St. Mark Convent Keeps Assyrian Flame Alive in the Holy Land
Jerusalem - Deep within the bowels of the Assyrian convent of St Mark, in the Old City of Jerusalem, a rare treasure lies gathering dust.
Unbeknownst to many, it perches forlorn in a dark, dank corner, in a dimly lit cavern beneath the little church at the periphery of the Armenian Quarter. A lidless earthen jar, its sides unvarnished and unadorned.
A nondescript, crude amphora, a modest clone of its more glamorous Greek cousins.
My discovery is an awe-inspiring surprise, a totally unexpected boon.
I had lived for years within a stone's throw of the church of St Marks, which Assyrians claim is the first Christian edifice to have been built in the Holy Land, and never knew of the cave's or vessel's existence.
Until a recent return visit to Jerusalem I had come to the church to pay my respects to Archbishop Mar Swerios Melki Murad, the new head of the Assyrian church in the Holy Land, and to meet a friend, Abouna Boulos.
He had been the first native Assyrian to be ordained priest in over a century, an event of huge import to the Christian presence in the Holy Land where the number of Christ's followers continues to dwindle, prey to relentless attrition. His ordainment in Bethlehem, where the Suryoyo (as Assyrians like to call themselves) have a more pronounced presence, was cause for widespread euphoria not only among the Orthodox churches, to which the Assyrians belong, but to the wider Christian community as well.
Abouna Boulos is glowing with excitement but is wearing the mantle of piling responsibilities with modesty and grace.
I shake hands with him, and he gives me a quizzical smile.
"How well do you know the Old City?" he asks.
Is he teasing me?
"I was born here and spent my childhood in the Armenian compound."
"Have you ever been in the cave beneath the church before?" he asks.
I did not know there ever was a cave there.
"Come along, I'll show you something that will make your day."
We trudge down the stone stairs into the dimly lit cavern. At first, all I can see is a simple chapel, apparently newly renovated, an altar, and a couple of lanterns hanging down from the ceiling.
"Look in the corner," the young priest says, a playful smile bathing his youthful features.
All I can see is this unpretentious lidless jar, with two handles either side.
"A sacred vessel?"
"More than that," he replies. "This is one of the jars that contained the wine that Jesus had converted at the wedding in Cana."
Time stands still. I do not need to kneel down to examine the jar - I would not touch it. Somehow, I sense it would feel like sacrilege. I am no archaeologist or antiquarian, but there is no doubt I am standing before an ancient artifact.
Whether it bears the seal of authenticity or not is immaterial. What is important is the provenance - the inspiration, the invitation not only to believe in the possibility of touching the verge of an aura of the miraculous and sacred, but of also bearing witness and participating in a transcendental experience.
Because if you take all this away, if you start doubting, then Jerusalem is lost, its mystique, and its golden hope crumbled, its message ground into dust.
"How did it get here?" I wonder.
"No one knows," the priest tells me. "It's been there forever."
The encounter highlights a marked resurgence in faith both among the dwindling Assyrian community of the Holy Land and their diaspora cousins, mostly in Europe. Archbishop Melki Murad's advent has signaled an unparalleled rejuvenation, breathing new life into the somnolent, minuscule Suryoyo presence: the convent's outlying sadly dilapidated properties have been spruced up, providing accommodation for hundreds of eager tourists and pilgrims who have been descending on Jerusalem in growing numbers.
The ordination of Father Boulos added a further fillip to the process. St Mark had made headlines over a half century ago when it briefly housed some of the priceless Dead Sea Scrolls that had been discovered by a Bedouin goat herder in the caves of Qumran.
And it was a Bethlehem-based Assyrian merchant named Kando who was involved, albeit indirectly, in the convoluted process of the extraction, revelation and the transportation of priceless scrolls and parchments from their hideout in the caves.
"We are steadfast in our faith and the faith of our ancestors," Saliba Taweel, a distinguished member of the Suryoyo community of the city, tells me. "We are here to stay."
Saliba is a teacher. He has classes in Jerusalem. To reach them, he has no choice but to endure the daily hassle at the harrowing Israeli security checkpoints along the way.
"It's part of our daily existence," he says.
One of his most recent achievements has been the part he played in the signing of a twinning agreement between Bethlehem and the French city of Grenoble. But he also has a greater claim to recognition: he is married to a grand-daughter of Kando.
The wily old merchant passed away in 1993, most of his secrets buried with him. Whether Taweel, a serious scholar, or his wife Suzy, became privy to any of them, remains another secret. They do not talk about it. Right now, their priorities, as those of their fellow Suryoyo community members, are halting any further slippage among their number and ensuring their children complete their higher education.
"We live for the day. Tomorrow is too far away," Saliba philosophizes.
By Arthur Hagopian