St George – Saydnaya Patriarchal Monastery

St George – Saydnaya Patriarchal Monastery


Source: Monasteries of Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate, University of Balamand Publications, 2007.          



   This old monastery lies at an altitude of 1200 metres, at the south entrance of Saydnaya, on a hill facing the convent of the Virgin.  Standing on the terrace of St George’s monastery, one can see the whole town of Saydnaya below.

St George – Saydnaya Patriarchal Monastery
Abbot: Rev. Archimandrite John Talli
Postal Address: St George Monastery,
P.O. Box: 22458 Saydnaya, Syria
 Tel: +963 11 595 0 646
+963 11 595 5 882
E-mail: [email protected]

 The modern revival of St George’s monastery began in 1985, when it was attached to Our Lady of Saydnaya and the old monastic building was renovated.  In 1995, St George’s monastery was placed under the direction of archimandrite Youhanna al-Talleh, who has energetically promoted its expansion.  The monks have laid a large quantity of fertile soil on the surrounding stony land, thus transforming it into cultivated terraces.  Apart from figs, vines, and cypress, two hundred olive trees have recently been planted.  A monastic order was founded at St George in 1995, and the monastic community was definitely established in 1999.  Seven monks and the superior now lead a common spiritual life bound by monastic regulations.  Their day normally begins at four o’clock, with communal prayers at six.  Work is undertaken between eight o’clock and the noontime meal.  The monks rest, study, or work until four o’clock in the afternoon and then attend vespers and perform personal devotions.  Work is resumed from six o’clock until dinnertime.  Night prayers after dinner are followed by spiritual conversation with the superior.  The monks finish the day by reading in their cells.  The various activities of the day are announced by the sound of the talando, a wooden plank struck rhythmically with a mallet.

   The monks are seeking to expand the monastery.  Committed to serving the spiritual needs of young people in the suburbs of Damascus, they hold spiritual retreats lasting three to seven days, and they welcome different groups of young monks and laypeople in summer.  Once a month, they organize a large evening reception for the monastery’s friends, who come mostly from the suburbs of Damascus. 



   As in the case of most Lebanese and Syrian monasteries, the origin of St George’s is unknown.  Popular tradition asserts that it was founded by ascetics in the first Christian centuries, but historical or archaeological evidence is lacking, although the lower walls of the church are obviously ancient.  The earliest reference to the monastery was made in 1727 by the Russian traveler Barsky, who nevertheless confirms its great age.  ‘The church’, he wrote, ‘is very small; despite its age, it is very solid, being built of stone.  Beside it lie the cells, more recent, which constitute the ‘little monastery’ on the south side.  Only a single monk lives here as caretaker of the church.’[1]  The English traveler Bishop Richard Pococke, visiting St George’s in 1737, also found a single monk.  Later descriptions reveals that the monastery was built on the cliff-face and partly set into a grotto, indicating that it was originally a shelter for cave-dwelling ascetics.  Tombs found here are probably the burial-places of these hermits.

   Until 1924, St George Saydnaya was the see of the former archbishopric of Seleucia, whose jurisdiction extended over many surrounding villages and across the Anti-Lebanon mountains into the Bekaa Valley.[2]  Metropolitan Germanos Chehade restored St George’s in 1905 and founded an episcopal residence at St George’s in 1912.  He also planned an icon museum to display the thirty works belonging to the monastery, some dating to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  But the see of Seleucia was dissolved in 1924 and the region of Saydnaya attached to the see of Damascus.  The monastery of St George was practically abandoned for many decades until its modern revival began in 1985.



   The monastery is composed of several buildings constructed in different periods.  Only the lower walls of the church are original.  The large blocks of finely cut white stone, laid in regular courses, seem to be of early Byzantine date.  The upper walls and the rest of the church in general date from 1905, but the concrete and red-tiled dome and the high stone bell-tower have been added very recently.

   The interior forms a rough square dominated by the flat ceiling and the concrete walls and dome.  Only the parts towards the west, which are formed by the cliff-face, have not been plastered.  The east side is occupied by the altar and a semi-circular apse, which is adorned with a recent painting of the Virgin and Child.

