Our Lady of Saydnaya Patriarchal Monastery
Our Lady of Saydnaya Patriarchal Monastery
Source: Monasteries of Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate, University of Balamand Publications, 2007.
The Syrian town of Saydnaya has more than forty churches, chapels, and monasteries. The most prominent among them is the convent of the Virgin Mary, one of the most important institutions in the Patriarchate of Antioch. Since the Middle Ages, most pilgrims and travellers on their way to the Holy Land would stop at Saydnaya in order to pray before the miraculous icon of the Virgin and to receive her blessing. According to tradition, this image was painted by St Luke himself, and many miracles have been attributed to it in the course of time.
|Our Lady of Saydnaya Patriarchal Monastery|
|Abbess:||Rev. Mother Febronia Nabhan|
|Postal Address:||Our Lady of Saydnaya Patriarchal Monastery, Saydnaya, Syria|
|Tel:||+963 11 595 1 900
+963 11 595 0 547
+963 11 595 1 648
|Fax:||+963 11 595 1 900|
Saydnaya lies in the district of Damascus at an altitude of 1350 metres, about twenty-five kilometers north of Damascus on the slopes of Mount Qalamoun. The town was frequently praised by visitors for its beauty; in recent times, however, it has become congested with drab apartment blocks.
The name of Saydnaya has been differently interpreted, and it may have more than one meaning. Local tradition holds that Saydnaya means ‘Halting-place of the gazelle’. The place-name has also been thought to mean Our Lady the New, from the Greek nea, ‘new’, and the Arabic sayyida, ‘lady’. However, the word sayd is generally related to hunting, and naya is a typical place-suffix in Syriac; therefore, Saydnaya probably means simply a hunting-place. Indeed, in ancient times, a temple of Saydoun, the Phoenician god of the hunt, stood in this once densely forested region. Under later Christian and Arabic influence, perhaps the name may have been thought to mean the ‘place of the Lady’.
In the oldest records, the site is named Sad Manaia. But later manuscripts give many variations. In the Crusader period, it was known as the convent of Our Lady of Sardenay or Our Lady of the Rock. In the fifteenth century, the name Sardenayra appears; in the seventeenth, Sidenaia; finally, it became Saydnaya.
The convent of Saydnaya is specially distinguished for its hospitality. Orthodox families of Damascus and other cities traditionally spent the summer there. The convent maintains an orphanage for girls, which now houses 37 orphans. It is managed by five Religious, directed by Sister Febronia. In 1948, the mother superior, Maria Hassoun el-Maalouf from Bikfaya in Lebanon, founded a school for the nuns and established an order consisting of pupils from the orphanage. The school was officially recognized in 1950, and it offers a scientific diploma accredited by the Patriarchate.
Since medieval times, the nuns have worn garments of wool and cotton, bound at the waist by a large leather belt. Each nun is assigned her own cell for the duration of her residence, and she is responsible for its furnishing and maintenance. It normally has a small kitchen and bathroom attached.
The Religious perform the morning and evening offices when the bell of Our Lady rings. During fasting periods, the office is performed four times a day. Three times a day, the bell calls the Religious for meals. They usually eat together in the refectory, but some prefer to remain alone and are served in their cells. During the daytime, the nuns continue their religious duties but also practice their own activities, such as knitting, embroidery, and the manufacture of small religious objects for sale. Today, however, their work centers around the art of icon-restoration, which is flourishing. In addition, five nuns specialize in the making of clerical vestments, and others take care of pilgrims and visitors. In summer and on feast-days, up to 350 people are housed in the convent.
The convent still owns much land in Syria and Lebanon, and the nuns grow much of their food. The cellars below the cells contain all the convent’s annual provisions, most of which are supplied by its own harvest. Large quantities of cereals, flour, dry vegetables, and other goods are preserved here in huge masonry tanks to provide for the needs of nuns, orphans, and visitors. Four wells under the basement of the convent give an ample supply of water.
The convent celebrates the feast of the Mother of God each year on her birthday, 8th September. This is an exceptional day for the whole town, which is filled with visitors from all over Syria and Lebanon. They are welcomed by the inhabitants of Saydnaya, who sometimes leave their own homes to visitors while they go out into the street to join the crowd of believers. Following tradition, the mother superior sends a group of people bearing a banner of the Holy Cross to welcome visitors at the column in the center of the town. All the pilgrims gather there to begin the procession with the banner in front, singing hymns and lighting fireworks. A special fasting period of eight days is observed throughout the Patriarchate of Antioch in honor of the convent of Saydnaya.
Apart from such great pilgrimages, individual pilgrims frequently visit for a few days. Visitors come from all over Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan, and even from Western countries, to pray to the Mother of God and receive her blessing. Many Christian Arab families customarily make vows to baptize their children at Saydnaya, and Christian Jordanian tribes come regularly in September to baptize all infants born to them during the preceding year. The practice of hospitality still survives in the rule fixed to the doors of all the visitors’ cells, and the traveler who spends the night is asked to leave a donation of his choice in return for the maintenance of the convent.
