Source: Caffè Storia, August 22, 2014
It was in March 2013, at the peak of the complex phase of the civil war in Syria, when the Jihadist militants of Jabat al-Nusra captured the city of Ar Raqqah (Raqqa or Rakka) from the government troops of President Bashar al-Asad. In May of 2013, while the United States and Europe were still discussing a possible military intervention in Syria against al-Asad and at the United Nations they were trying to find, without success, tangible proof as to who had really used chemical weapons against the population, control of the city passed to the Jihadists of Isil.
From what has happened to Ar Raqqah in 2013, the Isil militants have put into play the same devastating script which in the last weeks the whole world has been horrified to see played out in the theater of Mosul. The militants of ISIS have become the source of material destruction, violence, and summary executions of the injured among the religious minorities living in the city. Among these are the Alawites, understood as collaborators of President Bassar al-Asad, who is himself an Alawite, the Muslim Shiites and naturally the members of the local Christian community.
We have had news of a number of Catholic churches that were burned down, among which is one that bears the dedication to Our Lady of the Annunciation, a Greek Catholic church. Another one is the Armenian Catholic church of the Holy Martyrs, its bell tower destroyed, its sanctuary devasted and made into a base for Isis. As today in Mosul, the Christian population of Ar Raqqah, estimated before the conflict at about 10% of the total population, was forced to abandon the city.
Rich in an ancient historical and artistic patrimony that has never been fully appreciated, and situated in the north of Syria, on the left bank of the Euphrates, about 170 kilometers from Aleppo, Ar Raqqah was the capital of the western part of the Abbaside Caliphate between the end of the eighth century and the beginning of the ninth century. The origins of the city however are quite older. Its founding can be traced to the Seleucid King Kallinikos (246-225 B.C.), from whom the city received its ancient name, Kallinikos, latinized to Callinicum. After it was destroyed in 542 A.D. by a Sassanid invasion, Ar Raqqah was reconstructed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (527-565), who raised its position as an important center of monasticism of later antiquity.
Dayra d’Mar Zakka, the monastery of St. Zachary, situated north of the ancient settlement (today Tall al-Bi’a), is the symbol of this religious and cultural vitality. Founded presumably at the beginning of the sixth century (one of the decorative mosaics bears an inscription dated as 509), the monastery remained a spiritual center of primary importance at least to the tenth century. The area includes as well the Daira d-Estuna, or the Bizuna monastery, also called the Monastery of the Column. This monastery was the see of the Syriac Patriarch of Antioch. Until 639, when the Muslims took over the city, Ar Raqqah remained Christian, and also when, a few years later, the first mosque was raised, Christianity was still the prevailing religion in the city.
The history of Christianity in Ar Raqqah does not end in the succeeding centuries. Even if it was gradually reduced to a religious minority, an active Christian community lived there until last year. From 1962 the city was the archbishop’s see for the Maronite Catholic Church. Named to the post on May 30 1962, Francis Mansour Zayek was the first bishop of Ar-Raqqah as well as the first Apostolic Exarch of the Maronite Catholic Church to operate outside of Lebanon.
From the 1950s, on the wave of the world wide boom in cotton manufacturing, the sudden economic growth and the growth of the city itself engulfed important archeological areas. Some of these are: the Qasar al-Banat, the “Castle of the women” or “of the girls”, a palace built in the twelfth century; the remains of the walls of the Abbaside period; the historic center of the inhabited city and the ancient manufacturing zone (al-Mukhtalta). The latter has particular historical relevance, if one considers that Ar Raqqah was for centuries a renowned handcraft and artistic center, specializing in the production of ceramics, known as “ceramics of Raqqa”, painted, according to their tradition, in black under a Turkish glazing.
Those empty vases, looked at in silence in many Western museums, provide, more than many words can, an insight to what Ar Raqqah has become today.
Translated from the Italian by Father Richard G. Cipolla
Note: The Dhimma "Agreement" imposed by ISIS on the Christians that may have inadvertently remained in the province of Raqqa was made public on February 26, 2014:
[Christians] will not build in their city or its environs a new monastery, church, or priest’s hermitage, or rebuild those that have been destroyed.They will not display a cross or anything from their books in any of the Muslims’ streets or markets, and they will not use megaphones in the performance of their prayers, or in any of their rites.They will not make Muslims listen to the recitation of their books or the ringing of their bells, which they will ring inside their churches.They will not engage in any acts inimical to the Islamic State.They will not prevent any Christian from converting to Islam if he desires to do so.Christians must pay the jizya for each male among them, amounting to four gold dinars for the wealthy, half that amount for the middle-class, and a quarter of that amount for the poor.They will not engage in the trade of pigs or wine [meaning any alcoholic bevehage] with Muslims or in their markets, and they will not drink wine publicly.