• Keywords: Syria, Cultural Landscape, Maaloula, Ma'loula, Bakh'a, Jubba'din, Aramaic language, Mar Sakis monastery, Mar Tekla or Mar Taqla monastery.

1. OFFICIAL CLASSIFICATIONS AND CATEGORIES

1.1 National and International Classification Lists

Maaloula Cultural Landscape is in the Tentative List of UNESCO since 08/06/1999, with criteria: (v)(vi), category: cultural, and ref.: 1299.

  • Tentative List of UNESCO

1.2. Cultural Landscape Category/Tipology

Organically evolved landscapes
Relict (or fossil) landscape
Associative cultural landscape
1

1.3. Description and Justification by Med-O-Med

Description

50 kilometres from Damascus, at an altitude of more than 1500 metres, in the direction of Lebanon, Maalula perches on the slopes of the Kalamun Mountains as if it were in reality a gigantic bee-hive on the edge of a precipice. The landscape is bathed in an unreal luminosity. A vast gleaming carpet of green is found at the base of the mountains made up of figs, flowering damsons, grapevines and poplar trees ill at ease with the presence of tiny birds……This exceptionally hospitable village seems to float above implacable nature. Maalula will always be an authentic encounter with history. With two other nearby towns Bakh’a and Jubba’din, it is the only place where a dialect of the Western branch of the Aramaic language is still spoken. Ma’loula represents, therefore, an important source for anthropological linguistic studies regarding first century Aramaic. The distance from other major cities and its isolating geological features fostered the longevity of this linguistic oasis for over one and a half thousand years. There are two important monasteries in Ma’loula: Greek Catholic Mar Sarkis and Greek Orthodox Mar Thecla. There are also the remains of numerous monasteries, convents, churches, shrines and sanctuaries. There are some that lie in ruins, while others continue to stand, defying age. Many pilgrims come to Ma’loula, both Muslim and Christian, and they go there to gain blessings and make offerings. The city and its surroundings are classified as a cultural site in the Tentative List of UNESCO, but Med-O-Med has considered appropiated to give one more step considering the site as an Associative Cultural Landscape, according to UNESCO criteria (UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, Article 1, 1972, Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention, 2008), mainly because of: – Maaloula and the nearby towns of Bakh’a and Jubba’din are the last places in the world where the aramaic language is still spoken. They are outstanding of historical, religious and cultural heritage. -The city is built being adapted to the natural shape of the territory, composing a mixed landscape that shows the interaction between human being and natur

2. NAME / LOCATION / ACCESSIBILITY

  • Current denomination Ma'loula, Maaloula, Bakh'a and Jubba'din.
  • Current denomination Ma'loula, Maaloula, Bakh'a and Jubba'din.
  • Original denomination Maaloula (Aramaic: מעלולא‎, Arabic: معلولا‎), Bakh'a (Arabic: بخعة‎), Jubba'din (Arabic: جبّعدين‎).
  • Popular denomination Maaloula (Aramaic: מעלולא‎, Arabic: معلولا‎), Bakh'a (Arabic: بخعة‎), Jubba'din (Arabic: جبّعدين‎).
  • Address: 50 kilometres from Damascus, at an altitude of more than 1500 metres, in the direction of Lebanon, Kalamun Mountains.
  • Geographical coordinates: 50 kilometres from Damascus, at an altitude of more than 1500 metres, in the direction of Lebanon, Kalamun Mountains.
  • Area, boundaries and surroundings: Maaloula is a village in the Rif Dimashq Governorate in Syria. The town is located 56 km to the northeast of Damascus, and built into the rugged mountainside, at an altitude of more than 1500 metres. Bakh'a and Jubba'din are two other nearby towns.
  • Access and transport facilities: There is no international airport in Maalula so it is preferable to fly to Damascus and catch the minibus which takes approximately 1 hour. To get to the minibus station, catch a bus from Choukri Kouatli Avenue in the direction of Kabun and get off at the Abassidas Square next to the football stadium. Go down the Boulevard of Nassirah and keep going until you find the minibus station for Maalula.
  • Events:

    The Maalulas have a collection of religious and festive songs that are unique in their variety and imagination. They have a great sense of community and festivity. There are three big folklore festivals which mark out the year for the inhabitants of this wonderful place. The first is on 14th September to pay tribute to Saint Cross, there is another on 22nd September which is the festival of Mar Tekla and on the 7th October there is the festival of Mar Sarkis. Hundreds of visitors attend these celebrations and they enjoy some of the most imaginative festivals in the whole of Syria.