Saydnaya’s origin is lost in time. Some remains from the classical period have been found, including temple ruins and Greek inscriptions. The Qalamoun region received Christianity in the time of St Paul, and the Aramaic language spoken by its inhabitants until the twelfth century is derived from the language spoken at the time of Christ. Melkite (Greek Orthodox) manuscripts in Syriac were written at Saydnaya until the eighteenth century. The influence of Aramaic is noticeable in the Arabic dialect used by the people of Saydnaya, and the neighboring people of Christian Maaloula and two other villages, once Christian but now Muslim, continue to speak the Aramaic language. The people of Qalamoun stubbornly preserve their authentic tradition and their ties to early Christianity.
According to tradition, the monastery was built by the Emperor Justinian I (527-65). Legend relates that while the emperor was hunting in the Qalamoun region, he saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, who ordered him to build a convent on the high rock upon which she was standing. The next day, Justinian began work on the foundations of the convent of Saydnaya, and when it was completed, the emperor’s sister Theodosia became its first superior.
There is no contemporary evidence, however, that Justinian founded the convent. The walls of Saydnaya have no trace of sixth-century origin, and Procopius of Caesarea (d. 561), the companion and official historian of Justinian, does not mention the foundation of the convent. Medieval Christian historians make no mention of Justinian, recording instead that the convent was founded by a widow of Damascus during the Byzantine period, who withdrew to lead a hermit’s life in Qalamoun. Without firm evidence connecting Saydnaya to the relatively well-documented Early Byzantine period, it remains impossible to speak with certainty about the origin of the convent.
The famous icon of the Virgin at Saydnaya, the Shaghoura, is attributed to the hand of St Luke the Evangelist, doctor and painter. Luke is traditionally regarded as the first icon-painter, who painted three miraculous icons of the Virgin after Pentecost in the fullness of the Holy Spirit. This tradition dates from the Iconoclastic Controversy of the eighth and early ninth centuries.
Although many churches were destroyed in Syria and Egypt in 1014, at the orders of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim bi-‘Amr-Allah, there is no mention of Saydnaya, and it was probably spared. The convent is first mentioned in a report addressed in 1175 to the emperor Frederick I Barbarossa by Burchard of Strasbourg, ambassador to the court of Saladin. An entire paragraph of this document describes the convent of Sardenay and recounts its history. From the start of the thirteenth century, poets and minstrels popularized the remarkable story of this Orthodox sanctuary in the East, and it began to draw Western pilgrims in large number.
During their rule in Syria from 1250 to 1517, the Mamluks destroyed many churches and monasteries, but Saydnaya was spared. Two Arab writers of this period mention it: Chehab al-Din al-Umari (fourteenth century) praises the rich gifts he received from its inhabitants and notes that pilgrimage to the Holy Land normally included a visit to Saydnaya; the other, Yaqut al-Hamawi (fifteenth century), lauds the convent’s vineyards and good wines.
Russian travellers give much information about Saydnaya’s history. During the early Ottoman period, the convent was abandoned by monks and inhabited only by nuns because of the heavy taxation imposed by the authorities. In 1560, the patriarch Joachim ibn Jum‘a wrote to the tsar of Russia, Ivan IV the Terrible, requesting assistance for Saydnaya. Thirty years later, a monk brought 120 pieces of gold from the tsar to the sixty nuns at Saydnaya.
Waqf documents written at the start of the seventeenth century cite the name of the mother superior, Marthe, daughter of Haji Sa’ad. In 1636, Saydnaya was restored without the permission of the Turkish authorities: its superior Moses was imprisoned, tortured, and forced to pay a large fine. In 1656, the Patriarch of Antioch, Makarios al-Za‘im, visited Moscow and received special letters from the tsar, authorizing the grant of Russian alms to the monasteries of St George al-Homeyra, Balamand, and Saydnaya.
In 1708, there were forty nuns with a superior, and fifteen monks. The superior and monks spent the nights in the village, working and praying in the convent during the daytime.
In 1762, three years after a strong earthquake that destroyed many churches and mosques in Damascus, the convent was rebuilt by special permission of the Ottoman mufti of Damascus, Sheikh ‘Ali al-Muradi, through donations made by Damascene notables. It was rebuilt on a triangular plan with eighty cells. The church had four altars, one of which was reserved for the Jacobites (Syriac Orthodox) who came to venerate the miraculous icon of the Virgin. In 1768, the chronicler Mikha’il Burayk was designated as superior at Saydnaya.
