It’s getting on for twenty years since I was in Aleppo. I was helping to lead a pilgrimage for a group of people from Southwark Cathedral. We had two weeks away, starting in Jordan and then crossing the border into Syria. I remember going through the border control, the Jordanian guide waving goodbye and our Syrian guide getting on to the coach. He was wonderful – gentle, friendly, a joy to be with. The first stop was at Busra al-Sham with its amazing archaeological ruins in which people were (surprisingly) still living. I remember Damascus, its beautiful Umayyad Mosque, the treasury on pillars in its central court, the shrine in the mosque where the head of John the Baptist is venerated. I remember walking down Straight Street and thinking about Saul and his conversion, seeing the window in the gate from which he was lowered.
But over the last years and months and especially over these last days I have been remembering Aleppo. We had headed north, taken in the amazing Crusader fortress, Crac des Chevaliers, visited the place where St Simon Stylites sat on his pole and arrived in this huge city before we left to travel on to Palmyra.
Jordan had been lovely, the rose-red city of Petra, the ancient holy sites, Madaba and the rest, but it was quite commercialised and when you arrived anywhere people would descend upon you with things to sell. That’s ok, it’s how money is made by ordinary people in these pilgrim and tourist places. So when the coach pulled up in the centre of Aleppo outside the hotel where we were to stay for a few days, people appeared as if from nowhere. We got ready to buy some postcards!
We were wrong though. These people were not there to sell us anything, they had arrived to shake our hands. ‘Thank you for coming’, ‘Welcome to Aleppo’ was what they were all saying to us. The warmth and the sincerity of that crowd is something that I will never forget. The city itself was amazing. We went into the Citadel, we shopped in the Al-Madina Souq, we went into the Hammam Yalbugha, a Mamluk-era public bath, which was simply gorgeous.
Much of what we saw then has been destroyed. But what about those people who shook my hand and welcomed me? What about the young guide who showed us his country with pride? What about the driver who drove us into the northern mountains and to the shrine of Our Lady at Ma’loula where we found Muslim and Christian women worshipping together? What about those women and the children holding their hands? What about the Syrian Orthodox priest who, in his isolated and ancient church, held out his hands and prayed the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic for us and we thought we heard the voice of Jesus?
This week has been agonizing as we have watched the on-off nature of the ceasefire in Aleppo, as we have seen lines of coaches waiting to take people away from their devastated communities, as we have seen women and children, the sick and the elderly in freezing conditions going from one level of suffering to another. When we were there as pilgrims President Assad’s father was still in charge. Wherever we went we saw huge banners celebrating father and son. But, to be very honest, we were shielded from seeing anything that was going on behind doors and beneath the surface. All we knew was that we were meeting beautiful people. That innocence of mine has gone and I now know that whilst I was looking at interesting things I was missing something more important, the oppression that led to rebellion that led to war that has led to where we now are.
The prophet Jeremiah writes of the destruction of another city, Jerusalem and these words still ring as true now as they did then.
Thus says the Lord:
We have heard a cry of panic,
of terror, and no peace.
Your hurt is incurable,
your wound is grievous.
There is no one to uphold your cause,
no medicine for your wound,
no healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
they care nothing for you.
(Jeremiah 30.5, 12-14a)
From that great city the people went into exile as so many millions of Syrians have done and will do, the people who shook my hand, the people who cared for me. Hospitality must always be responded to with hospitality – that is the challenge we face this Christmas.
born in a stable,
laid in a manger,
taken into exile,
may we give
home to the homeless,
comfort to the comfortless,
refuge to the refugee.