3. LEGAL ISSUES

Property regime
  • Public
  • Owner: Syrian Government.
  • Body responsible for the maintenance: Syrian Government.

4. HISTORY

Maalula will always be an authentic encounter with history. It was a settlement in the Homs kingdom, also during the Roman era, when it was called Seliocopolis. With two other nearby towns Bakh’a and Jubba’din, it is the only place where a dialect of the Western branch of the Aramaic language is still spoken. Ma’loula represents, therefore, an important source for anthropological linguistic studies regarding first century Aramaic. Some of its main history can be re-built by analizing the history of the main monasteries of the city: The Greek Catholic monastery of St. Sergius (Mar Sarkis or Mar Sergus) has a chapel with a beautiful display of icons. Built in the 4th century on the remains of a pagan temple, the Mar Sarkis monastery is one of the oldest in Christendom. That it likely predates the Council of Nicea (325 AD) is evidenced by the fact that it has a round altar, which was prohibited at the Council. Mar Sarkis is designed after the pattern of the martyrion (a shrine dedicated to a martyr) and is dedicated to St. Sergius, a Roman soldier who was executed for his Christian beliefs (Sergius has a grander basilica in Rasafa, Syria). The convent of Mar Sarkis retains its historic feel and owns an interesting collection of religious icons from the 16th to the 18th century including one of the Virgin Mary and another of the martyrs Sergius and Bacchus. The nuns, some of whom speak English, show visitors around. Further down in the village is the Greek Orthodox monastery of St. Thecla (Mar Takla). Thecla was the daughter of a Seleucid prince and a young disciple of St. Paul whose dramatic life story is told in the apocryphal, and possibly legendary, Acts of Paul and Thecla. She is believed to be buried in the mountain just above the monastery. On the road that leaves the the village, look for a steep path on the right that leads to a terrace where a small waterfall welcomes the pilgrims.

5. GENERAL DESCRIPTION

5.1. Natural heritage

  • Heritage: Urban
  • Geography: Arid Mountain
  • Site topography: Natural
  • Climate and environmental conditions: General overview of the country: The climate of the coastal plain is Mediterranean, with hot, dry summers and mild, wet winters. Rainfall increases with altitude in the coastal mountain ranges, and snow is common in winter. In the dry steppe and open desert country east of the mountains, a marked continental climate prevails, with high summer temperatures and relatively cold winters, with many nights of frost. Over most of this region, which covers approximately 60% of the country, the average annual rainfall is less than 250 mm. In spring and autumn, the hot and dusty "khamsin" wind, blowing from the east and southeast, may cause temperatures to rise as high as 43-49°C. Damascus, situated east of the coastal mountain ranges, has a mean annual rainfall of 225 mm and average temperatures ranging from 7°C in January to 27°C in July.
  • Geological and Geographical characteristics: 50 kilometres from Damascus, at an altitude of more than 1500 metres, in the direction of Lebanon, Maalula perches on the slopes of the Kalamun Mountains as if it were in reality a gigantic bee-hive on the edge of a precipice. A vast gleaming carpet of green is found at the base of the mountains made up of figs, flowering damsons, grapevines and poplar trees ill at ease with the presence of tiny birds.
Vegetation:

General overview of the country: The natural vegetation comprises Mediterranean, Irano-Turanian and Saharo- Sindian elements. However, virtually all natural vegetation has long since been altered and degraded by human activity. The surviving vegetation includes oak maquis on the narrow coastal plain and foothills, remnant coniferous forests on the slopes of the Jabal alNusayriyah and along the Anti-Lebanon range, Irano-Turanian steppe on the central and eastern plains, and subalpine and alpine communities above 2,000 m in the southern mountains. Syria’s major landscapes and dominant vegetation types have recently been summarized by IUCN (1992) and Evans (1994).

