The Convent of St Thecla Ma‘lula
St Thecla Ma’lula Patriarchal Monastery (Convent)Source: Monasteries of Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate, University of Balamand Publications, 2007.
The convent of St Thecla (Mar Taqla) lies in the village of Ma‘lula, sixty-five kilometers northeast of Damascus at an altitude of 1600 meters. Nestled below the last of three ranges forming the mountainous region of Qalamoun, the village is isolated and naturally protected, which may largely explain its inhabitants’ continuing adherence to the Christian faith and the survival of the Aramaic language among them. This convent is a major place of pilgrimage in Syria.
|St Thecla Ma’lula Patriarchal Monastery (Convent)|
|Abbess:||Rev. Mother Pelagia Sayyaf|
|Postal Address:||St Thecla Ma’lula Patriarchal Monastery, Ma’lula, Syria|
|Tel:||+963 11 777 0 003|
|Fax:||+963 11 777 1 000|
The name Ma‘lula, meaning ‘entrance’ in Aramaic, refers to the village’s position at the opening of a narrow pass between two steep hills. It is mentioned in classical literature, and the site has yielded many remains, including monuments and statuary; most importantly, Hellenistic-period arches, tombs, and carvings have been found within several caves in the hills above the village. Farther towards the plain are the ruins of a Roman temple. Ma‘lula contains many churches, but most of them are now ruined: the churches of Our Lady, St Nicholas, St Saba, St Thomas, Sts Cosmas and Damian, St Barbara, and St George, and others. Near the village is the Greek Catholic monastery of Sts Sergius and Bacchus, known as Dayr Mar Sarkis, and on the slope to the north lies the Greek Orthodox convent of St Thecla. Both monasteries were originally combined before the separation of the two churches in 1724.
According to the legend, St Thecla belonged to a noble pagan family from the region of Qalamoun. Desiring the Christian life, she broke the engagement her father had arranged with a pagan at the age of eighteen and fled from home. The best-known version relates that pursuing Roman soldiers, intent on putting her to death, were closing upon her as she crossed the third range of Qalamoun. Reaching the vicinity of Ma‘lula, she found the way blocked by a rocky height; yet, the moment she prayed for God’s mercy, the barrier was miraculously divided, allowing her to pass through into the grotto, where she lived for the rest of her life.
In the grotto, St Thecla dug the spring whose sacred waters are reputed to cure paralysis, rheumatism, and infertility. The saint lived for many years in the cave, healing the sick and preaching the Christian faith, finally dying at the age of ninety. She is widely venerated, and the prestige of her convent is equal to that of the nearby monastic house of Our Lady of Saydnaya (believed to preserve an original picture of the Virgin Mary made by St Luke). Thecla’s reputation as a healing saint draws many to her convent to pay visits and fulfill vows. Pilgrim families now stay at the guest-house attached to the convent. Previously, however, supplicant visitors spent the afternoon and night in the grotto, prostrated themselves at dawn before the iconostasis, and drank the holy water of the spring. If the supplicant were a pregnant woman, it was the custom for her to eat a tuft of wick from the oil-lamp in the grotto. Those who were too sick to go to Ma‘lula in person gave visitors their written prayers to place before the tomb of the saint.
Veneration of the saints in Syria is frequent even among Muslims. Despite the spread of Islam in the region, local inhabitants have retained a firm faith in St Thecla, permitting the survival and prosperity of the convent. It is noticeable that many of the prayers offered to St Thecla in her grotto are preceded by Qur’anic recitations. In apparent response to entreaties of this kind, childless Muslim couples were frequently blessed with children. Some of these couples would even have a longed-for child baptized as a mark of reverence for the saint. The veneration of St Thecla has also spread to Lebanon, especially to the district of Metn, where many churches are dedicated to her.
The convent of St Thecla depends directly on the Patriarchate of Antioch and is administered by a mother superior, now Pelagia Sayyaf. Seven nuns and the mother superior live at the convent. As in most Orthodox monasteries, their daily life consists mainly in fulfilling obligations of prayer. Each nun performs prayers by herself every morning, and three days each week are allocated for communal prayers. Because the convent of St Thecla is a shrine for the people of Qalamoun and Christians throughout the Near East, the nuns are always prepared to welcome visitors and guide them throughout the convent. Parish activities are constant at the convent, especially the liturgies on Sundays and feast days. The nuns share the tasks of cleaning and tidying the convent buildings; by tradition, however, special care of St Thecla’s grotto church is given to the eldest nun.
In addition to these duties, the nuns practice manual crafts, such as sewing and embroidery, making rosaries, and decorating icons with pearls. Since Pelagia Sayyaf’s appointment as mother superior, the nuns have also run a small orphanage, which now houses four young children. The nuns derive all their daily needs from the town of Ma‘lula; they seldom leave the convent, except to supervise agricultural work in the nearby fields or, occasionally, to travel to Damascus for goods that are locally unavailable. On such visits, they may take the opportunity to visit the Patriarchate.
