Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma visited the Convent of Our Lady of Sednaya near Damascus on Easter.
The Syrian President and the First Lady congratulated the families, nuns and orphans at the Greek Orthodox Convent on Easter.
They also visited the Agia Sophia Church Museum and looked at the historical illustrations and icons it contains.
Renowned for its faithfulness to Christianity, tradition holds that the Convent of Our Lady of Saidnaya was constructed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 547 AD, after he had two visions of Mary, one that indicated where to build the church and the other outlining its design.
Justinian dedicated the finished project to the feast of Mary's Nativity, and annually thereafter on September 8, and through to the present day, both Muslim and Christian pilgrims have come to commemorate the feast day of Our Lady of Saidnaya.
Also located in the convent of Saidnaya is an icon of the Holy Mother and Child known as the Shaghurah and reputed to have been painted by Luke the Evangelist which is believed to protect its owners from harm in times of danger.
Due in no small measure to its protected mountainous location, Saidnaya enjoyed religious peace throughout its history, even during times of war, such as during the Crusades.
Local Muslims visit the convent sanctuary on the day of Friday prayers and share in the legends regarding this holy place
Christians and Muslims from the region and from far away places seek the shrine for healing. Numerous accounts of miraculous healings have been reported, some which are documented in writing by those who experienced them throughout history.
Saidnaya has about more than 40 chapels and monasteries and the most famous one is the convent of the Virgin Mary. Many other Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Syriac Catholic and Syriac Orthodox churches and monasteries have been built in Saidnaya throughout history.
On top of the highest mountain in Saidnaya is the Cherubim Monastery at 2,000 metres above sea level, overlooking Damascus' fertile plains and Lebanon's mountains. There is also the Monastery of Mar Thomas and a few massive monasteries built more recently such as St. Thomas Creek Catholic Monastery, St. Estphariuos Orthodox Monastery, and St. Ephram Syriac Monastery.
A bronze statue of Jesus Christ with 33.10 m high, was installed on 14 October 2013 financed by both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government, The statue is near the Monastery of the Cherubim, perched above the historic pilgrimage route from Constantinople to Jerusalem.
The weather is cold and snowy in winter, while it is warm and has fresh air in summer. Surviving vestiges of caves, grottos and ancient places in and around Saydnaya indicate that it was inhabited by different civilizations from the early Stone Age, with artifacts from Aramaic, Greek, Syriac, Roman, and Arab times.
According to the tradition, emperor Justinian I, while crossing Syria with his troops either on his way to the Holy Land or on a campaign against the Persians, came to this desert, where his army encamped and soon suffered thirst for lack of water.
When they despaired, the emperor saw a beautiful gazelle off in the distance. He vigorously gave chase, hunting the animal until it tired and stopped on a rocky knoll and approached a spring of fresh water, but without giving the emperor the opportunity to shoot it.
Suddenly, it transformed into an icon of the Theotokos, which shone with a brilliant light. A white hand stretched forth from it and a voice said, "No, thou shalt not kill me, Justinian, but thou shalt build a church for me here on this hill."
Then the strange heavenly light and majestic figure disappeared. Upon his return, Justinian related what he had seen to his subordinates and ordered them immediately to draw up a plan for the contemplated church.
After some time had passed and the architects were unable to resolve the problems of the plan, the Holy Virgin — the gazelle — reappeared to Justinian in a dream and confided a magnificent plan to him for a convent, of which she would be the protectress.
It is said that the basic structure of the convent follows this plan to this day.
The convent soon gained such renown that it came to be ranked second only to Jerusalem as a place of pilgrimage, and nuns from every corner of Syria, Egypt, and other lands flocked to it.
The holy icon El Chagoura appeared many years after the convent was constructed.