Land uses and economical activities:
Tourism, comerce and religious activities. Some agriculture.
Agricultural issues or other traditional productions and their effect on the landscape:
There are crops of figs, flowering damsons, grapevines and poplar trees.
Summary of Landscapes values and characteristics:

Maalula means “the entrance” in Aramaic, referring to its dramatic location at the entrance to a rocky gorge. The city perches on the slopes of the Kalamun Mountains as if it were in reality a gigantic bee-hive on the edge of a precipice. This exceptional village seems to float above implacable nature. There are momuments of interest, as the Greek Catholic Mar Sarkis Monastery and Greek Orthodox Mar Thecla Monastery, and also some remains of numerous convents, churches, shrines and sanctuaries.

5.2. Cultural Heritage

A) Related to current constructions, buildings and art pieces in general

Architectonical elements /Sculptures:

Maalula is a predominantly Christian village with a population of about 2,000. It is the home of two ancient Christian monasteries: Mar Sarkis and Mar Taqla (or Mar Tekla). -Mar Sarkis: The past, which is present at every turn in Maalula, is found in the Monastery of Mar Sarkis (Saint Sergius). The monastery was built in the fourth century on the ruins of a pagan temple. It’s Byzantine style and lean shapes contain one of the first Christian altars. Since its construction until the present day, this monastery has been used as a place of worship which gives it an even greater sense of mystery. The monastery owns a very interesting collection of religious icons from the 16th to the 18th century, among which the most noteworthy are: the beautiful icon of the Virgin Mary and another of the martyrs Sergius and Bakhos. Furthermore, the monks have inscribed some prayers in Western Aramaic for the visitors. This monastery was named in honour of Saint Sarkis who died as a martyr during the reign of Maximillian. -Mar Tekla: On the road that leaves the village there is a steep path on the right that leads to a terrace where a small waterfall welcomes the pilgrims. Here we find ourselves in the Convent of Mar Tekla, of the orthodox faith. The building was constructed on several levels which gives it a sumptuous feel. Following the stairs, we arrive on the top floor where we find a modern church with a dome and a cave into which filters water with miraculous properties. This curious religious monument receives an unending stream of devotion not only from Christian pilgrims but also from many Moslems who are convinced of its holiness. The convent jealously guards the remains of Saint Tekla, daughter of prince Seljukida, a follower of Saint Peter. Other religious relics can be found in the convent but what strikes one most is the peaceful atmosphere of the place. It offers an unbeatable opportunity to meditate and enter into a communion with the beauty of the landscape. It is also worth mentioning that there is a mosque.

In the case of gardens: original and current style:
It is not the case.
B) Related to ancient remains

  • Archaeological components:

    There are also the remains of numerous monasteries, convents, churches, shrines and sanctuaries. There are some that lie in ruins, while others continue to stand, defying age.

  • Traces in the environment of human activity: Ancient remains, some agricultural spot.
C) Related to intangible, social and spiritual values

