It seems that all the news coming out of the Middle East currently is about war, terrorism, extremism, about I.S.I.S. and the so-called proclaimed Islamic State, about conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen. There has also been news sadly reporting persecutions of the Christians living in areas of Iraq and Syria.
I thought this is a good time to resuscitate a project I had started a few years ago about an often forgotten and ignored part of the population in the Arab World, a population with old traditions and deep beliefs rooted in the landscape and the fabric of the Arab world: The Arab Christians.
Arab Christians have always existed in the Middle East, and long before the advent of Islam. In Lebanon today they number about 1.3 million (about one-third of the population) mainly of Maronite denomination. In Syria they number approximately two million (or about 10% of the population). In Egypt, Christians, mostly Copts, are about 4.5 million, or about 6% of the population. There are one million in Iraq of various denominations, or about 4% the population. The Christians of Palestine and Jordan may number 600,000, but so many population shifts had taken place that it is difficult to venture a reliable estimate.
In 2008 and 2009, and after reading William Dalrymple’s book: “From the Holy Mountain”, I decided to visit some of the areas he discussed in the book and that I had access to. I went to different areas in Lebanon and Syria and also took my first trip to Jerusalem, Bethlehem and the West Bank. In many of those areas, I found a very deep religious lifestyle and deep-rooted beliefs and traditions that were integral to the place and its history. I walked 45 minutes up a mountain to visit the Hamatoura Monastery nestled in the middle of the mountain; I hiked in the Valley of the Saints to visit Father Dario Escobar, a hermit from Columbia who has been living in total isolation for over 25 years; I was grateful to visit Saidnaya and Maaloula in Syria – where Aramaic is still spoken, areas that have since witnessed some of the horrors of the war in Syria; I also attended numerous celebrations in and around Beirut. In all instances, I was humbled by how deeply rooted in the tradition of the area Christianity is.
The work here barely gives a glimpse of the experience I had. I just thought with the political mood in the area now, it was important to share this body of work.