Dear Mar Musa

For 30 years an Italian Jesuit priest, father Paolo Dall’Oglio, has been restoring the ancient monastery of Deir Mar Musa in Syria. That it until the Syrian Government deported him last month.

Deir Mar Musa

Mar Musa at dusk

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.

Deir Mar Musa

Mar Musa seen from the road

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.

View from Mar Musa

View from Mar Musa

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.

Poster of President Bashar al-Assad

“Bony-thin and mediocre in appearance, with a scrubby moustache, he looks for all the world like a cretin impersonating a toothbrush.” – Christopher Hitchens on al-Assad


6 Comments on “Dear Mar Musa”

  1. Terence Hayden says:

    Nice post, Campbell, and beautiful pix. Though relying on the notorious, compromised, drunken bigot Hitchens for a sign off on an piece about tolerance is a bit rich!

  2. nzcampbell says:

    Yes agreed on Hitchens.

  3. Alex Khoo says:

    Very nice pictures!

  4. Mike says:

    At least tell the full story. Serious misinformed on this topic. Do your research. I am a Catholic Syrian from Damascus, trust me. The media is full of shit also.

    • nzcampbell says:

      Ok chief, let me just remind you of a few salient points:
      1. This is a blog, I can write whatever the fuck I like. If you don’t like it you can go write your own blog about how shit mine is. You don’t get paid and people you don’t know disparage you in the comments but it’s free to do and no one is stopping you.
      2. Your comment contains nothing of substance. If I’m seriously misinformed, why don’t you start by at least pointing out my points of misinformation? It sounds like you’ve got a point of view to express, do so. I publish all comments on my blog, regardless of how frustrating I might find it to be told by an internet stranger that I’m full of shit without them backing that up. Here’s your chance to explain how wrong I am and how full of shit the media is.
      3. Saying “trust me” anonymously to a stranger on the internet doesn’t engender trust. If you want people to take you seriously, say something of substance.
      4. Finally, I wish you and your country all the best. Peace and thanks for stopping by.

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