   During the construction of the metropolitan’s residence in 1912, workers discovered a cave with entrance steps.  Like the grottoes of the nearby Cherubim monastery, it was probably used by early Christian ascetics, and the metropolitan Gerasimos Chehade at once transformed it into a sanctuary dedicated to St George.  Lying twenty meters south-east of the church, the sanctuary is entered through a finely carved archway and a flight of stone steps carved into the cliff-face.  It has recently been adorned with a red-tiled dome, an altar table and iconostasis, and a marble pavement.

   The old monastery building was built in 1905 and renovated in 1985.  This is the oldest part of the monastic section, and it resembles the traditional architecture of Saydnaya, with its two floors and arcaded gallery.  Two interconnecting rooms on the ground floor form a large hall.  The first floor, reserved for female Religious, contains a terrace, kitchen, sitting-room, and three cells.

   Several buildings have also been constructed.  One overlooking the orchard is used as a library, workshop, and cellar.  Another building of two floors has been constructed on the slope just below the road.  The upper floor contains a conference room, large library, office, refectory, and private apartment: on the lower floor are seven cells, bathrooms, kitchen, refectory, sewing workshop, computer room, and cellar.  Just above on the roadside, a small shop has been established for the sale of devotional objects.  A third building constructed against the north wall of the church is dedicated to visitors’ receptions: the lower floor contains an entrance hall with an arcaded gallery and a large reception-room furnished with armchairs; the upper floor is decorated with arched windows.  Finally, a domed building containing a small souvenir shop has been built immediately above the stairs leading down to the underground sanctuary.  Clearly visible from above, the red-tiled dome rests on a white marble drum decorated with stained glass windows and fine Ionic columns.  



   A large wooden iconostasis installed in 1905 runs the width of the church on the east side.  The icons displayed on it were mostly painted in 1961.  However, to the right and left of the iconostasis are images of the Transfiguration and the Baptism, both painted in 1707 by the same hand.  The figures are modeled against a dark background and space is represented symbolically, giving the composition a single dimension.  The contours are simple and elegant, the faces oval, the bodies slim yet muscled.  The style resembles the Paleologian, which reached its peak in the fourteenth century and was carried on by post-Byzantine painters from Crete and Syria.  The beginning of the eighteenth century was the golden age of Melkite iconography, whose main exponent was the great Aleppine painter Nehmeh al-Moussawir.  These images are typical of Nehmeh’s style, and the paintings may have been executed by him or by a close disciple.

   More icons of different periods are displayed on the church walls.  On the south wall to the right of the iconostasis is an eighteenth-century Annunciation, shown against a baroque background of high, red-roofed towers, consoles, and arcades with Corinthian columns.  It reveals an unusual motif: a tree rising in the middle and cutting the entire scene in two – symbolizing the tree of Jesse and the royal descent of Jesus, and perhaps also the tree of Mamre where Abraham received the three angelic visitors, a symbol of the Holy Trinity.

   Another icon is dated 1882 and signed by the famous Palestinian painter Mikhail al-Qudsi.  On the right against a light-blue background, St Nicholas and St Christopher are shown painted in lively colours with simplified and rounded outlines.  On the left against an olive-green background, the archangel Michael and St George are painted in darker colors with refined clothing and features, a style that belongs to the early nineteenth century.

   Among the most interesting icon in the collection is that of St George to the right of the church entrance.  The painter is unknown, but it was donated to the monastery in 1828.  Following traditional Byzantine iconography, the saint is depicted on horseback with the child of Mytilene riding behind, slaying the dragon while the princess, king, and queen look on terrified.  The vigorous, dynamic style, and the strong contrast of light and shadow reveal Western influence and perhaps indicate a Greek or Cretan painter.          

[1] Barsky, p. 324.

[2] Joseph Zeitoun, Deir al-Qadis Jawurjius al-Rahbani al-Batriarki fi Saydnaya (2002), 42.