A traveler who visited Syria in 1825 tells that only two years beforehand, the convent had narrowly escaped destruction in retaliation for the Greek Declaration of Independence in 1821. In 1840, the Russian consul Uspensky saw thirty-eight nuns at Saydnaya and noted that the convent’s revenues went to the patriarchate. In his time, many smaller neighboring monasteries, such as those of St Barbara, St George, St Thomas, and St Christopher, were affiliated to Our Lady of Saydnaya.
A large number of Syriac manuscripts preserved at the convent were burned at the start of the nineteenth century. The perpetrators intended to prevent Jacobite claims to ownership of the convent and indeed to efface memory of the Syriac language, which was still heard at Saydnaya by eighteenth-century travellers such as Browne, Ritter, and Volney.
The nuns of Saydnaya have always been dedicated to hard work. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, they worked especially in silk cultivation, and the eighteenth-century traveler Bishop Pococke records that the mother superior showed him her rough and calloused hands. The convent has usually housed a sizeable number of Religious. Twenty-three were recorded in 1384 and twenty-four in 1598. About forty Religious were counted by travellers in 1735. Pococke, who visited soon afterwards, records that the Religious Sisters numbered twenty, supervised by two male Religious. The English cleric and traveller J. L. Porter noted in 1852 that the convent housed forty Religious and the superior, and the same number was recorded in 1930. There are thirty-eight Religious Sisters at the convent today.
During its long life, the convent has undergone constant alteration, but the dominant style of architecture belongs to the end of the Ottoman period and the early twentieth century. Three sections of the convent, however, belong to the medieval period: the Shaghoura, or church of the Virgin, which houses the ancient icon; the lower floor, including the kitchen and cellars; and the vaulted room below the nuns’ cells. These were all built directly upon the bed-rock, which is visible in the passage leading to the Shaghoura.
1. The Shaghoura sanctuary
The winding road leading to the convent terminates at the base of the cliff. Two modern symmetrical staircases zigzag upward, forming a pattern of three ascending lozenges. At the top of the staircases stands the convent wall, whose entrance door is only one meter high. This leads into a winding rock-passage reinforced in places with masonry walls. Here a contemporary mosaic pictures Justinian and Theodora offering the model of the convent to the Virgin and Child.
The passage gradually ascends towards the small interior courtyard of the convent, from which a small arched door leads through a vestibule towards the Shaghoura. The visitor must remove his shoes in the vestibule. The Shaghoura chapel is plunged in semi-darkness. It is a small room with a low, vaulted ceiling and walls covered with icons, most of them blackened by the smoke of candles. Gold and silver-plated lamps are suspended from the ceiling. The ancient icons are mostly revetted in silver, with carved frames of gilded wood. Dozens of candles, the only source of light, flicker on a table and in the chandeliers.
A white curtain screens a little niche closed by a silver grill hung with gold and silver chains, bracelets and necklaces, and many crosses – all gifts offered from the most ancient of times. Behind this grill is the famous miraculous icon of the Virgin, reputed to be the work of St Luke the evangelist. In Syriac, Shaghoura means ‘the renowned’ or ‘the illustrious’. It can also mean ‘the source’, a fitting attribute of the Mother of God since the Christian religion was transmitted to mankind through her.
2. The Convent Church
The present church is a modern construction, restored by Patriarch Hierotheos (1851-85) after its destruction during the 1860 massacres. Almost nothing remains of the ancient church, the one known by Crusader pilgrims. The earliest descriptions, dating from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries, describe the church as a basilica of three naves with two arcades of six arches on each side, a vaulted ceiling, and a mosaic pavement floor. The iconostasis at the east end of the nave was covered with icons, and the walls of the apse were decorated with beautiful images. Although the stone vaults were certainly of medieval origin, the mosaic pavement indicates that the church was initially built during the Byzantine period, between the fourth and sixth centuries, which corroborates the legend of its foundation.
The Russian traveler Barsky, who visited Saydnaya in 1728, describes a five-nave basilica. The ceiling was vaulted and the floor covered with well-dressed flagstones: only the sanctuary still preserved the Byzantine mosaic floor. Barsky declares that the church of Saydnaya was the most beautiful he had visited in the East.
The earthquake of 1759 demolished a large part of the church and the entire ceiling collapsed. It was rebuilt in 1762 and underwent further alterations in 1810. A final and complete restoration was made after the destruction of 1860.
Only the north wall of the church, facing the convent courtyard, is visible from outside. Built of white limestone with small windows, its aspect is simple and modest. The interior is a large cubic space, crowned by a dome supported by massive pylons. The plan is basilical, divided into three naves. The central, barrel-vaulted nave is wider and higher than the side naves. Narrow arched windows open in the north and south walls on two levels, but the dome is opaque. The interior is mostly lit by the beautiful crystal hanging lamps and flickering candles.
The spacious and airy interior is perfectly proportioned. The floor is covered with marble flagstones decorated with polychrome marquetry. The upper walls and the vaults are covered with blue plaster. A simple moulding runs around the church at the base of the vaults, and a radiant sun is painted on the sanctuary vault.
