May, 2006 - Syria
"You Don’t Have a Visa?"
I (Gabriel) had been nervous about coming to Syria since the beginning of our journey in January. Now the time has come. I had trouble sleeping the last night we spent in Dubai. I had read in the Let’s Go book about that a visa was needed for Syria before entering Syria. We don’t have a visa and I’m wondering what will happen when we land in Damascus. We are Americans and relations between Syria and America are not good. And oh yeah, I’m a Jew.
When we get off the plane and get to customs, the man looks at our passports and he shakes his head when he sees we don’t have a visa. Our friend Nadia, who we had just met on the plane, is from Lebanon so she speaks Arabic. She speaks to him and tells me we are in trouble. I had mentioned to her on the plane that I was concerned about not having a visa and she had told me, "You don’t need a visa to get into Syria." I wasn’t convinced though because she is an Arab national and she doesn’t need a visa. I’m concerned it may be different for us.
We walk into the back room where the immigration office is. There are men dressed in military uniforms and I’m not feeling very comfortable. Nadia speaks to them in Arabic and I hear her mentioning "baby" a few times. As she speaks, he is shaking his head and I’m wondering if they will send us back to Dubai. I mean, what do they do if they won’t let you into their country? I watch the man looking at our passports and checking the places we have been. I’ve read that Syria won’t even let you into their country if you have been to Israel. We have not been to Israel, yet. He asks me what work I do, how long we plan to be in the country, and what is the purpose of our trip? I wonder if he will ask us where we will go after Syria, but he doesn’t. I answer his questions and hand him a voucher that shows we have booked a hotel room and that we intend to spend money in his country.
You will get a Visa, but you will Wait
Finally Nadia tells me we will get a visa but we will have to wait. It could be a while. How long? We don’t know. Okay, we’ll wait. So we wait and wait and wait. During this time they don’t speak to us or look at us. As we sit there not knowing how long we’ll have to wait, I wonder if we’ll have to spend the night here in this airport because they have told us that today is a holiday and business is closed. So how could we get a visa if businesses are closed I wonder? Meanwhile as we sit in the lounge near their office where it is grungy and full of cigarette smoke, we watch immigration officers in military uniforms coming in and out, and in and out, and wonder what they are doing. Our son Matt is getting very impatient and upset about our situation. Kate, surprisingly, is taking it very well. My nerves are pretty frayed, and as the kids keep asking me all kinds of questions I tell them, "no more questions", let me be. At one point, we even see someone who looks Jewish, being handcuffed and carted off by two military officers-things get a bit tenser after that, but we continue to hold the faith that we will get through.
Welcome to Syria
Finally after 5 hours waiting we get our visas and we are told, "Welcome to Syria." It seemed a bit funny after all that waiting, and not receiving any news as we are waiting. At this point I’m thinking that I can’t wait to get out of Syria. But that will all change by the next day.
Why were we sent to Sednaya?
Our first day in Syria turns out to be quite a magical day. We wake up to a gorgeous landscape outside our window. We are staying at a Sheraton 30 km from Damascus in the town of Sednaya. Our friend Nadia had asked us why we were staying so far from Damascus and away from all the action. We will find out real soon that we have been guided here for a special reason. The food we eat is very unique and fantastic, and after breakfast, Icasiana and I decide to take a walk to the monastery of Sednaya. We’ve read about its history and it sounds like something very special. We start walking and get lost real quick. I’m wondering why there are no cars and hardly anyone to be seen. As we are walking I stop to take a picture of a nice sculpture in the window of an artist’s store. I notice after leaving that on the grounds is a very large statue of Mother Mary. We will recognize later that this is very synchronous, for now, a nice man stops his car and asks us if we are lost and do we need help? Now I know that my mother told me not to get into cars with strangers, but after talking with him for a few moments, he seems genuinely caring and helpful. We decide to get into the car with him and his friend and will spend most of the day with our new friend, his name is Zaki. He has lived in this town all his life, he is not Muslim though. He is one of the 20% in Syria who are Christian, and this community we are staying in is a Christian community. He takes us to the monastery that we have been intending to walk to. As he drives we realize how lost we were and that it is much further than we realized.
At the monastery we are led to the place we had read about in a brochure. The story of this monastery is quite interesting. In 547 AD the emperor of Byzantium, Justinian I, was hunting and saw a deer to shoot. Mother Mary appeared to him and told him to build a church with a monastery on the rock he is standing on. He follows this instruction and during the building, Mother Mary shows to the builders plans for how to build the church. Today the church has forty nuns living there who take care of the grounds and the orphans who are living there).
