the wonders of the ancient world. Baalbeck’s original name, as designated by Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C., was “Heliopolis” and it certainly was the “city of the sun”, as we experienced one of the warmest days of our trip. Many of the columns and intricate carvings that adorn the temples still exist in near-perfect form today, and archaeologists are still uncovering treasures thought to be lost forever. The heavy stone structures that hovered over us stood up for the first time in the first century B.C., and we can only marvel at the workers and slaves who lifted them with no modern machinery.
Next was a visit to another of Sayidna JOSEPH’s boyhood mentors, His Eminence, Metropolitan SPIRIDON (Khoury) of Zahle. He visited the United States in 2003, which included a celebration of the Divine Liturgy with Sayidna JOSEPH at St. Nicholas Cathedral in Los Angeles. His Eminence had enlisted the help of many of the faithful, some of whom were in our delegation, in remodeling his chancery and cathedral, which is also named for St. Nicholas. The group got to see the result of this assistance: a beautiful facility, complete with fully furnished offices, an outdoor corridor and, of course, new icons inside the cathedral. Interestingly, Sayidna SPIRIDON’s throne sits up against the icon of St. John the Baptist on the iconostasis because there was no other place for him to sit; every last inch of the nave is saved for the faithful. His Eminence then thanked the Church in America for its generosity and, in return, he gave each of us brand new copies of his biography, filled with pictures of his ministry before and during his 45 years as Metropolitan of Zahle. He then hosted us for yet another wonderful lunch.
The delegation visited several area parishes, but the one that stood out the most was named in honor of the Virgin Theotokos in the neighborhood of Zalzale. This little parish is indeed miraculous. Zahle once suffered a major earthquake that left the city in ruins, but not “Our Lady” because the falling mountain stopped right at the edge of the church, thus providing shelter and sanctuary for the destitute people. Another time, Muslim extremists sought to destroy the parish, but our Mother Mary caused a dust storm that blinded the invaders and forced them into retreat. We received holy oil from this parish and, as we turned to leave, we noticed two large icons that each covered a wall. On one side, we saw the helpful person who lived in poverty, yet would be carried into Heaven by an angel; on the other side, we saw the wicked person who lived in wealth and would be ignored by the angel. The icons are next to the main doors so that the believer can ask himself: which one am I?
Beirut, Byblos and Dhour Shweir, Lebanon
Beirut is a bustling, cosmopolitan and modern city, but it is an apostolic see: the Church was established here in the first century A.D. by the Apostle Quartos (Kodratos). Fittingly, he the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Beirut, and we were in his city for his feast day. We visited St. George Cathedral in downtown’s Martyrs Square, and both have been totally rebuilt following the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). The cathedral is gorgeous, but it had not been in recent years. During the war, soldiers from all sorts of factions literally fought and opened gunfire inside the temple, leaving “bullet wounds” in the halo of Jesus Christ in an icon on one of the walls. Other frescos suffered such wounding. The clergy tried their very best to remove every holy item—especially a miraculous icon of the Theotokos—that they could so it would not be lost as “spoils of war.” Thank God, the cathedral has returned to its former splendor, as new icons and frescos have adorned practically every inch in the past six years.
Our bus wound its way through Beirut’s cramped, traffic-infested streets to the chancery of His Eminence, Metropolitan ELIAS (Audi), who had just celebrated 30 years as archpastor of the city. His fame spans the entire Middle East, especially Lebanon, for his bold sermons calling for peace and unity in a region where these can be foreign ideas. Sayidna ELIAS took no credit for his words, saying that they spread only because network television wants to broadcast his words live every Sunday. We also walked through the chancery’s outdoor garden to the chapel, adorned with new iconography.
We next went to Byblos, the ancient Phoenician capitol that sits right on the Mediterranean Sea. It is the city that gave the world its first alphabet, the builders of Solomon’s temple (I Kings 5:32), the first paper for books (hence the world “Bible”) and is considered the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, dating to 5000 B.C. A multitude of tribes and nations conquered and inhabited Byblos, craving not just its strategic location for trade and shipping, but its picturesque blue waters, classical buildings and green mountains.
Also picturesque is the “summer residence” of the Patriarch of Antioch, St. Elias Monastery in Dhour Shouier. This slice of Heaven overlooks most of Byblos, Beirut and the Mediterranean beyond. On a clear day, one could see the nation-island of Cyprus. The tiny chapel named in honor of the Prophet Elias hosted history on August 14, 1966 when His Eminence, Metropolitan PHILIP (Saliba) was consecrated to the holy episcopacy. The chapel was bursting with people, the majority of whom had to stand outside and listen, hoping to record every second in their memories. Some in the group remarked that, when they saw pictures of Sayidna PHILIP’s consecration, the temple looked much bigger. The monks greeted all of us, including one who, like Mother Katerina in Deir El Natour near Tripoli, had been severely beaten by thugs during the civil war. This holy man welcomed us with open arms and would not let us leave until he climbed onto our bus to seek Sayidna’s blessing before we drove away.
