An art sanctuary at Syria's Deir Mar Musa

Annelle Sheline
6 Min Read

About 50 km north of Damascus, past the town of An Nabk, a road winding across the barren landscape ends at the foot of a staircase. A gate adorned with a human handprint, footprint and stone eye stands open, welcoming the visitor to climb to the buildings above, seemingly growing out of the rock face.

As you climb, you might meet someone digging around the roots of a pomegranate tree. He may not be dressed as one, but he’s most likely a monk, or one of the individuals that divide their time between Deir Mar Musa and the external world. He will tell you to keep climbing, to pay your respects at the church and that he will join you shortly.

Finally reaching the summit and terrace, you might be given tea by a quiet man named Abdel Masih Shamoun, or Dodi. Before long, you’ll politely be asked to cut up some tomatoes for dinner, or maybe another pilgrim will arrive and you will help prepare their tea.

If you’re lucky, you may have the chance to meet Fra Paolo, the Italian Jesuit priest who rediscovered and revitalized this place, Deir Mar Musa, reviving an abandoned holy site to a living monastery. If he’s off on one of his many trips around the world, talking to any of the members of the Mar Musa community will reveal much of the same unifying spirit of the place.

Shamoun, an artist, uses paint to project that spirit visually. If he’s feeling talkative, he may describe his work, or even bring it out to show.

Often done on the backs of greeting cards, the paintings come in pairs. The humble medium and the self-deprecation of their creator belie the distances the works have traveled.

He will not immediately reveal that he has been exhibited in Spain, France, Belgium as well as Damascus and his native Aleppo. For him, the most important place for the work to be seen is in the context of Mar Musa, the location that inspires it and whose vision he seeks to emulate.

“I want to create something out of nothing, he says, a mentality that inspires the community at Mar Musa to eke out their existence in a forbidding landscape.

One might think that for a Christian monastery, Muslim Syria is equally forbidding. But in truth, the monastery draws as many Muslim pilgrims as Christians, Syrians as well as international travelers. While Shamoun speaks, a group of Korean Arabic students leave after spending the afternoon at the monastery, and a newlywed Muslim couple, he from Syria, she from Lebanon, arrive for only a few moments, drawn all the way for a brief distance to this sanctuary.

“The idea behind the art, like the monastery, is putting the final touches on nature. The cave [now a holy site] and cliffs would have been left raw and meaningless. With the simple human touch you create a monastery. Or a painting, he adds.

Fra Paolo’s vision for Mar Musa, when he brought back the monastery to life in the early 1990s, included environmental stewardship and sustainability. (Another of the monastery’s core values, hospitality, permits pilgrims to eat and sleep for free, provided they pitch in with chores.)

The small permanent community works to ensure their gentle touch upon the fragile land creates life and beauty, carefully collecting and storing water, slowly expanding the small patches of fruit trees and vegetables. Shamoun too is gentle with his art. Neither forcing the viewer to perceive meaning, nor imposing his own agenda upon the experience with imperative strokes, the works invite quiet contemplation.

Yet like the place from which they draw inspiration, a pleasantly simple exterior hides deeper significance.

Mar Musa is intended as an inter-religious place of fellowship and faith. Fra Paolo views it as a place to facilitate dialogue and a reminder that human souls everywhere need more than global capitalism to satisfy them.

“The making of everything into something that can be bought, he sighs, “has meant that even theories about God have become ‘mercantilized’: you sell a new theory and make money. People yearn for something else but do not always know where to find it.

Shamoun laments the apathy with which the outside world tends to view art. And when an artist does manage to achieve recognition, it is often only in accordance with the price his pieces draw at an auction. “It’s not about money or fame. It’s not important to be exhibited in the Centre Pompidou. I want my art to somehow make a difference, Shamoun says almost hopelessly.

Regardless of the inter-religious conflict or commercialization of art in the outside world, Mar Musa offers peace for those who live there and those who can stay only a few minutes.

If you make the effort to visit, you may share a cup of tea with Fra Paolo, (you will recognize him and Mar Musa from the cover of the June 2009 National Geographic), or could have the chance to contemplate Shamoun’s pieces.

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