The interior is filled with candles, pulpits, benches, and icons recessed in marble frames or installed beneath canopies. A staircase ascends to the octagonal platform, whose sides are adorned with icons representing the four evangelists and Christ enthroned. Above Christ is the sculpture of a double-headed eagle, the symbol of the Byzantine Empire and Orthodoxy. A large iconostasis of finely carved wood runs across the width of the three naves. Of majestic beauty, its icons date mostly from the 19th century.
3. Other buildings
From the interior courtyard, a staircase leads up to the private apartments of the superior, where a small esplanade faces the reception rooms and offices. The convent museum lies on the site of the old church of St Demetrios, to the right of the church behind a large black grill. Several rooms have been refurbished in recent years in order to display the convent’s rich collection of icons and other religious objects, which are mostly donations from pilgrims and other faithful dating from the seventeenth century. Two glass cabinets display sumptuous episcopal vestments of embroidered cloth of gold. Other cabinets contain religious objects of gold or silver, including crosses, thuribles, chalices, chandeliers, and reliquaries. One room contains precious ancient manuscripts and sacred liturgical objects transferred by Antiochian patriarchs during the twentieth century.
Among the most interesting objects is the Epitaphion (coffin) of Christ, which is used once a year on Good Friday. It is lavishly decorated with cloth flowers and pearl necklaces. The wooden cover features an icon representing the face of Christ in the tomb, with his Mother and St John lamenting on either side.
One of the three oldest parts of the convent includes the kitchen, refectory, and living room, all barrel-vaulted at differing levels and connected by steps. Their outer walls are very thick with small openings. Below, down a steep flight of stairs, are the large cellars divided into three parts. One of these contains great oiljars buried in the floor and large masonry tanks filled with grain and dry vegetables.
The nuns’ cells are located on the right of the courtyard behind the sanctuaries, overlooking a hill and valley with a splendid view. From a small rear court, a door leads into a long barrel-vaulted room whose walls are more than a metre in thickness and pierced with narrow windows. The walls are built of alternating stones and brick, a method used to minimize earthquake damage. This is the visitors’ reception room and is probably the oldest part of the monastery. Above is a building of four floors, the first containing a sewing workshop and laundry room, and the others reserved for the nuns’ cells.
Icons in the Shaghoura sanctuary
The Shaghoura icon is never shown to visitors. However, a number of descriptions by medieval visitors have survived. The first was left by a pilgrim named Giraud in 1175: ‘In this church, I saw an image painted on wood, an ell in length and half an ell in width, in a window of the sanctuary and strongly guarded by an iron grill. It was an image of the Blessed Virgin. But now, wonderful to tell, the painting is incarnate upon the wood, and oil more fragrant than balm streams from it without cease. A multitude of Christians, Saracens, and Jews have been cured of various illnesses by this oil. And note that this oil never diminishes, no matter how much is taken. No one dares to touch this painting, but all can see it. The oil is religiously conserved, and when one takes it with devotion and faith, in honor of the Holy Virgin and with due reverence, one obtains unfailingly whatever one asks for. On the days of her Assumption and her Glorious Nativity, all the Saracens of the surrounding areas throng to this place in order to pray there with the Christians and to offer their gifts in devotion.’
We have few other details about the icon. Western witnesses give varying dimensions (1 x 1.5 cubits, 1x 1.5 feet, or 3 x 4 feet), and the German traveler Lehmann (1472-80) says that it represented the Virgin feeding the Child. A pilgrim of 1336 described the icon as nothing but a dark red image covered with humidity. According to the Arab visitor Ibn Massoud, the icon was a dark-red plank of wood two fingers in thickness and four hands wide. The image was no longer visible to him.
Other icons on the walls of the Shaghoura sanctuary are covered with a thick layer of soot from the candles that have been constantly lighted for centuries. Almost the only one still visible is an image of the Virgin with a man kneeling beside her, wearing a green fur mantle and a turban. Local tradition identifies him as either the Mamluk sultan Baybars or the Ayyubid Sultan al-‘Adil, the brother of Saladin. None of the medieval travellers mentioned it, however, and its post-Byzantine style suggests that the icon is a late representation of a medieval legend.