We bid farewell to Lebanon and again said hello to Syria. This was perhaps our lightest day on the trip, as we visited some ruins and dined at a new coastal restaurant in Lattakia. We ate the Sea’s most famous fish, “Sultan Brahim”, and watched the sun set over the Mediterranean.
Most importantly on this day, we had the opportunity to meet with Sayidna JOSEPH’s father confessor when he was a boy, His Eminence, Metropolitan JOHN (Mansour). We visited him at his chancery, where he told us that Sayidna JOSEPH was a diligent student under his care at the Balamand. Sayidna JOHN also shared with us a little trivia: Lattakia is the “factory” for bishops. Five of the current members of the Holy Synod of Antioch, including His Beatitude, Patriarch IGNATIUS, had either served here as a bishop or grew up in this archdiocese.
Without question, the most important reason for this delegation’s historic trip was Antioch, where the disciples were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). We had seen the Antiochian Church in Lebanon and Syria and now we returned to its original root, planted by the Apostle Peter. As stated in the beginning of this article, Sayidna JOSEPH was born and raised in the Middle East and others have ancestry there, but no one, not even His Grace, had journeyed into Antioch, the “Great City of God” as styled in our Patriarch’s phimi (title). Now, this holy city, this birthplace of Christianity was no longer just some place situated in Holy Scripture, history books or our imaginations. Antioch is real, as evidenced by the holy sites and especially our brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ that have survived and persevered there throughout the millennia.
We were greeted immediately at the border as we crossed from Syria into southern Turkey by the parish priests of Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral in Antioch, Father Dimitri and Father Jan. They waited for us to clear the patrol so they could escort us into Antioch, also known as Antakya. The priests then helped us check into our hotel, and then guided us on what would be the most unique experience of the pilgrimage.
Orthodox Christians have always struggled for the truth, giving their lives for the sake of Christ our Savior and the Holy Gospel. Nowhere was this more evident than the St. Peter Grotto, one of the original gathering places of our first Christian ancestors. It is a primitive cave church cut into the mountain that is nothing more than doors, windows and an altar table in its physical elements. As we sang the apolytikion to Ss. Peter and Paul, we felt as if we were standing there next to them, just as they worshipped twenty centuries ago. The cave had two side rooms cut deeper into the rock, but one of them revealed the reality of the persecutions of Christians: a thin passageway that our early brothers and sisters would climb up and into so that they could escape the murderous, idolatrous hordes. There was hardly room to move, let alone breathe.
St. Peter Grotto is not just an historic Christian site, but also a national one. We met schoolchildren on a field trip who welcomed us to their country, offering us the few words of English that they knew. After lunch at a local restaurant owned by our fellow Orthodox Christians in Antioch, we had the chance to walk through the bustling city streets (Antakya has a population of 215,000) along the Orontes River that also runs into Syria and Lebanon. Shops and bazaars sat at every turn, and we learned that the city specializes in the Middle Eastern desert called “kenefeh” (sweet cheese with toasted shredded wheat, drizzled in syrup).
Mr. Samer Laham also gave the delegation a glimpse into the life of the Church in present day Antioch. It’s not an easy one: religious minorities are allowed freedom of worship, but they endure social harassment and, on occasion, governmental harassment. Church lands can be confiscated and are seldom returned, especially in Istanbul, home to Ecumenical Patriarchate. In the eyes of the government, the elected chairman of Antakya’s Orthodox Christian community (who happens to be the head chanter) is the leader of the parish, not the priest. Nevertheless, the Orthodox Christians in Antioch (mostly of Syrian descent or ties) worship at six area churches predominately in Arabic. However, with more of their children learning Turkish, the parishes are introducing Holy Scripture and catechism in the Turkish language so that the true faith is transmitted to the next generation who will keep the Church in Antioch alive.
After soaking in a little bit of Antakya’s modern culture, we then prepared for Great Vespers at the Cathedral. With heavy traffic on the city’s tiny streets, our host priests said it would be faster if we walked—so we did. Our first stop was the Cathedral’s community center, a stately six-story building that has dining halls, activity rooms and, most importantly, apartments for the parish’s elderly members. One of the residents was the Cathedral’s caretaker for more than forty years. Now close to 90 years old, this pious man sat up in his bed to greet Sayidna JOSEPH, who made a special trip to his apartment so they could spend a few quality moments together. His Grace then offered special prayers and blessings over him and presented him with holy oil.
