Thursday, November 12, 2009

Antiochian Monasteries in 1850

This too is taken from John Mason Neale. It's worth remembering that it was written by an Anglican clergyman in 1850, so some of his turns of phrase and certainly his transliterations might look a bit odd to modern readers. Nevertheless, it's a fascinating firsthand account of monastic life in Syria and Lebanon at that time.

Happily, there have been preserved in Syria some Patriarchal and Diocesan monasteries which maintain Orthodoxy. Of the first kind are the following:

1. The Monastery of St. George—which is in the diocese Arki in the mountains of Akkara. It is not known when and by whom it was founded; but it was repaired in A.D. 1700 by the Patriarch of Antioch, Athanasius, and enlarged by additional buildings in the years 1837 and 1838. Of religious in this convent there are thirty persons, who are all Syrians. Among them there is no actual Hegumen, but his duties are performed by a monk selected by the Patriarch. The church is very small. This monastery has in its neighborhood a good quantity of arable land, which is cultivated by the free peasants of two neighboring villages according to a fixed rule of partnership, by which they are to be content with a fourth part of the produce. The live stock of the monastery is in a good condition. The monastery itself is surrounded by oliveyards and mulberry trees for silkworms. Of vineyards, too, there is a good number. This old monastery is regarded with pious devotion by the inhabitants of that region, who are in the habit of dedicating their new-born children to Saint George, inscribing them as belonging to the monastery, and then, when they are to be married, redeeming them by a small offering of money or of something else in kind. This custom even extends itself to the cattle of the Ansari, in case of any of them being sick and recovering. As this monastery is situated on the high way between Aleppo and Tripoli, it serves as a halting-place for whole caravans, so that of barely alone it expends as much as 1500 tchetverts and a great quantity of wheat, buckwheat, oil, wine, etc. But these great outgoings are compensated with some small surplus by the voluntary offerings of the travelers. This explains how it comes to pass that the monastery keeps in its pay as many as forty servants. Besides this, the monks of Saint George every year collect alms in the neighbouring and more distant villages, and especially from the Ansari, who are not Christians. The Kings of Georgia were benefactors to the monastery of Saint George by offerings of church plate and vestments, and allowed the monks to collect alms in their dominion every three years.

2. The monastery of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin called Belemend, from the name of its founder, perhaps the same as the Crusader Belmond (Boemond). This monastery is built on the first rise of the Lebanon, within sight of the Mediterranean Sea, and is distant from Tripoli not more than a ride of two hours and a half on horseback. At the time of the Greek insurrection, it was entirely desolate; there were no monks in it, the church was without windows, without a floor, without an iconostasis, and without sacred vestments, and it was more like a prison than a house of God. The property of the monastery was in disorder, and in the hands of strangers. The present Patriarch, Methodius, wishing to restore the monastery, made a happy choice of a Hegumen for it in the Priest-monk Athanasius, a native of Damascus. In the course of thirteen years (1830-1842) this Hegumen by his disinterested and diligent management, put into order the old possessions of the monastery, and acquired it for new. With the revenues arising from these possessions, he repaired the church, and furnished it with sacred vessels, vestments, and books; so that it became the very best in all Syria: he repaired the whole monastery, added new cells, and furnished them with everything that was necessary according to the custom of the place. There collected around him thirty-five monks, all natives, and lived according to the rules of a coenobium. That is not all: pained to see Orthodoxy losing ground in Syria, loving his countrymen and lamenting their ignorance of their Faith, seeing examples of good management in the convents of the Maronites and Uniats, which diffused among the people a certain light of instruction and knowledge, the Hegumen Athanasius established in his monastery a school for monks, with a view to fitting them for the preaching of the Word of God, and for the holding of Episcopal Sees. Monks, young and old, were daily taught the Arabic and Greek languages and church music, by teachers brought expressly for them from Tripoli and Damascus; while he himself, every day after the customary Services, taught them the truths of the Faith and rules of good living, by reading to them the Lives of the Saints, or the Works of the Fathers of the Church, in their native tongue. Within the monastery there reigned order, obedience to the Superior, piety and chastity, industry and knowledge. It was a hive of God, and the bees themselves were fed in it with the honey of the Word of God, and built honeycombs for others.
The Hegumen Athanasius twice threw himself at the feet of Ibrahim Pasha, and begged him for two favors for his convent, viz., that it should be freed from imposts, and that it should be secured in the possession of its mills, which the Prince of Lebanon, the Emir Bashir, was seeking to appropriate.
After this Hegumen, who went away to Jerusalem in the quality of preacher, the best of the monks were dispersed; some to the monastery of Saint George, some to Mount Athos, some to Sidon; the remaining twenty-two live on, hoping for better days.

