Departing early once again, we were told that it would take nearly four hours to arrive at the outskirts of Aleppo, and our first stop: The mountain of Simeon Stylite. Last year in Turkey, I visited the site associated with Simeon Stylite, the younger. Today was the site of his father (a spiritual reference rather than a biological one).
To appreciate the bizarre nature of these figures, my post from last year would likely help.
This led us into a discussion of desert spirituality and how it might speak to the church today.
Paul Spilsbury shared some of how this thread of desert spirituality is woven through Scripture, right to Jesus himself. He also discussed the desert motif that the Bible contains for the people of God as whole, particularly for Israel right from their Egypt experience onward. Charles followed that up by reading a fairly fascinating account from the 5th century, written by an eyewitness to all that Simeon was doing in his day, and all the response that his life was eliciting from those around him. He went on to share some thoughts about the Holy Spirit that I found particularly powerful. Last year, I was reliant upon my ability to note-take on the fly when such times of teaching took place. But this year, I’ve come armed with a digital recorder (a very thoughtful Christmas gift from my wife), so none of this goodness is going to escape me!
After a wonderful lunch at a beautiful Armenian restaurant, with a cave living room in its basement, we walked through narrow winding streets of Aleppo, in search of an Armenian church called the Church of the Forty Martyrs, which Charles wanted to show us. Today being Saturday, they had closed at lunch. So we had something of our conversation outside. Charles wanted to speak some about the Armenian Genocide, another topic that first appeared on my radar one year ago in Turkey with him. It hit me like a sledgehammer last year, and it was a good refresher to hear him build on top of that. Certainly a shocking series of events in 20th century history, made all the more shocking by the fact that most people have never even heard of it. One more time, let me link back to a post from last year, for anyone seeking some background.
The forty martyrs referred to above come from a story of a Roman ruler who had some Armenians among his soldiers. Singling them out for their Christian faith, he decided to make an example of them. In the dead of winter, he had these men stripped down with feet tied, and forced them to stand upon a frozen lake. On the nearby shore, he had built a Roman bath, from which the steam and warmth could be felt. He told them that they could come in and live, if only they would deny Jesus. One of the forty gave in.
That leaves thirty-nine. So how did the martyrs still number forty? A sentinel nearby involved in guarding the bath house was so moved by the display of faithfulness that he joined them in what has to be one the most unique conversion moments in all of Christian history. These forty perished that day, confident that Jesus and his kingdom awaited their arrival. And now you know… the rest of the story.
Aleppo’s chief attraction is the Citadel, a fortress in the centre of the city. It is considered to be one of the largest and oldest castles in the world. The hill itself was recently found to contain ruins of a Hittite temple, dating back to at least the 8th century BC. The site continued to be of religious and military significance to nearly every empire that ruled here from that point onward, with its peak significance coming during the 1200’s AD.
The site was impressive enough, to be sure. But it likely won’t make my Favourites list just because it didn’t resonate with me in any profound way. It is a wonderful sight to see, and one of tremendous historical value to this region. One tradition even ties the site to a visit by Abraham, who is referred to in Scripture in at least one spot, as an Aramean. Being in Aleppo, we were compelled to see the Citadel—it just doesn’t leave me with much extra journal inspiration.
That said, our day ended with some free time to wander the Aleppo Souq, a maze of shops and booths that sell everything a person could possibly need… and then some! I bought nothing, but it was a fun place to browse and shoot some photos of this noticeably traditional Syrian city.
Our day ended with our best meal yet, along with our earliest bedtime so far. Tomorrow we depart early for a five-hour bus ride east into the desert. Destination: Palmyra.