Photo by kyselak from Wikimedia Commons. Mar Mattai, near Mosul, is one of the oldest existing Christian monasteries. At its height, it was one of the greatest houses in the Christian world, with thousands of monks.
The ancient Christian history of the Middle East has become agonizingly relevant. Cities central in that history appear in headlines in the context of fanaticism and mass destruction. The State Department’s maps of the latest atrocities coincide with the most venerable landscapes of Eastern Christianity.
The city of Damascus in Syria needs no explanation in terms of its role in the Christian story, and late Roman Gaza likewise produced some pivotal thinkers and theologians. Both cities are also featured in the Old Testament.
But what about Syria’s Hama, the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting in that country’s civil war? The Byzantines knew it as Epiphania, home of the historian John, who is a prime source for the Roman-Persian wars of the sixth century. Hama’s Great Mosque stands within the readily identifiable remains of the Byzantine basilica church.
Philip Jenkins is professor of history at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion and author of The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade and The Many Faces of Christ: The Thousand-Year Story of the Survival and Influence of the Lost Gospels.