  • Population, ethnic groups: The Aramaeans: The inhabitants of Maalula are the natural descendants of those Semitic tribes which populated the Syrian desert and part of Mesopotamia 14 centuries before our time. Old manuscripts reveal that these tribes went by the name of Aramu or Ahlamu. The Aramaeans were in reality composed of a multitude of kingdoms which did not have strong ties of union between themselves. Towards the year 1000, the Aramaeans occupied a vast territory which extended as far as the banks of the Euphrates. But the power of its armies was systematically weakened by the assaults of the kings of Assur. Decadence started to become apparent. The different principalities and Aramaean kingdoms were incapable of co-ordinating their efforts and were defeated one by one. Arpat, Cobah and Hamat lost control of their possessions. The Assyrians won. In the year 730 BC their luck had run out and Assur formed the border with Egypt.
  • Languages and dialects: The Aramaic language was the main language used for intercommunication between the Semitic peoples in the ancient middle east. Around the 8th century BC, the empire of the Aramaic language extended from Egypt to remote and isolated regions in Asia. The first documentary evidence of the Aramaic language was found on the tomb of king Kilamu (4th - 8th century BC), or in Neirab on the funeral remains of the Moon god south of Aleppo. As of the 7th century AD, Aramaic was used throughout the Assyrian empire. Furthermore, the Persians adopted Aramaic as their official language around the 5th century BC. Writing with alphabetic characters spread rapidly. The book of Esdras shows us that Aramaic was also used in Palestine. Once the size of the Persian empire had increased, the use of Aramaic became universal. Documents found in India (3rd century BC) show that Aramaic was used throughout Asia Minor. The Jews of Palestine used Aramaic until the second century AD. After the finding of the Qumran manuscripts on the banks of the Dead Sea, the overall opinion about spoken and written Aramaic has been noticeably modified and it is possible that it will continue to be modified in proportion to other discoveries of this type which come to light. In any case, it is a language in full development, rich and dynamic. It is clear that the words of Christ were disseminated in Aramaic because it was the language spoken and written by him and his disciples. What we today call Syrian is in reality a dialect of Aramaic spoken in Mesopotamia (nowadays known as Urfa in Turkey), which later became the language of the Christians in Syria. At the same time, pressure was exerted on Syriac by the Arabic invaders especially after the 5th century AD. Syriac succumbed to this pressure in the end. The Arabs won the battle. However some pockets of resistance still exist. Maalula is an example of this. It is very difficult to know with any certainty if Syriac will have an assured future. In any case it is hoped that Syriac will become a language of the future. It comes as no surprise that there is a feeling of solidarity among the people who currently speak it:- the Jacobists of Turkey, the mountain dwellers of Mosuk (Iraq), the Nestorians and the Caldeos. The distinction between Eastern Syriac and Western Syriac (the latter is spoken in Maalula) also appear in the written script. Eastern Syriac uses the old uncial characters, or in other words it is written in capital letters whereas western Syriac is written in italics. Regrettably, in Maalula there is currently an almost complete loss of Syriac script. It is to be hoped that some of the young people, who have a strong respect for the culture of their elders, will assume the task of reintroducing the Syriac script into daily life.
  • Lifestyle, believing, cults, traditional rites: Nowadays Maaloula has a population of 2,000. The peaceful and hardworking inhabitants devote themselves to the fundamental task of living in dignity. A hardworking atmosphere does not mask the principal preoccupation, that of preserving its language, its traditions and its rich history. The least mysterious way of safeguarding a necessary future. From the moment of arrival, the visitor has the sensation of having been transported into a magical world where the things that happen to the characters follow each other at a fierce rhythm. The first thing that touches the spirit is the beauty of the faces, the great charm of the orient. But later there are the gestures and smiles that permit one to perceive the natural disposition that the Maalulis possess to convey what at first sight seems invisible. Maalula is above all a facet of the sensual world. Maalula is a place of images: images that devour and tear the observer to pieces, rude, coarse, perfect, sublime images that cannot be evaded. Maalula is the vines creeping through the balconies. A peasant drinking the best home-made arak in the world. And always the young Maaluli girls with their sun-drenched bodies. But Maalula is also a winter of hungry snow. Maalula is an unforgettable blueness.

5.3. Quality

Condition: environmental/ cultural heritage degradation:
The distance from other major cities and its isolating geological features fostered the longevity of this linguistic oasis for over one and a half thousand years. However, modern roads and transportation, as well as accessibility to Arabic-language television and print media - and for some time until recently, also state policy - have eroded that linguistic heritage.
Perspectives/Views/ Points of interest/Setting:

-The city, which is built being adapted to the natural shape of the territory. -The monasteries: Mar Sakis and Mar Tekla. -Other ancient remains already mentioned in this file.

