A twisted cross adorns the church of Saint Sarkis and the Bacchus monastery in the historic Christian town of Maalula, 50 kilometres northeast of Damascus, on May 14, 2014
A twisted cross adorns the church of Saint Sarkis and the Bacchus monastery in the historic Christian town of Maalula, 50 kilometres northeast of Damascus, on May 14, 2014 © Joseph Eid - AFP
A twisted cross adorns the church of Saint Sarkis and the Bacchus monastery in the historic Christian town of Maalula, 50 kilometres northeast of Damascus, on May 14, 2014
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Rana Moussaoui
Last updated: May 19, 2014

We know it as one of Syria's most legendary spots. But today, it's no more than a sorry ghost town.

Banner Icon The historic Christian town of Maalula stands a shadow of its former self, abandoned and war-scarred, a month after Syrian government forces expelled Islamist rebels.

In the main square, with its posters of President Bashar al-Assad and slogans daubed on walls singing his praises, a handful of soldiers lounge in the spring sunshine.

Maalula's residents, many of whom still speak Aramaic, believed to be the language of Jesus Christ, are nowhere to be seen.

Silence fills the mountain town, broken only by the squeaks of swallows as they swoop near ancient caves with their tales from the early years of Christianity.

"People come here for an hour to see their homes, and then they leave," a soldier told AFP on a state-authorised visit to the town, 50 kilometres (30 miles) northeast of Damascus.

The damage is nowhere near as heavy as in places like Homs, where entire neighbourhoods have been flattened in Syria's three-year war.

But the battle for Maalula has left its scars.

It lasted seven months, with the army finally expelling opposition forces, including Al-Qaeda affiliate Al-Nusra Front, in mid-April.

Homes have been left burnt out, with windows broken, doors smashed in and balconies collapsed.

The picturesque town was a strategic prize because of its location in the Qalamun mountains, on the road between Damascus and Lebanon.

It was recaptured with the support of fighters from Lebanon's Shiite group Hezbollah, and Assad paid a triumphant visit on April 20 to mark Easter.

It was also a symbolic victory for Assad's regime, which casts itself as the protector of Syria's minorities, a claim which the opposition mocks as propaganda.

So far, there are no signs of reconstruction in the town, whose 5,000 residents are largely Greek Catholic, with a Muslim minority.

"We need aid, because people here have lost everything," Fassih, the sole resident sighted, said near the famed Orthodox monastery of Mar Takla.

Sorry sight

He had come to inspect his alcohol store, built around a cave, and found it burned to the ground, with the fridge smashed against a wall.

"The stock alone cost more then $66,000," Fassih sighed.

"My house was also burnt and looted, and all the furniture has been stolen," he said. "How can you expect people to come back to this?"

The army has closed Mar Takla, which jihadists ransacked and used as a military post.

Inside, Christian inscriptions lie scattered on the floor, and religious figures in paintings and icons have all had their eyes gouged.

The rooms of 12 nuns kidnapped by Al-Nusra in December and released three months later have been torched, their books destroyed and china smashed.

The abandoned orphanage in the complex is also a sorry sight: stuffed animals, scruffy clothes and children's drawings trail in the dust.

On the road to Mar Sarkis monastery, sandbags piled up by rebels stand outside caves overlooking the town that were used as military positions.

The Safir Hotel on the cliff above has been completely destroyed by bombing.

Nearby is the monastery of Sergius and Bacchus, founded in the fifth century and one of the oldest in the Middle East.

Named after two Roman officers martyred for their faith, today it stands damaged by shelling, its chapel filled with rubble.

Rare icons have been stolen, and in the souvenir shop, Gospels penned in Aramaic lie strewn on the floor.

Amid the desolation, a taxi-driver asked: "Who will return to this place? Probably no one. People will wait until the war is over."

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