The church and convent house a large number of icons and precious objects, which were donated for the most part by pilgrims. The icons fill the iconostasis and the walls of the main church of Our Lady. Most of them belong to the Jerusalem school, which flourished after 1860, the year of the dramatic events in Damascus and Mount Lebanon when many Christians perished and churches were destroyed. Once peace was restored, the region witnessed a great revival of Christianity and an intense building of new churches, which all required decoration with icons. From that time, there began a great activity of icon production and original icon-painters appeared at Jerusalem. They included Youhanna Salibi al-Qudsi, Mikhail Mehanna al-Qudsi, N’qula Tadros al-Qudsi, and Ishaq N’qula al-Qudsi, who all worked extensively in Lebanon and Syria. They cannot be described as artists of great refinement, but their icons form a coherent group, so that these artists may be said to have introduced a particular style and school of painting. The style does not resemble the Aleppine, but is closer to Russian religious painting, which flourished in the later nineteenth century. At that time, the Russian presence in Palestine was marked. Russian artists worked in the Holy Land and left paintings, and Russian pilgrims brought icons with them. During the later nineteenth century, Russian iconography departed greatly from ancient Russian tradition. Instead, it turned towards Western religious oil-painting with its very different visual methods, such as the use of the third dimension, the play of light and shadow, narrative painting, and genre painting. In this kind of icon-painting, the spiritual presence that must be carried by the icon is relegated to second place. Thus, the icons of the Jerusalem school are characterized by a decorative aspect with natural colors, in which the gilded background of Byzantine icons, symbolizing divine light, gives way to countrysides with blue skies and clouds. The compositions are full of details and previously non-existent elements. Moreover, as in Russian icons of the period, a shade of sentimentality is present on all the faces of the personages.
A sumptuous iconostasis separates the nave from the sanctuary. Of large dimensions, it houses many icons of different origins, but especially of the nineteenth-century Palestinian school. However, the two royal icons of Christ and the Virgin belong to an earlier period. To the left of the Royal Door is the beautiful icon of Christ King of Kings and Great Archbishop. Christ is seated on a finely embroidered red cushion placed on a sumptuous throne. He wears the royal crown and the vestments of an archbishop. The white tunic is decorated with a pattern of red flowers, green stripes, and yellow crosses. The mantle is decorated with a gilded motif upon a dark blue background, and the cloak is red with a blue floral pattern. Angels are shown kneeling on either side, and the borders of the icon are occupied by apostles and prophets. The face of Christ, with its fine features, short beard, and long moustache, identifies this as the work of Michael Polychronis the Cretan, who worked in Lebanon and Syria in the early nineteenth century. His art is influenced by Western ornamentation, such as the baroque décor of the clothing and throne.
To the right of the Royal Door is the icon of the Virgin and Child. This icon is dated 1812, and the style, with oval faces and delicately minuscule features, again indicates the work of Michael Polychronis the Cretan. The Virgin is designated with Greek insignia. She wears a blue cloak and red mantle decorated with three stars. Her halo bears a gilded ex-voto. Angels float upon clouds on either side of the enthroned Virgin. The Child holds the closed Bible in his left hand and blesses with his right. The haloes bear votive inscriptions, and the edges of the icon are occupied by the apostles and prophets.
On either side of the two royal icons are images showing scenes from the life of Christ. To the left is the icon of the Annunciation, which includes scenes of the Meeting of Mary and Elizabeth, the Nativity, and the Flight to Egypt, all portrayed in squares on the lower edge. This icon is signed by Youhanna Saliba al-Urashalimi and dated 1873. The scene is influenced by Western tradition. The Virgin contemplates the prophecy of Isaiah as the Archangel Gabriel comes to bring the divine message. The winged angel points towards heaven to indicate the origin of his message. In his right hand, he carries three lilies, the symbol of virginity and purity. The Virgin is seated opposite under a richly decorated canopy, hands folded and head inclined. Above, heaven is represented by two groups of clouds, through which the Holy Spirit descends as a dove, with rays emanating towards the Virgin.
The style is typical of Youhanna al-Urashalimi, also known as Youhanna al-Qudsi, with its lively colors and rounded faces. The clothing folds are ample and conceal the movements of the body. The décor respects Byzantine two-dimensional conventions, but the interior is filled with ornament – baroque lines, curves, and a variety of motifs – that reveal Western influence.
In the lower register are three scenes following the Annunciation in chronological order. The first shows Elizabeth embracing the Virgin. The Nativity scene shows Mary and Joseph adoring the baby Jesus, kneeling according to Western tradition. The Flight into Egypt shows the Virgin carrying Jesus on a donkey, while Joseph guides them on foot.
To the right of the Royal Door, beside the icon of the Virgin, is an icon with two levels, the upper representing the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple and the lower the Nativity of the Virgin.
In the Nativity scene, Anne lies on her bed, her left hand on her cheek in a gesture of tiredness, while her right is extended towards the four servants and Joachim. Crowned with a halo, she is clothed in a blue tunic and bright-red mantle, and the servants are turbaned in Oriental style. Various dishes are laid upon a table. In place of the traditional bath scene, the Virgin is shown in a cot being watched over by a servant.