The Qalamoun region became Christian in the fourth century, the period when the first monasteries were founded: indeed, Christian manuscripts from this period have been preserved by the monks of Ma‘lula. Following its arrival in the seventh century, Islam penetrated the Qalamoun region slowly, gradually becoming established in the first range and the surrounding plains before spreading to the second range in the ninth century. However, stubborn Christian resistance halted Islamic penetration of the third range until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A number of towns and villages have remained Christian to this day; they include Saydnaya, al-Ma‘arra, and Ma‘lula itself, which has a Christian majority, divided between Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic communities.
The Aramaic language was widely used throughout the Middle East even after the coming of Islam in 634, although it gradually gave way to Arabic. Ma‘lula is well-known for its preservation of the Aramaic language. For this reason, the town has long drawn the attention of Western linguistic scholars, whose investigations have advanced the understanding of Aramaic and its importance in ancient times. Today, Aramaic remains the normal spoken language among the inhabitants of Ma‘lula and the neighboring, now Muslim, villages of Jib‘adin and Al-Sarkha. However, they are unable to read and write Aramaic, and, of course, they normally use Arabic with outsiders. As a result, their particular dialect of Aramaic is now heavily mixed with Arabic loanwords and is far removed from its classical form.
The monastery of St Thecla and the church of St John the Baptist were rebuilt in 1756, according to the chronicle of Mikha’il al-Burayk. The Russian consul Uspensky records four monks at St Thecla in 1840.
The modern convent of St Thecla is situated around the grotto where the saint is said to have taken refuge and spent the rest of her days. In 1906, a church was built beside the sacred spot, upon the remains of an ancient church of unknown date. The convent building was begun in 1935, and a second floor was added in 1959. The ground floor contains a reception room, refectory, and display rooms for the sale of religious artifacts; the second floor is entirely occupied by the cells of the nuns. Just below the building is a kitchen, including a baking-stone used for making bread; above it, another building dating to 1888 has recently been restored as a patriarchal residence. A guest-house for tourists and visitors was built in 1934. A ladder at the top of the main convent building leads directly to the shrine of St Thecla, a rock-grotto that dates back to the earliest Christian centuries. The grotto is divided into a sacred spring and two small churches, which have recently been modernized.
The icons are located in the iconostasis of the convent church of St John the Baptist, in the saint’s grotto, and in the mother superior’s wing. With the exception of a few contemporary twentieth-century icons, they date from the mid-eighteenth to the late-nineteenth century.
The eighteenth-century icons are headed by three examples of the work of Patriarch Sylvestros, now in the church of St John the Baptist. The first represents Christ, blessing with his right hand and holding the Gospel upon his lap with his left. St John the Baptist stands to the left, leaning towards Christ and blessing with his right hand, while his left is folded upon an open document in Arabic, reading: Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world. The second icon represents the Virgin, the Child on her left arm, leaning towards his mother with his eyes upon the spectator. To the right of the couple stands St Thecla, carrying a decorative metal cross in her right hand and making the sign of peace with her left. The third icon represents the Annunciation: Gabriel offers a rose to Mary, who puts forth her hand to take it.
In the grotto of St Thecla are two icons. The first shows the Resurrection; Christ, transfigured in light, blesses with his right hand and carries a banner in his left. To the right sits an angel, and to the left, women bearing perfumes; at the bottom are three guards in different positions. Behind the scene is the city and surrounding gardens, the first light of morning rising upon them. The second icon in the grotto represents the Nativity of the Virgin, in which the infant Mary is raised upon the angel’s hand to be crowned and invested with the Holy Spirit.
In the mother superior’s wing are several more icons. One represents the archangel Michael and another, St Moses the Ethiopian. A third represents St Elias sitting at the door of his cave while ravens bring him food. In the sanctuary of the convent church is an icon showing two saints, probably Cosmas and Damian.
The nineteenth-century icons are also found in the convent church. The main group, on the upper register of the iconostasis, represents the Nativity of the Virgin, the Purification, the Dormition, the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, the Descent from the Cross, the Resurrection, and Pentecost. Separately, there are three large icons painted on fabric. The first represents St Thecla and the other two an assortment of biblical and hagiographical scenes.
A wooden cross in the convent church displays the Crucified Lord in the center, surrounded by the Virgin, St John the Apostle and the symbols of the four Evangelists. Nearby is an icon of Sts Sergius and Bacchus on horseback wearing military uniform. The last group of nineteenth-century icons in the convent of St Thecla belongs to the Jerusalem school, known for its fusion of traditional Eastern iconography and European painting styles. Among them are four icons by the greatest representative of the school, Mikha’il Mhanna al-Qudsi.