Dear Mar MusaPosted: July 9, 2012
An hour’s drive from Damascus, perched on a rocky hillside in the desert, Mar Mousa is thought to be nearly a thousand years old. However when father Dall’Oglio arrived in the 1980s the monastery was abandoned and in disrepair. He set about restoring it with a small group of nuns, monks and volunteers. In the process, the monastery became a retreat and sort of pilgrimage site for the faithful of various faiths, and, since its inclusion in guide books like Lonely Planet, backpackers like myself.
Father Dall’Oglio welcomed visitors of all faith, and those with none at all. A friend and I arrived one afternoon in autumn 2009 on a minibus from Malula. We were dropped at the bottom of a hillside, with a long and winding walk up a series of steps leading to the monastery. The buildings themselves blended into the hillside, the walls being built from local stone. A pervasive silence overwhelmed the place.
In the evening we sat through an hour of meditation and a service conducted under the watchful eye of frescoes dating from the 1200s, with the smell of incense wafting through the air. The services were for all and christians and muslims (and paradoxically, atheists like myself) prayed side by side. However Father Dall’Oglio took a critical stance towards the government following their violent repression of protests and was therefore in the Government’s sights for over a year before being deported.
After the service we were served a simple meal of flat bread, cheese, olives, cucumbers, tomatoes and honey. The sun set in silence and we retired early to our beds. We were sharing a dorm with a group of teenage boys though and soon discovered a shared universal language of fart jokes.
I awoke early to watch an incredible sunrise and after breakfast regretfully left the monastery to travel to Damascus, thinking about how much I would like to stay longer.
Given his role in creating a centre for interfaith dialogue, and in light of the sectarian aspect of what is increasingly seen as a civil war, father Dall’Oglio’s deportation is especially painful. Although head of a Baathist regime, President Assad is a member of the minority Alawite sect, and the conflict is increasingly being framed along sectarian lines. I can only imagine the pain father Dall’Oglio must have felt leaving behind the oasis of peace he had created.