The delegation continued its walk to Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral for Great Vespers with the Service of Litia and Artoklasia. Not only were we honoring the Church of Antioch’s patrons and protectors, we celebrated another “local son’s” feast day: St. John Chrysostom. He was born and raised in Antioch and served here as a priest before he was taken against his wishes to Constantinople, where he was made archbishop. The choirs chanted antiphonally in Arabic and English, providing enough hymnography for everyone to understand. All of the area clergy came to welcome His Grace and the delegation. Following the service, Fr. Dimitri provided Sayidna JOSEPH with a commemorative plate that bore an illustration of the Cathedral.
The historic mother parish was built in 1833, though its facilities are so immaculate that it appears to be just a few decades old. The temple is built with limestone and the large wooden doors at the front have carved icons of Ss. Peter and Paul. The icons throughout the Cathedral are of the Syrian, Byzantine and Russian styles. The antique baptismal font is also carved from limestone and the water—once it is blessed—drains into the parish cemetery. The current church bell was mounted in 1931 and renovated twice in 1986 and 2000. The sizeable property also includes two courtyards and a fellowship hall, all encircled by a wall that keeps the bustling city life from distracting the worshippers.
Ss. Peter and Paul Cathedral was originally the See of the Antiochian Patriarch, but since His Beatitude resides in Damascus (like his predecessors since 1342), its clergy and faithful still commemorate him by name in the divine services. However, Patriarch IGNATIUS has asked Metropolitan PAUL (Yazigi) of Aleppo, Syria to minister to the community’s needs. Sayidna PAUL visits every year at the end of June, when he celebrates Divine Liturgies at the Cathedral and St. Peter Grotto in honor of Ss. Peter and Paul’s combined feast on June 29.
In addition to the holiness filling this Cathedral, the delegation also felt the excitement of the parishioners who came to see their American brothers and sisters. Everyone struggled to communicate because of language barriers, but the smiles, warmth and Christian love was all the vocabulary that we needed. In his message to the congregation at the dinner next door, Sayidna JOSEPH assured them of the love and prayers of Antiochian Church—especially its Patriarch and hierarchs—around the world, which appreciates their struggles and dedication to keeping Orthodoxy alive in our spiritual homeland.
The delegation recrossed the border into Syria driving on a modern road, but it quickly pulled over to survey an ancient road that linked Antioch to Aleppo, built in 64 B.C. Made completely of stone, it rests slightly above its descendent.
Our first major stop of the day was the remains of St. Symeon the Stylite Cathedral just outside of Aleppo, a massive fifth-century edifice that rivaled Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople. The churches were about the same size, and even though St. Symeon Cathedral sat about 37 miles away from the nearest big city, it always teemed with people because of the monastic life that once thrived there. This cathedral is built around the very same 30-foot pillar on which St. Symeon the Stylite sat on top for more than 40 years, devoting his life to repentance, prayer and fasting. Symeon ascended this pillar simply to escape the throngs of people wishing to touch his garments or seek his counsel. He did so not out of arrogance, but out of his own sense of unworthiness and need to work out his own salvation. People from around the known world came to see Symeon’s ascetical feats with their own eyes, and the church historian Theodoret of Cyrrus called him “the great wonder of the world.” St. Symeon reposed in peace in 459 A.D.
The Cathedral was consecrated with an octagonal layout in 475, complete with four basilicas and altars, ossuaries cut into the rock, monastic cells and baptisteries surrounding St. Symeon’s pillar in the center. The most important altar is the eastern altar, at which the Metropolitan of Aleppo, his clergy and the faithful gather for a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy on September 1, the feast day of St. Symeon and the beginning of the Church New Year. Opposite the southern basilica is adult baptistery, where the mosaic tiles dating to the Cathedral’s opening still decorate the floor. On the day of their baptism, the adult catechumens would walk down the steps and into the pool of sanctified water to be baptized. They would walk up another set of steps in front of them, and the archway above was curved in a way so that the newly illumined would not bump their heads!
The delegation then drove into Aleppo, Syria’s second city and “northern capitol” to visit the archdiocesan Cathedral the Prophet Elias and chancery. By far, we agreed that this was the most state-of-the-art complex in all of our visits. Before His Eminence, Metropolitan PAUL (Yazigy) came to greet us, we toured the community center, complete with a computer lab for students, a 300-seat auditorium for various lectures and film presentations, and the cathedral grounds which host after-school programs for 300 students. During lunch, we sat in amazement and a degree of inadequacy as we watched a video of all the archdiocese’s various ministries and outreaches.