The Presentation of the Virgin in the upper level is shown in a series of layered scenes typical of Byzantine iconography. Mary, aged three, is accompanied by Joachim, Anne, and the Virgins, richly dressed and turbaned. The aged priest Zacharias extends his hands to her in welcome and she responds in turn. Stairs lead to an upper floor, where the Virgin sits under a cupola in the Holy of Holies and receives celestial food brought by an angel. Following tradition, she is portrayed here upon a cloud. The background is filled by the Temple buildings, shown flat in accordance with the two-dimensional requirement of Byzantine iconography. The small, stereotyped faces and prominent Western or Byzantine elements in the architecture and table-dishes, relate this icon to the school of Michael Polychronis.
On the left side of the iconostasis is an icon representing the Prophet Elias and the Raven. Elijah, the Old Testament prophet, had promised the coming of the Savior and His Resurrection. The miracle of his feeding in the desert by ravens prefigures the Eucharist. In the New Testament, Elias is identified with St John the Baptist as forerunner of the Messiah and prophet of the Incarnation. The style of this icon, which has a dedicatory inscription below, is similar to that of the two icons of the Virgin and Christ flanking the north side door.
The iconostasis in the church of Our Lady displays a second pair of royal icons belonging to the Jerusalem school. The icon of Christ Pantocrator displays a dedication, partly effaced, with the name of Youhanna Saliba al-Qudsi. Christ is designated by his name in Arabic and his attributes in Greek. The face is almost round and the design is naïve and devoid of expression. Christ’s halo bears the Greek letters omicron-omega-nu, ‘He Who Is’. He blesses with his right hand; in his left, he holds a book inscribed with the parable of the Good Shepherd. He wears an orange cloak and blue-green tunic whose folds are painted in great touches of flowing yellow. The execution of the face and hands is typical of Youhanna Saliba al-Qudsi.
Its counterpart, the icon of the Virgin Hodegetria, is probably also the work of Youhanna Saliba al-Qudsi. The Virgin carries the Child on her left arm and indicates him with her right hand. Her mantle is adorned with three stars, indicating her virginity before, during, and after the birth of Christ. The Child holds the celestial globe decorated with the sun, moon, and stars, symbolizing Christ’s lordship over the universe. His halo is adorned with the title in Greek letters signifying ‘He Who Is’. The drapery and facial features are finely drawn. The faces, slightly shadowed, express a contemplative joy.
Another work of the Jerusalem school is the image of the Archangel Michael. This icon was painted by Youhanna Saliba al-Qudsi, or al-Urashalimi. The Archangel is shown with wings outstretched and clothed in bright military garb. He carries a shining bundle of rods, and his winged helmet is adorned with a votive inscription. The lively colors and dynamic stance of the Archangel accentuate his importance. Western influence is visible in the decoration and clothing.
On either side of the south side-door are the two icons of Christ Pantocrator and the Virgin Hodegetria. The Mother of God is designated by Greek and Arabic inscriptions, and the dedicatory text gives the date 1842. She wears a blue cloak and a red mantle decorated with three stars and clasped at the neck with a brooch in Italian style. The Christ Child is seated on Mary’s left hand holds the closed Bible and blesses with his right hand. He wears a dark red cloak and a blue tunic. Two angels are shown in the corners. The icon of Christ Pantocrator is also dated 1842. Christ wears a red cloak with a clasp and a blue tunic. His hair falls upon his shoulders, and he has a short beard and long moustache. He gives his blessing with his right hand and in his left he holds an open book revealing a long Arabic inscription.
The two icons were executed by the same hand. The overly refined facial features and hands, the curved lines, volutes, and waves, all give a mannerist allure to the personages. The large and opulent bodies are somewhat disproportionate to the small faces, which are drawn naively and without shadow.
On the upper level of the iconostasis, the Apostles are shown on either side of a Deisis. This marks the center of the entire composition, for it establishes the link between the Eucharistic Christ and mankind, represented in the icons but also present in the nave.
A sumptuous wooden canopy shelters a beautiful icon of The Nativity of the Virgin with St Mark represented in a kind of niche below. The icon was painted in 1866 and is entitled and signed by Nicholas Theodoros al-Qudsi. The upper level shows the Nativity of the Virgin, and the lower the evangelist Mark, clothed in gold and holding the Gospel.
The Nativity scene is represented traditionally. Anne lies on her bed, her haloed head resting on a cushion. Joachim is seated beside, regarding the traditional bathing scene. A servant draws the infant Virgin from the bath as a second pours more water and a third tests the temperature. The domestic scene is animated by the servants’ movements; the one pouring the water is shown in profile, untypical of Byzantine iconography. As the name al-Qudsi indicates, the painter belongs to the Jerusalem school, which looked to Byzantine tradition but was also influenced by Western art. Despite its great simplicity, there is a tendency to ornament in the details of the background.
