Home to Virgin Mary Girdle: Um Al-Zennar Church in Homs

Homs (ST)_ Very few know that Um Al-Zennar church in Homs  is considered to be one of the oldest churches in the whole world, and is home to the girdle of the Virgin Mary. The church building dates back to 59 A.D., when it was only a cellar underground, used for secret worship due to fear of Roman pagan rule, then it expanded in the Christian era.

The archaeological origin of this ancient church dates back to the introduction of Christianity into Homs, in the first century A.D., on the hands of the missionary Miles. He started spreading the word about this new religion in Homs, Baalback and Rastam, at a time when Christians were facing persecution at the hands of the Jews and the Pagans. They used to meet in underground caves and practice their acts of worship in simple rites as churches and temples could not be built. This continued till Emperor Constantine took over the rule and converted to Christianity, making it the official religion of the Roman Empire in the 4th century A.D... A matter that gave some relief to Christians, and launched Gospel extension toward internationality.

Um Al-Zennar Church is considered a beautiful example of Eastern Churches, and was built in a very small cave that accommodates about 30 people.  No religious features like crosses or icons were displayed because of the fear of persecution that Christians were facing in the early days of Christianity. As Christianity started to spread in the first century, they built another church next to this church, made from black stone; that has been demolished to make way for the present church, which accommodates approximately 500 worshippers.

The church is characterized by the beauty of its arches, the originality of the stonework and the airy, arcaded facade. There was a major renovation of the church in 1852, when they took the holy belt from the original old church to the new church, and placed it in the altar. Stone engravings in ‘Kirshwani’ (‘Kirshwani’ is the script of the Syriac language) date this renovation to 1852, under the diocese of Bishop Julius Peter.

The Girdle of the Holy Virgin

This church has a very valuable collection of icons and artifacts; nevertheless the most important of them is the girdle of the Holy Virgin, which was discovered in April 1953 on a font stone under the altar of the church. When some priests were looking in the old manuscripts and letters of the collection of Rev. Joseph Askar Al-Homsi (d. 1916), which he had donated to the Patriarchal library; they found a book written in ‘Kirshwani’ dialect containing stories and sermons concerning the diocese of Homs, inside which they found 46 letters written in ‘Kirshwani’ and Arabic scripts. In addition to various papers bundled together in the Eastern style, binding books in very thick wood, leather or any other thick fabric due to the scarcity of cardboard. One of the plaques dated 1852 and measured 28cms by 20cms, was sent by Elders of the Syrian Parish (Homs, Hama, Damascus, Saddad, Firoozeh and Maskane) to Elders of Mardine in Turkey, which is the seat of the Patriarch. The plaque describes how they demolished the church which was named after the Holy Virgin in Homs in order to enlarge it and renovate the building which was very old and small, and while doing so they discovered the Girdle, placed in a pot in the centre table of the altar. The girdle was 74cm by 5cm, with 2mm thickness, garmented by pure off white silk and embroidered with golden thread.

Nevertheless, how did the Girdle of the Holy Virgin arrive in Homs, remained a big question. Mr.John Zkeme, an official at the Church, says that it is well known that Virgin Mary died around 56 AD at the age of 70 in Palestine and was buried by the Apostles with great respect in the Kidron Valley. It is most likely that the holy girdle was buried with her in her grave. “It is our Christian belief and Orthodox tradition, that 3 days after her death, the angels carried her holy body to heaven. During his journey, the Apostle St. Thomas saw her – he was acting as a missionary in India and could not participate in her burial. He was carried on a cloud, and on his way he saw the Virgin Mary ascending to Heaven, carried by a wondrous procession of angels. He was blessed by her holy body and asked for proof to take to his pupils, so he was given the girdle.” Mr. Zkeme explained.

St. Thomas took the girdle with him when he returned to India, which stayed with his body remains for 4 centuries. At the end of the 4th Century AD, on the 23rd August 394 AD, the girdle was removed from India to Edessa with the remnants of St. Thomas. It was then removed to the Church of the Virgin Mary in Homs in 476 AD, being known as the Church of Um Al-Zennar. It was recorded in various scripts that were unfortunately lost in the passage of time. Nevertheless, some were preserved in the Church, dating back to 117 years, one of them was a Syriac bible written by Deacon Jacob Hakim in 1602.

In that bible there was enough evidence to confirm that the girdle was indeed found in the year 59 AD, and placed in the Church of Um Al-Zennar in Homs in 1762. The Griddle was returned to its initial state in the center of the altar, about which a big stone engraved in the ‘Kirshwani’ script dating its inauguration in 1852 in the reign of the Bishop Julius Peter.

We would like to mention at this stage that a number of old scripts prove the use of girdle by early Christians, as it appears from the study of textiles and clothing in the Roman era, similar to the girdle of the Holy Virgin which is now kept in the Museum of Sweida, in the south of Syria.

 

Haifaa Mafalani

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