Syria and Cyprus Trip Report
In January, our Denver Seminary class traveled to Syria and Cyprus to visit biblical and archaeological sites there, and to learn about the people and their culture. The idea came about with a desire to visit some of the important places that affect our understanding of the Old Testament and that were visited by the apostle Paul in the New Testament.
Syria is not easy to reach from the U.S. because no U.S. airlines fly to Damascus, its capital. We traveled on Royal Jordanian airlines and arrived in Damascus after passing through Amman, the capital of Jordan. Our time in this ancient country left us with impressions of a very friendly people, delicious foods, and an amazing variety of landscapes, cities, and monuments. Our kind and well informed guide, Ayman, led us about with skill and understanding. We visited mosques, churches, and temples; and we saw many places where the discovery of ancient texts have shed light on our understanding of the Bible.
There was ancient Ugarit by the Mediterranean Sea whose temples and myths about Baal, Asherah, and Dagon provide some of the most complete background for ancient Canaanite religion. There was even older Mari by the shores of the Euphrates River at the border with Iraq. This site continues to yield cuneiform tablets that throw new light on the world of Abraham and Sarah, of Jacob and his wives and children. It was a glorious "discovery" for us as we spent the morning visiting this site and then took a half hour bus trip to Dura Europos where we saw the remains of the oldest Christian church in the world. This was a "house church" from the second century A.D. that was preserved when the city walls were extended and the church was covered over. Nearby was a Jewish synagogue from the second century, again one of the oldest in the world. We would later see the beautiful frescoes that covered the walls of these sacred buildings preserved in the Damascus museum.
One of the most fascinating sites was that of 'Ain Dara, an ancient temple to the weather god (Baal and Haddad in the Old Testament) whose ruins are preserved in northern Syria. In the Bible, King Solomon built a great temple to the God of Israel using an architect from the same culture and background (1 Kings 6-9). And indeed, the 'Ain Dara temple most closely resembles Solomon's Temple of any temple yet discovered, in size, shape, and age (10th century B.C.). Many students were surprised how small the temple must have been and yet how important a role it played in the ancient world.
There were so many other sites and marvels in Syria - the Christian town and monastery of Maaloula, the famous Crusader castle Krak des Chevaliers, the Church of Simeon the pillar saint, the magnificent ruins of the third century Roman city of Palmyra in the midst of the desert, etc. Yet all these were balanced by the wonder of the present world with its own cultures that preserve a way of life we hardly know. There was the wandering through the spice markets of Damascus and Aleppo and their marvelous aromas; and the other stalls in these "Suqs" and all the fine objects of gold, leather, and other items of handicraft. But more than this there remained a sense of a great spiritual opportunity in this land. Again and again our guide reminded us of stories dating back to the Crusades of the conflicts between Christians and Moslems. We saw the preservation of Christian sites such as the church commemorating Paul's stay in Damascus. As with other places I have traveled in recent years, Syria was similar in the desire of so many of its people for a deeper and more complete answer to a spiritual hunger that persists. Some find this in materialism; others in causes of one sort or another; and still others in religious practices. Syria is a wonderful country and, like every other people, loved by God and in need of the redemption of God's Son.
Our time in Cyprus was also special. We traveled north to the Turkish side of Cyprus and visited the (Old Testament period) site of Enkomi and the better known New Testament site of Salamis. It was here that Paul and Barnabas landed on their first missionary journey, coming from Antioch. They traveled across the island as we did and arrived at Paphos, where Paul persuaded the governor to believe in Jesus. We visited the site and saw the reception hall and dining room of the second century A.D. governor's house, where Paul would have waited and then debated before the governor and his dinner guests. This was all the more significant as the house was built over the original first century governor's residence where Paul actually engaged the guests.
Cyprus represents a country where the Christian church is important. So it is different from the predominantly Moslem world of much of the Middle East. It is also an island from which many churches base their outreach to neighboring countries. Indeed, the island nation has long had its closest cultural and trading ties with the Middle East. The overall impression is one of an island of extraordinary beauty and charm. The warmer temperatures provided us with welcome relief from the colder temperatures of the mainland. Our guide, Tom Davis, is director of the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, the major American school on the island for the study of its ancient treasures. He shared with us his enthusiasm and knowledge, as well as his personal faith.
We had the opportunity to spend our last day in Jordan and took advantage of the time with a trip to some sites near to the airport. Our last stop was Mt. Nebo. Like Moses of long ago, we surveyed the Promised Land. This marker at the end of Moses' life and of his journey signified a fitting conclusion for our own wanderings.
On a trip such as this each of us takes away different memories and perspectives. There are so many images and experiences. For all of us it was a unique and special opportunity to share in a journey of discovery and encounter with ancient and modern cultures and to learn new perspectives that will change our understanding of our own Christian faith and how we represent it in the world.
Richard S. Hess
Earl S. Kalland Chair of Old Testament and Semitic Languages