Afteranabbreviatedbreakfast of "ka'ek" (the elliptical breadrollcocoonedinsesameseeds)and "falafel,"Istandbeforethe ornatelydecoratedgateofDeirElSir-yan, the Syriac or Assyrian Convent of StMark.Ihavecomeherefilledwithan unusual expectation: to hear alanguagefirstspokeninthispartof the world 2,000 years ago by a manwhochangedthehistoryofthe world.Thegateisopen,andIstepin. In the ghostly, candle-litsemi-darknesspunctuatedby velvetycloudsofbillowingincense, thesound of the priest intoning the Lord's prayer, echoes across the nave,an astringent but soothing balm. "Avvon d-bish-maiya, nith-qaddash shim-mukh," (our father, who arein heaven, hallowed be thy name). This is Aramaic, the lingua franca from the times of Jesus ofNazareth, still vibrantly alive in the liturgy of the Syriac church,faithfully preserved down the centuries to the present day. I listen rapt to the modern reverberations of the ancient tongue,feeling the haunting inflections of the guttural, mellifluous singingpenetrate into the consciousness and overwhelm the soul, taking theimagination back through time and space, to hover within the presence ofthe man from Galilee. "Tih-teh mal-chootukh," (thy kingdom come). They are the same words uttered two millennia ago by the man whopreached that the kingdom of god is within ourselves. It is a lesson Khader Khano takes tenaciously to heart. The service over, we are sitting in the secretariat which is beingmanned by this earnest 21-year-old deacon who is acting for ArchbishopMar Sweiros Malki Murad during his absence abroad. Within the space of weeks, Khano will be making history of his ownwhen he is ordained celibate priest, the first time in over 100 years aHoly Land native-born aspirant is invested with the habit by the Syriacchurch. The occasion has spawned widespread jubilation among the localChristian churches, particularly in Bethlehem where a sizeable communityof Khano's compatriots are gearing up for the ceremony. For centuries, St Mark had languished in relative obscurity, itsvisibility and accessibility hindered by its uninviting externalarchitectural disposition. But all that changed with the 1948 discoveryof the Dead Sea Scrolls in the salty caves of Qumran by an itinerantBedouin sheepherder. Through circuitous and mysterious routes under thegathering clouds of war between Arab and Jew, the scrolls finally reachedJerusalem and were kept for a brief spell in the convent of St Mark,before surfacing on the shores of an astounded world. Khano's ordination may not count as a comparably momentouseventuality, but there is no mistaking the euphoria that has gripped theSyriac church, for this too is another milestone in the glorious historyof these proud descendants of the Babylonians. The Syriacs of the Holy Land are better known by the Arabicappellation "Sir-yan," but in other parts of the world they also refer tothemselves as Ashourayeh, Ashouri or Suryoyo. Traditionally, the Syriac church used to replenish the ranks of itsclergy from the youth of Ashouri colonies in neighboring Arabiccountries, particularly Iraq. But the political upheavals unleashed bythe 1967 Six Day War forced that gateway to close. Khano bubbles with scarcely concealed enthusiasm, caught upblissfully in the gentle breeze of faith and conviction. "I have thought very hard and very long over my decision to becomea priest, and I have found that there is nothing more important to methan to serve God in this way," he tells me. "All the books I have read, all the lessons I have studied haveprepared me just for this. I have no other interest in life other than tobecome a priest." He will be ordained in Bethlehem but will come back to serve, underhis new name, Father Boulos (Paul) at St Mark, which was the firstChristian edifice ever built anywhere, according to a 6th Centuryinscription unearthed in 1940. This was the house of Mary, mother ofJohn, called Mark, the Evangelist. The church boasts a portrait of theVirgin Mary reputedly painted by St Luke the evangelist. Alas, the monastery compound, located at the periphery of theArmenian Quarter, is the last remaining enclave left to the SyriacOrthodox Church who has lost everything else in the city. It is now home for a mere handful of clergymen, their sharp declineparalleled by the attrition in the numbers of members of the Syriaccommunity. The little is gone too, and the social club has been boarded up. Only years after its erection, the church was destroyed by Tituswhen he conquered the city, only to rise phoenix like from its ashes, andto be rebuilt, over and over again, the last time a century and a halfago. I take my leave of Khano and a short time later, I am in Bethlehemto meet Saliba Tawil, a member of the Bethlehem Syriac community. We areold friends. We sit for lunch at Abu Ely's restaurant. A few feet away, themonstrous security wall Israel has erected, glares at us menacingly. For the moment, that eyesore is forgotten as we dig into theincredibly soft and delicious shish kebab, a house specialty. Tawil is a career educator, with a wide ranging interest incommunity affairs. He has been instrumental in furthering negotiationsfor a twinning agreement between Bethlehem and the French city ofGrenoble. Like all members of minority groups, he is zealous in his pursuitof the aim to see his children gain and retain a mastery of their nativetongue. And like them, he is worried about assimilation and the loss ofethnic identity. But he also has a pragmatic turn of mind. "We are all destined to live here together in the Holy Land," hesays. His fondest wish is for his children to grow and appreciate notonly their ethnicity, but also the wider world community. And he believes the only way this can be achieved is when peacereigns in the land.
St Marks church
It is early in the day in the Old City of Jerusalem, and virtually no
one is up and around. It will be some time before the serenity of its
streets and alleys is disturbed by the tread of heavy feet and the babble