The Monastery of the Holy Virgin Mary is also known as the Monastery of the Syrians because it was used by Syrian monks beginning in the 8th century.
The monastery’s founding actually goes back to the 6th century when dissension within the Orthodox church led a group of monks from the Monastery of St. Bishoy to begin a new monastery literally next door. By the 8th century this internal conflict had been resolved and the newer monastery had become excess property. As such, it was sold to a group of wealthy Syrian merchants who converted it for use by the Syrian monks who retained a presence here for centuries. (Today it is a Coptic monastery.)
The monastery is beautiful from the outside, but I am absolutely awestruck when we step inside the Church of the Holy Virgin. The church, which may date back to the 7th century, has beautiful icons hanging on the walls, but the walls themselves are alive with amazing paintings.
When Father Mattias begins our tour I learn just how amazing these paintings really are. Following a fire in 1988, this church is now slowly being brought back to its earliest period. To do this, restorers carefully remove layers of plainly painted plaster and newer paintings (including some from the 13th century) to uncover those that lie hidden below. The very fact that these ancient paintings can be resurrected seems as incredible as the vibrant paintings themselves.
Back outside, we are taken around the church of St. Mary to the Tree of Ephrem – a large tamarind which is claimed to have sprouted from the staff of the fourth century theologian when he came here to meet the monk Pshoi.
From under the tamarind tree we also have a good view of the wooden gears and other equipment that once served the monastery. A museum by simple neglect, it is a courtyard my father would love.
Our tour over, I slowly work my way back to the monastery’s entrance. This is a lovely, peaceful place, but the fortress and its drawbridge are reminders that this was once a dangerous place in which to contemplate the divine.