Another icon of the Nativity is shown on the north wall. It bears Arabic inscriptions and the dedication below gives the date 1884. In the center of the composition is the cave where Mary and Joseph adore the Infant Jesus in his crib. Behind and above, the shepherds receive the angels’ message. At top, the angels adore the newborn infant. They are surrounded by clouds representing the heavenly vault, from which a star descends towards Jesus’ cradle. The left part of the icon represents six scenes, including the Magi before Herod, Joseph and Mary fleeing Herod’s persecution, the Adoration of the Magi, and the Slaughter of the Holy Innocents.
The entire composition, particularly the wide, sentimental face, reveals the style of the Jerusalem school. Western influence is apparent in the kneeling positions of Mary and Joseph. The faces are finely drawn, without shadow, and the clothing subtly moulds the forms of the bodies.
A fine icon of the Virgin Hodegetria is signed by in Arabic and Greek by Mikhail and Youhanna al-Qudsi and dated 1856. The Virgin carries the Child on her left arm and indicates him with her right hand. She wears a blue cloak and red mantle with gilded edges. The stars with which the mantle is traditionally adorned are not visible. The folds of these two garments are painted in gold. Christ wears a grey cloak and gold tunic. He holds the Bible in his left hand and blesses with his right. The faces are round and fine, and their expressions serene, indicating a tendency to return to Byzantine tradition. The four corners are occupied by the Nativity of the Virgin, her Presentation in the Temple, the Annunciation, and the Dormition: all these scenes are framed in medallions shown with baroque motifs.
The faces are delicate and the expressions serene, indicating an adherence to Byzantine tradition.
A great composition of the Last Judgementis shown on the church wall. The theme of the Second Coming of Christ, much favoured in Antiochian iconography, was announced by the Old Testament prophets and the evangelists, especially in the Apocalypse of John. The scenes are commented by Arabic inscriptions.
In accordance with iconographic tradition, the composition includes many elements. In the center, Christ in shimmering raiment is seated on a celestial throne with his feet resting on the clouds. He is surrounded by the assembled angels. The apostles are seated on either side holding their books, Peter and Paul closest. The Virgin and St John present the requests of the faithful and implore the Lord’s clemency for the sins of mankind.
Below Christ is a throne bearing the Holy Book, the cross, and the instruments of the Passion. On either side, angels sound trumpets to call the elect. Below again are a man and woman, each prostrate upon a cloud – perhaps Adam and Eve, symbolizing mankind redeemed.
The lower level displays elements of the Judgement. In the center are the scales holding a naked person, the soul whose deeds are weighed in the balance. The good stand at Christ’s right (the viewer’s left). They form a procession before the heavenly gate, guarded by a cherub. The Apostle Peter opens the gate, while St Paul urges them to enter. Paradise is a luminous garden protected by a great wall bordered with stylized shrubs. The patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are seated, and the Mother of God is enthroned, venerated by the angels.
After the weighing of souls, the wicked, at Christ's left, are thrown into the lake of fire, signifying the second death. The bottom of the composition shows the damned suffering eternal tortures, severally according to their sins.
The didactic and theological elements are superbly illustrated. The highly narrative style, abundance of detail, and encumbering of figures and scenes, are all typical of the Jerusalem school.
On a church pillar is an icon representing the Virgin of the Rosary and the Tree of Jesse, with scenes from the Akathistos Hymn. The icon is signed in Greek and dated 1874. It was painted by Youhanna Theodoros of Jerusalem. It reveals Western influence in the manner of securing the Virgin’s mantle with a brooch. The center is occupied by the Virgin holding the Child on her left arm. Jesus is crowned with the episcopal tiara; he carries the terrestrial globe in his right hand and a scepter in his left. The archangels Michael and Gabriel crown the Mother of God, and the Holy Trinity is represented above. The borders of the icon are occupied by Old Testament prophets displaying their prophecies of Christ’s coming:
The ensemble is surrounded by twenty-four small scenes illustrating the Akathistos hymn, a liturgical poem dedicated to the Virgin. Byzantine tradition ascribes this hymn to the fifth-century Romanos the Melodios, originally from Emesa (Homs), and its recitation in the Basilica of Aghia Sophia is said to have miraculously delivered Constantinople during the Persian siege of 626.
The icon of the Dormition of the Virginfollows the apocryphal description of this event, which is read during the Feast of the Dormition in the Greek Church. The Western theme of the Assumption does not play a part in Eastern tradition. The title of the scene is written in Greek. According to Byzantine tradition, the event took place in the room of the Last Supper.
The Mother of God is shown asleep, hands folded, surrounded by apostles, bishops, widows, and angels. St Peter, shown as an old man at the head of the bed, swings a thurible. St Paul, bald and dark-bearded, stands at the foot of the bed. St John, an old man with a white beard, stretches his hands towards the Virgin in sadness. Below, St Gabriel severs the hands of the Jew Jephonias, who intended to overturn the Virgin’s body on the way to the tomb. As St Peter intones a hymn, Jesus receives his Mother’s soul in the form of a small haloed embalmed soul covered with a cloak. Above, two angels bear the Virgin to heaven, and two others open the gate for her. The iconographic style follows the Greek tradition. The faces are elongated with delicate traits and sad expressions.