The five-story administrative and residential building is temporarily housing a small monastery for nuns who write icons and sew vestments. It also contains a small chapel with the following relics of these famous saints: Anastasia and Theodora of Thessaloniki, Barbara of Heliopolis in Syria, Pelagia of Antioch, Arsenios of Cappadocia, Nektarios of Aegina, Gregory Palamas and John the Merciful of Alexandria. They surround a piece of the original precious and life-giving Cross of Jesus Christ.
Then, we were in awe of the cathedral interior, which, like many Middle Eastern centers of worship, has three holy altar tables. The iconostasis was completed in the last ten years and boasts a number of saints, including our new favorite, St. Symeon. We could now understand why he was always depicted on top of a pillar, especially as we had just visited it.
Sayidna PAUL then joined us and immediately treated us to lunch. He assumed leadership of the archdiocese in 2000, after completing his theological doctorate at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki and serving the Patriarchate of Antioch as a hieromonk. Before all of that, he was an engineer by profession. Sayidna JOSEPH praised him as a holy man who had really grown his flock since it was first entrusted to him. He also could not believe that it had been ten years since he celebrated Sayidna PAUL’s consecration at the Patriarchal Cathedral in Damascus.
The delegates then went into the bookstore to purchase as many icons, books and recordings as possible, as they would keep us company on the four-hour bus ride back to St. Christophorus Monastery at Saydnaya.
Sayidna JOSEPH led the delegation in the celebration of the feast of the Holy Apostle Philip, which was recorded for posterity. Some of our delegates once again chanted Orthros, this time with the nuns who followed along the English-language Service Texts that we provided them. We had special visitors join us that day: V. Rev. Fr. Samer Youssef, the pastor of Church of the Redeemer in Los Altos Hills, Calif., as well as his father. In his sermon, Sayidna JOSEPH once again introduced his delegates and told the packed church that we simply wanted to know and love the Church and land of our ancestors.
The nuns offered their famous hospitality after the liturgy, but we had to take turns sitting with them for lack of space and the attention and counsel for which they are constantly sought. No problem—the other half of the group spent even more time and money purchasing icons and holy items to take home to our loved ones. Before we left, we made one more stop to the holy shrine that houses the precious icon of the Virgin Mary that was written by St. Luke the Apostle and Evangelist in the first century. We prayed to her and asked that she bless the remainder of our trip and that she guide us once we left this blessed land.
The rest of the day was also relaxing. We dined at a large outdoor restaurant with more food than we knew what to do with. This lunch was special for Sayidna JOSEPH because his large extended family came to visit their famous uncle and cousin, nephew and brother. The delegates left him so that he could spend some rare quality time with them, and we returned to Old Town Damascus to soak in the local culture.
The delegation had the awesome privilege of an audience with His Beatitude, the Most Blessed Patriarch IGNATIUS IV. Sayidna JOSEPH especially waited in great anticipation to greet him and when he did, it was like he flashed back to his childhood. Sayidna is a spiritual son of the Patriarch, who nurtured him as a young student at the Balamand Seminary and Monastery starting in the early 1960s. His Grace is usually accustomed to receiving help from his subdeacons, deacons and priests, but he became the servant again as he walked the grounds with his “father.” The delegates also greeted His Beatitude and received his blessing one-by-one in the very room in which the Holy Synod of Antioch meets. The walls are adorned not just with icons, but with large portraits of the holy men who once served Antioch as its Patriarch.
Sayidna JOSEPH told His Beatitude of the wonderful trip that this delegation has experienced, full of spiritual uplifting, amazement and even tears. He said it was always his dream to lead a voyage like this, and now it came true. His Grace then said the delegates now have a better understanding of the life and role of the Church in the Middle East, and even of the complicated political situations. Sayidna JOSEPH said that he was honored to be their bishop and thankful for the ministry he leads on the West Coast.
“Even though I am your last stop,” His Beatitude said to the group, “I am so happy to see you. I am also always happy to see one of ‘my boys’ come home.” The Patriarch then carefully explained his perspective on the role of the Patriarchate in the Middle East, which especially includes the University of Balamand in Lebanon. He says that it is open to educate students of all religious or ethnic backgrounds to foster understanding and peace among them. “What we are doing is by the grace of God,” he said. “We are not second-rate, nor infallible, but we are still working very seriously. We are servants—we are open to all people, especially those who want intellectual and spiritual quality in their lives.”
