The US State Department has just released satellite images of what they say is a crematorium at Saydnaya prison, built in 2013 to burn the bodies of prisoners who were starved or tortured to death. Saydnaya, in the Qalamoun Mountains just 26km north of the capital Damascus, is one of the Assad regime’s most notorious prisons, long used to detain and silence political opponents. According to a report by Amnesty International published in February 2017, between 5,000 and 13,000 prisoners have been executed at Saydnaya prison since the conflict began in March 2011. Most will have been Sunni Muslims, who make up the majority of those opposing Assad, but body cremation is not permitted in Islam, so mass graves are the usual way of disposing of the dead. Such niceties are irrelevant however when the intention is to destroy the evidence.
As all Syrians and former visitors to Syria know, Saydnaya has a namesake. While the prison is tucked away out of sight, standing in full view on the hillside at an altitude of 1,650m is the Greek Orthodox Convent of Our Lady of Saydnaya. The Syrian ‘Lourdes’, it is the second-holiest pilgrimage site for Greek Orthodox Christians after Jerusalem, famed for its holy relic, an icon of the Virgin Mary reputedly painted by St Luke, and credited with miraculous powers.
The devout, Muslim and Christian, mainly women, come to the convent’s inner shrine sanctum to be blessed by the holy oil said to ooze from the icon and to seek cures for illnesses and disabilities. The gift shop sells trinkets that sometimes show the blending of the two religions, such as a Madonna and Child inside a Hand of Fatima – a double dose of blessings.
The current war has left the buildings unscathed – except for a missile which crashed through the wall early on but never exploded, blamed by the regime on the rebels and by the rebels on the regime – but earlier wars and earthquakes have necessitated many rebuildings over the centuries. Saladin’s sister was said to have visited many times, making generous donations. The convent today dates from a hotchpotch of periods, a new part added whenever a large donation permits. Among the most recent is a wing added thanks to a donation made in 1958 by an American couple from Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
Like nearby Ma’aloula, the town of Saydnaya still boasts residents who speak Aramaic, the language of Christ, dominant language in the Near East from the 4th to the 6th centuries and the most important language of the eastern Roman Empire after Greek. It gradually gave way to Arabic after the 7th century Islamic conquest, but is still used as the liturgical language of the Syrian Orthodox Church. Classified by UNESCO as a ‘definitely endangered’ language, the most famous Aramaic words are those spoken by Christ on the cross: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachtani?” – My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? A question many trapped inside Saydnaya Prison must, tragically, be asking today.