Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Feast of the Cross

A day after gunfire and explosions at the American embassy echoed across the city for 20 minutes, the local Christians are celebrating the annual Feast of the Cross -- with fire and the sound of explosions. At sunset, they began.

I was working in my room and I heard a loud crack. I jumped -- just slightly -- out of my seat. A car backfiring? As long as it’s not followed by another loud crack, I thought, we’re all right. Then came another. And another.

I noticed the fireworks out my window, launched from the vicinity of three blue neon crosses atop churches in the Christian neighborhoods to the northeast of the old city. Loud whistles and pops and the big thuds that follow the cascades of red and blue and purple and white. Then, they came from the other side, from the old Christian quarter where I live. One seemed to whistle over my room explode just outside my window.

I have since discovered that the holiday commemorates St. Helena's discovery in 325 in Jerusalem of the "true cross," or "holy cross" -- the cross upon which, according to Christian tradition, Jesus was crucified. St. Helena's servants, as the story goes, lit fires on mountain tops stretching from Jerusalem, through Syria, to Constantinople, so news of the discovery could reach the capital. According to my host family, in the ancient Christian village of Maalula, north of Damascus, the Syrian Orthodox and Syrian Catholic churches build competing fires atop the two mountain tops above the village to commemorate the day.

In the Christian enclaves of Damascus, bond fires are alight. I stepped outside, and a few houses away, an extended family sat around a large bond fire in a small courtyard, adults firing off bottle rockets and throwing sound bombs, and children running in circles yelling, "Saleeb!" "Saleeb!" Cross! Cross!


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