It’s a good Idea to have Icasiana tell what led up to this point for her and the rest of this story:
Divine Inspiration in a Small Town in Syria
After a difficult day of waiting both at the Dubai Airport and upon arrival at the Syria airport, it was clear to me that this day was a day of preparation and determination. I got the sense that spirit was happy that we persevered with grace and trust in the divine plan when things looked like they were not going our way.
The following day I woke up with a very heavy and lethargic feeling. My body hurt all over and I felt I was going to come down with something. I asked Gabriel for an adjustment and the work he did was helpful to clear the debris and heaviness and open up the channels I would need later in the day. I read in the hotel information guide about a place where Mother Mary had appeared, and I told Gabriel we had to go there. He, of course, readily agreed. I told him I wanted to walk so we could get some fresh air and exercise. We agreed that Kate and Matt could stay behind and work on their homework for the day, they were happy to stay in the room and do their work, without traipsing to some "spiritual" place.
We stopped at the front desk to get directions to the Church of Our Lady of Sednaya. The person at the reception desk said it was far and that we should take a cab, I said, "no, it’s okay we wanted to get some exercise." So she gave us the map and showed us where the church was, approximately 2 kilometers away. We started off, Gabriel, Elijah and I with a bouncing step of excitement. Soon we came to an intersection that Gabriel said we should turn on, I believed it was not the correct one - however I trusted Gabriel’s feeling that this was the way and so we turned on to it. We were also looking for a place to have our laundry done, so I asked to turn left toward a more business area that we saw just a few blocks away. Pretty soon we were not even close to the area we were intending to go on the map, at this point we couldn’t decipher the map and there were no street names in English. However, we knew the church was up on the hill and we were headed in that general direction.
Lost and then Found
As we continued to walk we were totally lost, and then I saw a tall statue of Mother Mary ahead, about 15-20 feet tall. Mary had a beautiful, serene face and a long blue flowing robe. As Gabriel stopped to take a picture of a lovely sculpture in the window nearby, I walked to the street. I saw two kids playing there with a remote control car. The car would stop and the kids would frantically work the controls on their panel to get it going again before the big cars driven by adults would run it over. I happened to notice two men in a grey Fiat car having to stop because of the remote control car that wouldn’t move. They were laughing and waiting patiently until the boy got the car to move again. I smiled and saw that Gabriel was done and we were going to start to walk again. The men in the Fiat went down the street and then turned back around and stopped us on the street. The driver asked if we needed help. We both said "yes!" and showed them on the map the location we were trying to reach. He offered to take us in his car to either the road we were looking for, or all the way to the site. Gabriel and I looked at each other and decided to get in his car.
Zaki, our steward
As we were driving, my mind was racing about who are these people are and are they safe. But in my heart, I knew that the driver, especially Zaki, was very kind and helpful, but he had black sunglasses on that wrapped around his eyes, fully covering them up, making it difficult for me to confirm what my heart said. Zaki then asked Gabriel what he thought of the Syrian people. We then had an interesting discussion about government, war, and what is truly the desire of the people to have peace. Zaki took us all the way to the church. Zaki’s friend did not speak a word of English, so he sat silent in the front seat. Once we arrived at the church, Zaki got out with us and we stood outside the church looking up to the huge stone ledge and mountain in front of us that the church was built on. Then Zaki said he’d like to take us to another place near his village, a place called Mar Elias Sanctuary. He showed us the site on the map. He was anxious to take us there now, but we told him we needed about an hour at this place first. He said he’d pick us up at 4:30 p.m. directly on the spot we were standing.
High-energy, High Charge
The church was so highly charged that my body started tingling and feeling very magnetic. Gabriel, of course, felt it also. As we ducked our heads to walk into the stone entry-way, I started to feel the presence of Mother Mary. We had read earlier that this was the place where Mother Mary had instructed King Justinian I to build the church on the rock. In our guidebook it said we needed to find the information nun to gain access to the original church built on the rock and she would open the door. We didn’t have any information with us as to the location of the original church and since the ancient structure was gigantic, we just decided to walk around the place. Gabriel and I walked around for a few minutes and then we were both drawn to an area on this site. I walked up to the door and tried to open it and we both said we believed this was the spot. Gabriel goes to find a nun to open the door, but comes back within a few minutes not able to locate the nun we had seen just a few moments before.
Surrender to Receive
We surrender at that moment and sit in the courtyard just outside the church. I then notice that a group is forming outside the church door and a woman in a long blue dress is coming up telling the group the story of how Mother Mary appeared to Justinian I. I get up to listen and start filming her talk. Gabriel joins me and we both join her private tour. . As we enter the church, I immediately feel a pull, a magnetic force that is much stronger than what I was feeling earlier. These are the three very small rooms that were the original church built from Mary’s guidance.