3. The Monastery of the Prophet Saint Elias on Mount Lebanon, at a distance of six hours’ ride from Beyrout. It is not when and by whom it was founded; but it was repaired and improved in the years 1842-43 by the Hegumen Macarius a Greek. The whole monastery is very small and confined. The church is small, but decent: the new cells, on the second story, are good enough. The monks in all are eight, and there are as many servants.

4. The nunnery of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, called Saidnaia, at the distance of six hours to the north of Damascus. This is the oldest convent in Syria. It was founded by the Emperor Justinian I in the fifth century. Its site is very picturesque. The convent occupies, and one may say crowns, the summit of a high and bare hill standing isolated like Mount Tabor. In this monastery the church is not small, but dark and poor: it needs to have its upper part rebuilt: behind the principal sanctuary there is a small oratory, in which there is a miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin. The cells, with the guest-chambers, are in all eighty, the nuns thirty-eight in number: they come hither from all the Syrian dioceses, and are admitted by the Patriarch, on the recommendation of the Bishops. After a probation from one to three years, they are tonsured. Their habit consists of a black gown (riasa), and their heads are covered with a long black handkerchief, so that nothing of the face is seen except the eyes. The nuns of the Saidnaia live a strict and abstemious life: they eat no flesh meat; each one received from the convent bread, tolokno (oats boiled, dried in the oven, and ground), olive oil, fuel, and materials for their clothes and shoes, which they have to make up for themselves. The old nuns communicate in the Holy Mysteries every Saturday: the younger ones once in the month. They go out from the convent only when they go down from the mountain to the neighboring cemetery any one of the sisters who may have died. They have no Superior, but the duty of overlooking them is committed by the Patriarch to some one of the nuns who is more devout and intelligent than the rest. As for the administration of the temporal affairs of the house, it is attended to by two trustees; one chosen from the Priests of the Convent, the other a Christian of consideration from Damascus or from the village below the monastery. It is their duty to provide the monastery with all that is necessary: they are changed every year and render an account to the Patriarch of their income and expenses. The convent is maintained by the freewill offerings of pious visitors, especially of Christian women, who come to pray before the miraculous image of the Blessed Virgin, and bring their sick in hope of obtaining healing through her. Besides this in every diocese there are persons acting in behalf of the convent, who collect for it voluntary offerings; but of property in general, moveable or immoveable, it has very little.
The Saidnaia Convent is exceedingly venerated by all the orthodox Christians of Syria. In it maidens who are poor or left orphans, crippled or diseased, and old widows, find refuge from the temptations and afflictions of the world, and serve the Lord day and night in fasting and prayer: there the sick obtain healing. In this convent there are also some educated nuns who teach the young novices and some girls from the village, to read and write. It is satisfactory to know that there is in the world a well-ordered Syro-Arab nunnery. It is a flower-garden consecrated to the Most Holy Virgin Mary; it is a hospital for sinful souls; a salutary well-spring of grace; the light of the younger Christian maidens.

5. The Monastery of Saint Thecla, at six hours’ distance from the Saidnaia to the north, at the Uniat village of Malloolah. It is built under the brow of a high and naked rock, and it is literally an eagle’s nest. Under the dark projection of the neighboring rock, in a cave arranged as a chapel, hidden within the rock itself, are preserved the relics of Saint Thecla. But in the monastery there is a poor church, dedicated to the name of the Forerunner. The Christians, and even the Mussulmans, have the utmost faith in the relics of Saint Thecla, and often obtain, through them, miraculous healing. But, unhappily, the convent is ill kept: in it there lives only a Greek Hegumen with a Deacon and two novices, whom he sends out to collect alms. Ten years ago he made some guest-chambers for pilgrims: and now he is intending to rebuild and enlarge the church.

