It’s not every day that an archeologist goes digging in the desert — and discovers a new method of evangelization. But that’s what happened to Dr. Emma Loosley of the University of Manchester in England, when she began her doctoral research in Syria in 1997. She was there to study the architecture of Christian churches of the fourth through seventh centuries. (As I reported in an earlier post, there are more than 700 “ghost towns” — abandoned Byzantine villages — dotting the barren hills between Antioch and Aleppo.)
Dr. Loosley discovered that the local Christians knew nothing about the history of the nearby ruins. Christians are a minority in Muslim-dominated Syria, and they have grown disenchanted with the land and with their religion. In school they learn almost nothing about the role of Christianity in ancient Syria — or the importance of Syria in the ancient Church. Thus, as Syrians, they feel alienated from Christianity; yet, as Christians, they feel alienated from their own country. Dr. Loosley observed that, in Aleppo, many old men opted to play backgammon outdoors on Sunday morning rather than attend the liturgy. Many young Christians simply left the country.
She suspected that their disenchantment had something to do with their historical disconnect. She wrote: “these men were alienated from the Church through ignorance and needed to be educated about their past.” She decided to do something about it:
In 1997 I began taking groups of Christians from Aleppo to the Limestone Massif, to the west of the city, in order to explain the abandoned late antique villages that dominate the landscape to them. These groups ranged in age from late teens and early twenties through to pensioners and we discussed how this kind of cultural awareness tied them more closely to the land than they had previously thought. In turn this caused them to question their self-imposed perception of themselves as ‘outsiders’ and to think in terms of a wider ‘Syrian’ identity.
She brought a deacon along, and the group prayed together in the ancient ruins.
Guess what: it worked. The old guys were fascinated and went back to church. The parishes’ women’s Bible-study groups now go on their own pilgrimages to the Christian ghost towns. And the young people who have taken the tours end up as the “least likely to emigrate.”
Her conclusions should be valuable, of course, for Christian minorities all over the Middle East — those who live in the lands of the ancient Fathers. Christians who know the monuments and their meaning are more likely to stay with the community. Those who know the tenets of the ancient faith, who know the local saints, and who have walked in their footsteps, are the Christians least likely to buy a one-way ticket to Australia or America.
I suspect, moreover, that the same principles apply, by extension, to westerners who take up the study of the Fathers and early Christian history. American Christians, after all, learn little of their religious history in the public schools; and we can, at times, feel somewhat alien in this land of abortion license. But Christians who know the monuments, so to speak — those who know the antiquity of the doctrines and rites — are less likely to leave the Church community, less likely to take interest in another religion, and less likely to choose backgammon over liturgy on a Sunday morning.
I encourage you to read Dr. Loosley’s paper, which appeared in the journal World Archaeology late last year. You have to register to view the article, but registration is free; and the article, titled “Archaeology and cultural belonging in contemporary Syria: the value of archaeology to religious minorities,” is included with the website’s free content.
If you’re in the market for a good introduction to Christianity in the region, read William Dalrymple’s travelogue, From the Holy Mountain. It’s a moving, though imperfect, account of the author’s travels among the vanishing Christian peoples of the Middle East.
Dr. Loosley’s work is discussed briefly in this book: Archaeology and World Religion.