Monastery in the Desert

Mar Musa Monastery

While staying in Damascus, we met another traveler who had just come from the nearby Mar Musa Monastery, where she had spent the night. None of us had ever heard of the monastery, but we were intrigued by her story, so we decided to leave Damascus one night earlier than planned in order to check it out. We discovered that Mar Musa Monastery, or Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi (literally The Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian) is a one thousand year old monastery tucked in the barren hills about two hours north of Damascus. It is still an active monastery, although it had been all but abandoned for several centuries before being reactivated in the 1990s. Driving there was an uninspiring event — the landscape is desolate and littered with garbage from the nearby townships. But at the last moment, we pulled off of the main road and a small cleft in the hills came into view, along with about 350 steps winding their way upwards to a small collection of buildings crouched on the cliffs above. We parked the van and sweated our way up the stairs, with no idea what was in store for us.

When we arrived at the top, we had to stoop low to pass through the entrance of the main building, which felt more like a rabbit hole than a front door. Once through, a large terrace spread out before us, with a panoramic view of the horizon stretching from end to end. Somehow, the landscape that we had found so desolate and dirty seemed magnificent from a distance, and we enjoyed some tea as the sun set behind us, turning the stones and sands red.

Mar Musa Monastery

Shortly after the sunset, one of the monks announced the order of the evening: there would be an hour of meditation, followed by a mass and then dinner. We were all invited to attend the meditation (either inside the chapel or on the terrace) and the mass as well. There were about 20 other tourists visiting while we were there, some of whom had already stayed for several nights. Leaving our shoes outside, we all headed into the old chapel and arranged ourselves on pillows on the floor. Candles were lit, and then, silence. For a full hour no one spoke, coughed, or hardly even breathed. The effect was wonderfully calming. Stop for a second and try to remember the last time that you sat for an hour and just thought. I’m not talking about taking a nap or tossing in bed for a while before falling asleep. This was an hour dedicated to self-awareness, and I was surprised when I found my thoughts wandering continuously in all sorts of directions. Even with nothing to do, there’s always lots to think about. I suppose that there are different aims for different types of meditation — some are aimed at eliminating this kind of random thought, but I was happy to indulge my curious side and simply let one thought morph into the next in a seamless stream-of-conciousness-style ride. When one of the monks started to play a flute to indicate the end of the meditation, I stirred slowly back to reality in a very pleasant frame of mind.

There was then a mass performed in several different languages for the benefit of all present, including arabic, english, italian and spanish. It was curious to hear a Catholic mass performed mostly in Arabic, a language normally exclusively associated with Islam. One of the things that was interesting to hear the priest talk about during the service was a tolerance of other belief systems — he welcomed everyone present to pray to whatever God it was they believed in, under whatever system, which is another thing you don’t often hear said by preachers of any religion. They didn’t even seem to take issue with non-believers (implied, but not actually spoken, unfortunately), as long as everyone showed respect for everyone else. It was a refreshing approach — but in the end it was still very much a Catholic mass. The priest asked that no one take Communion who hadn’t been baptised, or more importantly, who didn’t truly believe in the signified meaning of the act.

Dinner was served, and we enjoyed the company of a group of young German travelers who had arrived the same day. After dinner, the men and women were shown to different buildings for the night, but Meg and I each ended up sleeping on the roofs of our respective sleeping quarters. Mattresses and blankets were provided, and I fell asleep under a sky thick with stars.


We left early the next morning, shortly after a spectacular sunrise. Our stay at the Monastery was a very interesting and worthwile one, and perhaps best of all for the budget traveler in us, it didn’t cost anything. We enjoyed the hospitality of the monks and nuns, and most of all appreciated the open-mindedness with which they welcomed their guests. It was interesting to be exposed to a religious environment that is encouraging an acceptance of the plurality of beliefs that exist in the larger world. It’s often too easy to cause insult or offence when discussing religion, especially across different cultures, and between believers and atheists. But a message of tolerance and respect is one that I believe is universally applicable, and it was a pleasant tone with which to colour our visit to Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi.

The valley below the Monastery


    Did you really walk up all those stairs?
    What a wonderful experience to have visited the monastary where everyone was welcomed and treated with respect. Again, I wish I was there. Love Kate

    What a cool experience, and seeing from the pics’, like you said Mark, a spectacular sunrise. I like your thoughts on meditating too, to accept your wandering mind as a form of meditation. Did you guys live on the wild side and sleep together on the same roof, or was it just a coincidence that you both decided to sleep on your designated gender specific roof?

    How amazing! I have been thinking of both of you so much.

    Lin – I was thinking the exact same thing about their sleeping arrangements. I hope it was a romantic coincidence that you both decided to sleep on this “designated gender specific roof”. :) How dreamy this all is!

    much love, SBT

    Ah yes, it would have been nice to share the same roof, but unfortunately all we shared was the same sky. I was on the “boys” roof, and Meg on the “girls” ‚Äî on separate buildings. But it was a coincidence that we each ended up on our respective roofs!

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