His Beatitude then moved to relations between the Churches in the Middle East and the Americas. “Society here recognizes us as the first church, which means so much. Yet, we do not hear Antioch’s voice in America. We offer intellectualism in Christ that Americans crave, and we are not second-rate morally.” The Patriarch stressed that he and the bishops throughout the worldwide Antiochian communion need each other and must communicate better so that they can properly lead their flocks. His Beatitude took time to answer our questions on a wide variety of topics, from improving our spiritual lives to explaining what life was like at the Balamand in the early 1960s. Sayidna JOSEPH chimed in for that one, saying the Patriarch lived poorly as the students did (even though His Beatitude was a bishop at the time), and that His Beatitude never took a salary, choosing instead to feed his students and build dormitories and classrooms.
His Beatitude then posed for a group picture at one of his favorite places: the steps leading up to Holy Dormition Cathedral (al-Mariamiyeh). He left us to continue our tour of the Patriarchal grounds, and Sayidna JOSEPH took us to the final resting place of the Antiochian Patriarchs. Since the turn of the twentieth century, they have been entombed underneath the Cathedral altar and behind marble walls, still sitting on their thrones. This reminds the Church that these holy men are still Patriarchs, though they now serve in the Eternal Kingdom.
Later that night, we visited the St. Gregory Orphanage and Nursing Home, where we were met by its directors and supervisors. The orphans range in age from early childhood to adolescence, and dormitories house the elderly. The facility, as one can see in the photos, comes complete with modern amenities, and sits just outside the Damascus Old City walls adjacent to Holy Cross Church. The Orphanage is always looking for volunteers, especially from America, to give basic care and interaction, as well as helping to build their English skills.
Our last full day in the Middle East was spent visiting some sites that we had missed, even though they were within the grounds of Saydnaya’s monastery complex. We toured the school associated with the Holy Theotokos Monastery, complete with brand-new amenities for the hundreds of students it serves. The delegation also revisited Cherubim Monastery so we could see it better in the daytime. It overlooks the vast Syrian Desert and the nearby towns. Though they look dry and desolate, we could not help but feel a sense of inner peace and a union with God, just as the Desert Fathers and Mothers themselves had experienced throughout the centuries. Now we know why they retreated from the world. Several in the group remarked that Cherubim Monastery was where they felt the calmest during the entire trip.
That night, we had our farewell dinner at St. Christophorus with Samer Laham and our tour guide in Syria, Abdullah Hadjar. Both were extremely knowledgeable and, without them, this pilgrimage would not have happened. The delegation reflected on it experiences over the past two weeks with gratitude and astonishment for all that we had seen and done. These men, including our guides in Lebanon, filled our brains with so much information that it was difficult for us to remember it all; hence, the reason for these articles, which recorded just a glimpse of what they shared. No amount of money would be enough to make up for what they gave us. The one thing we will not forget about them is their overflowing of love; they took us to the holy places in our spiritual and ancestral homeland not only so we can reconnect with the holy men and women—not to mention our Savior—who had once lived and walked there, but because they loved us as their own brothers and sisters. On our last night, we presented Samer and Abdullah with small tokens of our appreciation for all that they had done for us. Even then, their hospitality continued, as they gave us gifts to take home on top of all that they had shared with us (in addition to all the souvenirs we had packed).
Los Angeles, California
Our flight to Los Angeles departed Damascus at 7:00 a.m. on November 17. We were all tired but had plenty of time to sleep on the way home. Through the grace and great mercy of God, His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH and the delegation of the Diocese of Los Angeles and the West safely returned to the United States. The group returned home after a most successful visit to many churches, monasteries and historic sites in Syria, Lebanon and most especially Antioch in Turkey, filled with spiritual refreshment and vigor after witnessing the beautiful life of the Church of Antioch. We drove an estimated 1,800 miles on the bus in these three countries, and the Diocesan website recorded more than 5,100 hits on the pilgrimage webpage. The delegation consisted of:
On March 3, the delegation reunited at the home of James and Jasminka Gabrie, where some of us had the opportunity to see each other for the time since the historic pilgrimage. Sayidna JOSEPH went around the dinner table to have each person share and recall their experiences so that they stay fresh in our minds. We all remember certain aspects to form one complete picture, but no one forgot the one man who had dreamed of this voyage and made it our reality: His Grace, Bishop JOSEPH. He never mentions his connections in the Middle East, and he did not have to do that because we saw it for ourselves. We also saw the absolute love, respect and admiration the people have for Sayidna, which carried over to us as members of his flock. We thank His Grace for all that he does for us in the Name of our Savior, Jesus Christ, and we thank all those who cared for us during these blessed two weeks in November of 2010.