6. VALUES

Tangible

  • Aesthetic
The main tangible values of "Maaloula Cultural Landscape" are: -Aesthetic/Geological: Maalula perches on the slopes of the Kalamun Mountains as if it were in reality a gigantic bee-hive on the edge of a precipice. This exceptional village seems to float above implacable nature. -Architectonical: The city is built being adapted to the natural shape of the territory: there are houses in the precipices, or monasteries inside caves... There are also important monument with religious significance (monasteries): Greek Catholic Mar Sarkis and Greek Orthodox Mar Thecla.

Intangible

  • Historical
  • Mythical
  • Religious
The main intangible values of "Maaloula Cultural Landscape" are: -Historical/Cultural: With Bakh'a and Jubba'din, it is the only place where a dialect of the Western branch of the Aramaic language is still spoken. Ma'loula represents, therefore, an important source for anthropological linguistic studies regarding first century Aramaic. -Religious/Mythical: The monasteries of the city shows the religious importance of the site. Many pilgrims come to Ma'loula, both Muslim and Christian, and they go there to gain blessings and make offerings. The monastery of Mar Sakis is one of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria. It was built on the site of a pagan temple, and has elements which go back to the fifth to sixth century Byzantine period. Mar Sarkis is the Arabic name for Saint Sergius, a Roman soldier who was executed for his Christian beliefs. This monastery still maintains its solemn historical character. The monastery of Mar Taqla holds the remains of St. Taqla (Thecla), daughter of one of a Seleucid prince and pupil of St. Paul, and further purported to be both Paul's disciple and wife. According to legend, in the 1st century C.E., St. Taqla was being pursued by soldiers of her father to capture her because of her Christian faith. She came upon a mountain, and after praying, the mountain split open and let her escape through. The town gets its name from this gap or entrance in the mountain. However, there are many variations to this story among the residents of Ma'loula.
Authenticity:
The Aramaic language was the main language used for intercommunication between the Semitic peoples in the ancient middle east since the 8th century BC. The monastery of Mar Sakis dates to sixth century Byzantine period, and Mar Tekla: according to the legend, 1st century C.E.
Universality:
Med-O-Med agrees the criteria selected by UNESCO (v, vi) in the Tentative List, in order to define the universality of "Maaloula Cultural Landscape": v) Maaloula is an outstanding example of a traditional human settlement totally adapted to the natural shape of the territory, showing the human interaction with the environment. vi) Maaloula, Bakh'a and Jubba'din, are directly or tangibly associated with the origin and survival of Aramaic language, of outstanding universal significance. The site is also important because of its religious values and its monasteries.

7. ENCLOSURES

Historical and graphical data (drawings, paintings, engravings, photographs, literary items…):

Maaloula Cultural Landscape is one of all of the cultural landscapes of Syria which are included in The Cultural Landscape inventory runned by Med-O-Med.

Bibliography:

http://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/1299/ http://whc.unesco.org/venice2002 http://www.sacred-destinations.com/syria/maalula http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/22/world/middleeast/22aramaic.html?_r=1&ref=world http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JW6Q2wzCElU http://lingolex.com/maalula/maalula.htm -Black, I. (2009). Endangered Aramaic language makes a comeback in Syria. The Guardian (London). -Robert F. (2008). Presumed language of Jesus fading away in Syria. International Herald Tribune. p. 2. Retrieved 2008-04-22. -Ross, B. (2009). The Monuments of Syria, I. B. Taurus, 3rd edition. -UNESCO. (2001). Convention concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage. World Heritage Committee. 25 session. Helsinki, Finland. -UNESCO. (2002). Cultural Landscapes: the Challenges of Conservation. Associated Workshops, World Heritage. Ferrara, Italy.

Compiler Data: Sara Martínez Frías.