In the church of Our Lady Saydnaya is a proskynetarion attached to a wooden plank. This kind of icon appeared in the nineteenth century in the form of a large picture postcard showing the sacred spots of Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The icon is a painted cloth, representing a map of Jerusalem surrounded by Passion scenes and Palestinian hagiography arranged in a decorative manner.
Jerusalem stands in the center. Inside its walls are shown the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Mount of Calvary, the Crucifixion, Lamentation, and Resurrection. They are followed by the Elevation of the Cross, which is accompanied by St Constantine and St Helena. Outside the walls are scenes of Christ surrounded by the apostles, the Baptism, the Virgin Hodegetria, the Annunciation, the Dormition, the heavenly Father, and lastly, the martyrdom of Isaiah.
Below are shown St George slaying the dragon and scenes of his martyrdom; St Demetrios; and St Elias receiving food from the raven. The lower level shows the port of Jaffa and Solomon overseeing the building of the Temple of Jerusalem.
In the iconostasis of the old church of St Demetrios, now converted into the convent museum, is the icon of the Forty Martyrs. In 320, forty guards of the emperor Licinius were frozen to death in an icy lake for professing the Christian faith. The martyrs are shown standing naked in the lake. Unable to bear the cold, one of them flees into a bath-house, where, the legend recounts, his body immediately decomposed. But the guardian of the bath-house, Aglaios, it is said, converted and went to take his place in the lake. Above, Christ appears in the heavenly vault and blesses the martyrs. Two angels fly above the clouds, carrying a banner inscribed in Greek.
The colors are lively, the faces and gestures expressive. Among the group of martyrs, an old man raises his head up towards Christ. This icon is typical of the style that flourished in the early nineteenth century.
Besides the numerous icons on the walls of the church of Our Lady, there are also some beautiful epitaphioses, which form part of the convent’s liturgical treasure. The epitaphios is a liturgical cloth whose origin goes back to early Christian times, when it served as the symbolic veil for the Christian Temple. At first, it was utilized to cover the sacred chalice and paten during the Eucharistic office.
One framed epitaphios representing the Dormition is embroidered with gold thread on a velvet tapestry. Its composition is entirely traditional. Mary lies hands folded, surrounded by bishops and haloed apostles. St John appears leaning towards the Virgin, and Christ in the middle bears His Mother’s soul in the shape of a small embalmed soul. The corners are occupied by the four evangelists. The edge is decorated with volute motifs, and Greek inscriptions appear above and below. The personages embroidered in gold thread stand out from the background colors. The Virgin is dressed in white, and her bed is white and gold.
Another epitaphios reproducing the Placing in the Tomb is embroidered on a tapestry. The inscription is in Russian. The style is rich and symbolic, with the personages in gilded clothing standing out from the ochre background. At the center of the composition is Christ, laid out upon his white shroud. The eyes are closed and hands folded. A radiant halo shines above his head. He is surrounded by women: Mary Magdalene. Mary, mother of James and Joseph, the mother of Zebedee’s sons, and the Virgin, recognizable by the stars adorning her gold mantle, which covers her head. Of the four women, the Virgin Mary is the only one with opened eyes. Two white-clothed angels in the corners observe the scene. Two men with closed eyes stand by, probably St John the Evangelist and Joseph of Arimathea. This is one of the most precious liturgical objects in the convent, and it is specially used after the office of Good Friday.
 Habib al-Zayyat, p.23-5.
 Peeters, Paul, ‘La légende de Saidnaia’, Analecta Bollandiana 85.2 (1926), p.138.
 Shihab al-din al-‘umari, Mamalik al-absar, 2.356.
 Yaqut al-hamawi, Mu‘jam al-buldan.
 Habib al-Zayyat, p.10.
 Volney, Voyage en Syrie et en Egypte (Paris, 1787), vol. 1, p.331-2; Browne, W.G., Nouveau voyage en Egypte, en Syrie, et en Afrique (1792-1798) (Paris, 1800), p.242; Ritter, K., Die Erdkunde (Berlin 1854-5), p.254-5.
 Leonardo Frescobaldi, p.168.
 Don Aquilante Rochetta, p. 90.
 Van Egmond and H. Heyman, p. 261.
 Porter, J. L., Five Years in Damascus (London, 1870), p. 130.
 R. Röhricht and H. Meisner, Deutsche Pilgereisen (Berlin, 1880), p. 105.
 Guillaume de Bouldeselle, Traictie de l’Estat de la Terre Sainte, Manuscrit français de la Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris, no. 1380, fol. 137.
 Habib al-Zayyat, p. 131: al-Zayyat believes that the icon was removed from the convent at the end of the 16th century (p. 143).
 Habib al-Zayyat, p. 105.
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