Sednaya, a charming town nestled in the northern mountains of Damascus, has held profound significance as a pilgrimage site for Christians in the region. While its allure primarily stems from its religious importance rather than remarkable archaeological remnants, the town boasts ancient origins, and its monastery, often mistaken for a castle, stands as a striking testament to its heritage. Embarking on a journey to Sednaya from Damascus offers a rewarding excursion, and avid explorers may also consider a scenic hike from Sednaya to the neighbouring monasteries of Deir Mar Touma and Deir al-Shirubeim, both steeped in antiquity.
During the era of the Crusades, Sednaya emerged as a preeminent pilgrimage destination in the East, second only to Jerusalem in significance. Its renown can be attributed to an image of the Virgin Mary, believed to be painted by St. Luke the Evangelist. The chapel housing this sacred icon gained widespread fame through various miraculous accounts, captivating the Crusaders with the legends of “Notre Dame de Sardeneye.” Even amid periods of open hostility between the Crusaders in Jerusalem and the Muslims of Damascus, pilgrims continued to find their way to Sednaya.
According to legend, the monastery of Sednaya was established by Justinian, who reigned over the Byzantine Empire from 527 to 565. While it likely occupies the site of an earlier Greek or Roman shrine, the monastery has undergone numerous reconstructions, leaving little trace of antiquity in its current structure. However, keen observers can discern fragments of ancient and medieval masonry in the lower sections of certain walls, although most of the edifice dates back to the 19th century. Presently, the monastery is under the care of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Ascending a flight of steps and passing through a narrow doorway, visitors find themselves immersed in the enigmatic interior of the monastery. The main church lies straight ahead, while the shrine housing the revered icon resides to the right in a small, softly illuminated chamber. Concealed within, the image of the Virgin Mary is believed to be an early replica of St. Luke’s original painting, accompanied by other icons purportedly dating back to the 5th and 7th centuries. The shrine is often bustling with pilgrims, and notably, a significant number of non-Christians, particularly on Fridays, attesting to the enduring tradition of Muslim interest in the shrine and its legends.
The primary day of pilgrimage occurs on September 8th, the birthday of the Virgin Mary, with festivities commencing on the eve of the 7th. Christians and Muslims from across the Middle East converge upon Sednaya to take part in these momentous celebrations.
After exploring the church and shrine, it is highly recommended to meander through the monastery and ascend to the rooftop, which offers breathtaking vistas of the encompassing mountains, town, and valley below. Additionally, the tombs carved into the rocky base of the monastery’s eastern side are noteworthy vestiges of ancient origins.
A brief stroll southeast of the monastery leads to a delightful small chapel dedicated to Saint Peter (Mar Boutros), situated within a converted Roman tomb. Its design boasts an austere elegance, with only the doorway and a deep cornice adorning its basic cube-shaped structure. Inside, a cruciform layout awaits visitors, further adding to its spiritual ambiance.