Mother Mary’s Healing Energy
We then walk into the next small room; I notice several items leaning up against the wall: crutches, leg straps and some contraptions for holding an arm in place. I mention to Gabriel that these must have been left after a miracle of healing was performed. This will be confirmed later. We then walk into the sanctuary. It was completely dark except for the candles that were lit by those praying earlier in the day. There were many gold and silver items hanging from the walls and ceiling as well as paintings of Mother Mary holding the baby Jesus and other Christian scenes. I felt so comfortable and welcomed into this small sanctuary, Mother Mary has been so dear to me on my spiritual journey, that I immediately felt at home and a deep connection. The guide tells her group that the silver and gold pieces are representative of the healings that have occurred when people have stayed at the convent. It turns out that anyone can stay for one night free of charge. The most "important" relic that was in the church was a painting of Mother Mary and baby Jesus that was painted by St. Luke. Gabriel was holding Elijah at this point, and Elijah started fussing. He whispered to me to stay as long as I needed and he’d go outside. I then spent a few minutes after the room cleared of the tour. I knelt in front of the shrine, talking to Mother Mary, asking her about our sacred journey and whether we were on the right track.
Mother Mary’s Message
Mother Mary told me that we were exactly where we were supposed to be at this very moment. She also shared with me through a vision that I was to find a particular cave where there was an important message for us about Elijah. What I saw was a cave with a very tall and narrow entry-way that had light inside and outside the cave. As my mind tried to process this vision I was confused how the cave had light flowing inside. I asked how we would find this cave and the image of Zaki flashed before my eyes.
It was just about 4:30 in the afternoon and we had promised to meet Zaki outside. Just at that moment the church bell rang once reminding us that it was on the half-hour. Gabriel and I ran down the stairs and sure enough, there was Zaki waiting for us. I told Gabriel that I got a message to find this particular cave. I asked Zaki if he knew of a place with a cave and he said no. As we were driving out of the area Gabriel and I noticed this cave-like structure tucked on the side of the mountain. I asked Zaki how we can get there, and he said it would be very difficult as we’d have to walk along a narrow path to get there. We told him we’d have to go there later, thinking this might be the cave in my vision.
Mar Elias Sanctuary
Zaki was excited to share the place he was telling us about earlier. It is called "Mar Elias Sanctuary" and it is located in his small village of Maarat. I kept asking him the story of this place and for some reason he wouldn’t say. I saw a sign written in Arabic and then English that said "Mar Elias Sanctuary, home of the Living Saint". I asked Zaki if this was the place we were going to and he said yes. I then thought well maybe he doesn’t know the story and I should just wait and see. All he told us is there are 200 steps to walk down to get to the church. When we got there the location was stunning, set on the side of the mountain overlooking the amazing valley of the capital city of Damascus below. The stone was sand-colored with darker grains, but smoothed down by centuries of pilgrimages and visitors that had come before us. We learned earlier that morning that the area we were staying in was only second to Jerusalem for the number of pilgrimages and crusades that occurred in the ages before our arrival.
Sacred Site, Sacred Energy
Gabriel and I both exchanged knowing looks as we descended into the church - this was sure to be a power place. We started feeling the intense energy of this sacred place. We walk into the church on the mountain ledge and I feel, "oh, this is nice", but the church didn’t have the same vibration as I was feeling outside. Then, Zaki says "follow me" and he led us behind the altar of the church. That’s when I saw it. It was the opening to the cave I had seen in my vision from Mother Mary. I gasped and said to Gabriel, "this is it, this is the cave!" I could hardly contain myself. I started to think of what had happened that day, how we were lost and how Zaki had offered to help us next to the mega-Mother Mary statue, how he took us to the first place, how Mother Mary instructed me to find the cave, how I surrendered about finding the cave, and how Zaki led us directly to the cave without knowing that this was indeed the cave of my vision - I marveled at the synchronicity and simplicity of it all.
Who is Mar Elias?
As we walked up the stairs of the cave a feeling of familiarity and comfort enveloped me. I was so excited and happy, almost giddy. Then Zaki showed us how light was coming through the cave. What I saw was quite amazing. We looked up the rock structure and at the very top was sunlight coming directly from the top of the mountain and then I looked down, deep down into a tunnel below us and there was another opening that the light was coming in from the bottom. This explained what I saw in the vision and what was confusing to me. The cave had natural light flowing in from both the top and the bottom. Then Zaki shows us an imprint on the cave wall that was the imprint of a horse that Mar Elias was riding when he went to heaven. The story sounded strangely familiar to me, but my logical brain started processing how was it that the horse went directly up this cave wall - it was a straight 90 degree angle. Afterward I laughed at myself thinking how funny it is when we forget about the miracles that happen every day. Then, what I saw next, hit me so hard and explained why Mother Mary had sent us to this cave. Inside a small inner-cave-like shrine was a beautiful painting of Mar Elias ascending to heaven in a chariot of fire. I asked Zaki what "Mar" meant and he said it is like your English word for Saint. I said "oh my God" that is Saint Elijah! As I recalled, the prophet Elijah, the prophet who lives on forever, left this world on a chariot of fire.