Besides the Patriarchal Monasteries, there are also some small diocesan houses.
The Archbishop of Arki has two small monasteries of Saint Dometius and of the Prophet Elias, with two monks, not far from the Patriarchal Monastery of Saint George. The first possesses a small piece of arable land, enough for one plough; the second has land enough for four ploughs. These lands have been purchased.

The Archbishop of Tripoli has five small monasteries, within a short distance from the town of Tripoli.

1. Of Saint James the Persian, on the first rise of the Lebanon, which was made out of a cemetery church, about the year 1600; in it there are three monks.

2. Of the Entrance of Our Lady to the Temple, called Natour, on the sea shore, with three monks.

3. Of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, called Keftine, upon the stream Kadisha: in it there are five monks.

4. Of Saint Demetrius, on the banks of the same stream, but much higher up than Keftine, with two monks.

5. Of Saint George, called Kapher. In it there is one monk.
The Archbishop of Beirout has six small monasteries: (1) Of the Assumption, called Khamatour, on the stream Abou-Ali, near Tripoli; (2) Of the Assumption, called Kiaftoun, on the stream of the Asphour; (3) Of the Annunciation, called Nourie, on the sea; (4) Of Saint George, called Kharph, on the Lebanon; (5) Of the Archangels, at Boukaata, and (6) A new Monastery of Saint George at Souk-el-Garda, also on the Lebanon.

All the diocesan monasteries are supported by small portions of land, vineyards, oliveyards, by mulberry trees, feeding silkworms, offerings from pilgrims, and collection of alms. They are nothing else than so many Episcopal Lodges.

Taken collectively, the Syrian Orthodox Monasteries render a great moral service to the Church. Besides that they make bad people to become good, and some even to become holy;-- besides that they serve as a refuge for innocence, for poverty, for orphans, for the aged and for crippled sufferers;-- besides the consolations of grace;-- besides charitable attendance and miraculous healings; they support, at least in some small degree, the poor Episcopal Sees, and the Schools for the people. One must not omit here to mention also this, that if, through the inscrutable dispositions of Divine Providence, Orthodoxy should extend itself over Syria, the Patriarchal Monastery of Saint George will diffuse the light of Christianity among the tribe of the Ansari, who cherish a profound veneration for the monastery; while the Monastery of Khamatour will serve to baptize the tribe of Mutawali who bring their sick to that monastery and ask the monks to baptize them. Actual baptism is not given to them, but they are only washed with water; for the Mutawali, when they get well, remain Mussulmans. These two monasteries must be considered as bright sparks, from which the light of Orthodoxy may be kindled over all Syria.
The tolerance of the Turkish government allows the monasteries to acquire property, to any extent that is desired, but exacts from them the taxes fixed by the laws,-- which is quite equitable. The monasteries paid no tributes only during the time of the Egyptian rule in Syria, till the year 1840.


Unknown said...

بسیار زیبا بود

Anonymous said...

It must be kept in mind that in Orthodox tradition there is no such a thing as a "nunnery" or "Convent" , it is called women's monastery. Also the term "Syrian Orthodox Monasteries" can be misleading because it can be taken as belonging to the Oriental Monophysite Syrian "Orthodox" Church. The Patriarchate of Antioch belongs to the Greek Orthodox Family of Churches and Syria and Lebanon are under its jurisdiction.For this reason, there is no such a thing as a Syrian Orthodox Church.
Having said this, the article is very interesting for its historical value.

virdei said...

What are the monasteries mentioned here like today?

Samn! said...


If you go to the link on the right that says "NOCTOC on monasteries in Lebanon" you can see very nice articles from a Cypriot blog about many of the monasteries described here. All but maybe one of them are currently in use and are for the most part relatively thriving in recent years.