It is sadening to bring more lamentable news from long-suffering Syria, where the Turkish military has reportedly bombed the ancient Syrian city of Barad, causing damage to Byzantine and Greco-Roman churches and tombs. This is every bit as much a broader assault on Hellenic culture as it is against Syrian culture, as Syria was part of the heartland of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, containing many prime examples of Greco-Roman architecture which came under assault by unscrupulous Turkish foes.
According to an AFP wire service report:
“Turkish regime planes bombed the archaeological site of Brad, 15 kilometres (about nine miles) south of Afrin city,” the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums said in a statement.
It said that Brad — which includes many Byzantine churches and monasteries as well as tombs dating back to the Roman period — has been on UNESCO’s world heritage list since 2011.
“The bombing destroyed many important archaeological buildings”, including the tomb of Saint Maron of the Maronite community, said Syrian antiquities chief Mahmoud Hamoud.
Also destroyed was “the Julianus Church, which includes the mausoleum and is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, built at the end of the 4th century,” he added.
The tomb of Saint Maron was discovered by a French archeological mission in 2002.
“This site is one of the most beautiful pages of the history of Christianity. It is home to three churches, a monastery and a five-metre-high tower,” Syria’s former antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told AFP.
In Janurary he had voiced concern for a group of 40 ancient villages in the Afrin region, which UNESCO calls “Ancient Villages of Northern Syria” and includes on its world heritage list.
UNESCO says these villages provide, among other things, “an exceptional illustration of the development of Christianity in the East, in village communities”.
Upon hearing this, one may concede this is tragic and lamentable, but ask what does this have to do with Hellenic affairs. In fact, it has everything to do with it. Syria was not only within the heartland of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, but the heartland of ancient human civilization, and once a center of Hellenic language and culture.
According to the Bible, specifically the Acts of the Apostles 11:26, Syria is literally speaking, the birthplace of Christianity, as it is written
“The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch”.
Those fateful words are often used as a motto of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America, in which my late cousin was Metropolitan (Archbishop) Michael Shaheen.
The church takes its name from Antioch, a city occupied for centuries by Turks, but was once the capital of Syria, built by Seleucus I Nicator, a General of Alexander the Great. It became a center of one of the four ancient Christian Patriarchates (with Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Rome broke off and formed the Catholic Church).
The Antiochian church in America is in union with the Patriarchate of Antioch, headquartered now in Damascus, Syria, which is the Orthodox Church with canonical jurisdiction over Syria. Let’s not forget its full title is the “Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch.”
After the Death of Alexander the Great, Antioch became the center of one of the four main divisions of his empire, and his death and the division of the Empire thereof is considered by many scholars to be the start of the Hellenistic period.
If one looks at the beautiful ruins of Syria, one can unmistakably see a haunting Hellenistic legacy, once again threatened by Turkish fire and brutality.
As a result, Antioch and Syria, including these Byzantine ruins in Barad are as much a part of Hellenic civilization as Alexandria or Constantinople. While it is hard to say that modern Syrians are Greeks, or even purely Arab, as Syrians are a diverse group, it is without a doubt that Hellenic culture has its place in the mosaic that is Syria, an oasis in a desert of terrorism, protected by Russia and God.
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