Sacred Time for Sacred Messages
Gabriel asked if I needed some quiet time in this sacred place and I said yes. He corralled everyone to leave me alone as I sat with my eyes closed at the place of Elijah’s ascent to the heavens. Just at that moment Mother Mary said to hold our baby Elijah in my lap as I sat there. I called to Gabriel and he brought Elijah to me. Elijah and I sat quietly there for a moment until he got a bit restless. I held my hands up toward the heavens to receive any additional information from Mother Mary and Elijah started to play "patty-cake" with me. I then started chanting, "Elijah, Elias, Eleyahu, and Elijah started to boom his resounding voice. At this moment I was told that the prophet Elijah does live on - he lives on through our son. It was revealed to me that people around the world will flock around him and love him and "know" who he is in their hearts. He will bring great joy and peace to those that he touches now as a baby and later as he works with other amazing beings to help transform the world. Mother Mary told me that our work is to nurture and care for him and that Gabriel and I were chosen to raise Elijah, without casting the fears and smallness that seem to plague the world. She also said that by raising him in an expanded way, he will be free; he will be free to connect with people of all colors, of all races, and in all lands. Spirit had brought Gabriel and me together to create this beautiful child of God.
I was told that at Elijah’s age of 5 we will be asked to take another sacred journey. I was further shown that the way Elijah connects with people on our current journey and how they respond to him is a sign for us that people from all around the world know in their hearts that he is divinely special. It was also revealed to me that it was important for him to have this sacred imprint of the Prophet Elijah from this holy place. I was also told that what TeRangimarie (a spiritual Maori woman we met in New Zealand) had told us about Elijah’s path was absolutely the truth and that we should seek out her help to gather information on his spiritual path and genealogy. Finally, I was told to take the pen that was on the ledge in the cave and to write Elijah’s name on the wall as others had done before. I held Elijah as we searched for the place to inscribe his name. I wanted to write it up high, near my head so I wouldn’t have to bend down so far while carrying him, but Elijah’s weight kept pulling me closer to the ground. So about 1.5 feet above the floor level, I wrote Elijah’s name in block letters: ELIJAH RUSSO. I was so tempted to write the date or the year or something else but I was told this mark is timeless and no date is needed. I gave thanks to creator and scooped up our baby Elijah to join the family and to share the story with them and with Zaki. Zaki later takes us back to meet his family and we take him out to dinner to say thank you for all his help and hospitality. After dinner I asked him to drive back to our place of meeting, in front of store with the statue. And standing in front of all of us was the huge Mother Mary statue and the Prophet Elijah (Mar Elias) was standing almost as tall as Mary right next to her. I had not even noticed the second statue.
Syria, and the middle-east, has turned out to have many messages from spirit for us. The land is so holy. I feel immensely blessed that we are able to walk on the same lands as the great teachers and prophets.
Summing up our Trip in Syria
The food in Syria is the best that we’ve had on our trip thus far. It’s all fresh, and they have a special wisdom in their food preparation, and the mastery in their use of their ancient spices. Yoghurt is made with un-pasteurized, un-homogenized milk and is fantastic, no "manufactured" taste, just pure cream. The fruits and vegetables taste wonderful. Life seems much simpler here. One night we had fish in a restaurant that Nadia took us to. Yes, the same Nadia from the visa escapade, we met up with her later in Damascus and she shared dinner with us at a wonderful restaurant. After eating fish she told us, now smell your hands, the fish is so fresh there is no smell.
In Syria there is almost no sign of American businesses at all. No McDonalds, no malls, instead there are small shops. And the people have been so friendly. We are beginning to discover the hospitality of the Arabian people, what we hear the most from people is, "Welcome." After my initial trepidation, it turns out to be quite wonderful to be in Syria. I will admit that I have not been telling people that I am Jewish except for Zaki who becomes someone we all developed such strong feelings for, he is someone so grounded in his heart and so loving and generous in spirit. He has touched us deeply.
We visit the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, and go to the town of Maloula, one of the one or two places in the world where ancient Aramaic is still spoken, believed to be the language of Jesus and the language of the original bible.
We're on to Jordan from here -----> Follow us!