A reader asked me about a supposed “wonderworking” icon of Mary that is generally little known in the West, but quite famous in its Middle Eastern region. Many tales have been told about it along with a good deal of nonsense and contradictory information. Nonetheless it is set an an interesting historical and cultural matrix.
It is the Saydnaya/Saidnaya icon, also called the Shagoura (“Famous”) icon. As is common with notable icons of Mary, it is said to have been “painted by St. Luke,” which of course is nonsense, but it is the standard way of trying to impute ancient venerability and sanctity to a Marian icon. Other sources place its creation in the 9th century, or more loosely in “Byzantine times.” There is an account saying the icon was originally from Constantinople, and was obtained in Jerusalem by the Abbess of Saydnaya, and a variant saying a man brought it, as requested, from Jerusalem to the convent, and on the way there it began to reveal its miraculous nature. And the tale becomes far more fantastic:
“…at Saydnaya the icon began to grow flesh from the breasts to the navel, emitting from the breasts an oil-like liquid that would heal the sick”
Because of its location on the way to Palestine, and because of the icon — housed in the Church of the Virgin — the Saydnaya Convent has been an important pilgrimage site for many centuries. It was visited both by Christians and at times even by Muslims. There the icon forms the center portion of a silver-clad triptych, which in turn is set into a painted icon. And the whole is protected behind a metal grille.
The icon is kept under the jurisdiction of the Antiochian Orthodox Patriarchate. It is found at the church at the Saydnaya Monastery/Convent a little over 15 miles north of Damascus, in Syria. the convent and its church — which lie on Mount Qalamoun — are at the village of Saydnaya/Saidnaya, which is today also unfortunately the site of an extremely brutal high security prison where torture is practiced under the Assad regime.
Though there were originally monks at the monastery, it is said they abandoned it in early Ottoman times, leaving it to the nuns.
The resemblance of the –naya suffix in Saydnaya to titles of Slavic icons such as Kazanskaya and Vladimirskaya (“of Kazan,” “of Vladimir”) is purely coincidental. In Syriac — which is a form of the Aramaic said to have been spoken by Jesus — -naya is a suffix used to indicate a place name. And because the word sayd has to do with hunting, and because there was in ancient times a temple in the region dedicated to the Phoenician god of hunting, Saydoum, the name perhaps just originally meant a “hunting place.” In Arabic, sayyida means “Lady,” so the name Saydnaya could also be understood to mean the “Place of the Lady” — i.e. Mary. Note that in the literature there are many variations in the spelling of Saydnaya.
The convent itself is of great interest historically, because not only is it said to be one of the most ancient monasteries, but its legend also relates that it was founded by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, though there is no historical evidence to support that claim. An old tale relates the story of its founding.
Supposedly, Emperor Justinian was hunting chasing a gazelle on Mount Qalamoun. He pursued it until it stopped at a spring on a rocky hill, where the gazelle suddenly became a brightly shining image of Mary. Justinian then heard a voice telling him, “No, you shall not kill me, Justinian, but you shall build a church for me here on this rock” (لا لن تقتلني يا جوستنيان ولكنك ستشيد لي كنيسة هنا على هذا الصخر). Those words form the text on the scroll held by Mary in the mosaic at the Saydnaya Convent shown above.
Later, Mary is said to have appeared to the Emperor in a dream, showing him the plans for the construction of the monastery.
The most fantastic stories are told about this icon, right up to the present day. One shared on many conservative Orthodox sites relates how a childless Saudi Muslim vacationing with his wife in Syria, went — on the advice of their hired limousine driver — to the Convent with his wife. The driver had told them that eating a bit of the wick of the lamp that burned before the icon at the convent would enable one to ask a favor of Mary — in this case that the wife might become pregnant. Supposedly the man promised thousands of dollars to the driver and even more to the convent if his wife was to conceive as the result. The story relates that the wife did conceive and bore a son, and so the man went back to Syria to keep his promise of paying the money.
He called the same driver as previously to pick him up in Damascus, and when the driver did so, he was accompanied by two friends. The man was not driven to the convent, but instead off to an isolated place, where the men stole his money and killed him, cutting the body up and putting it into the trunk of the car. But while driving on to where they intended to hide the remains, the car broke down. It happened that a passer-by stopped and offered to help them. They refused his help, but on leaving, he noticed blood coming out of the trunk. He called the police. When the police arrived and opened the trunk, the Saudi stepped out of it alive and well. He said that Mary had been stitching his body together, and had just finished sewing his head back on. The marks of the stitching were still visible.
Seeing the man they had dismembered alive and well, the three who had killed and robbed him went mad, and were taken away to an asylum. Supposedly the man who was stitched back together gave some $800,000 to the convent in gratitude, and he and his family — who were Muslims — became Christian.
Now such a wild tale is exactly the kind of thing one would expect to find in medieval hagiography — books such as the Golden Legend of Jacobus Voragine — but to find them spread in all seriousness by Eastern Orthodox sites on the Internet in the 21st century just shows how little the naive credulousness of many “religious” people has changed.
There is an interesting historical account of the Saydnaya Convent and its famous icon given in the article “Convergences of Oriental Christian, Muslim, and Frankish Worshippers: the Case of Saydnaya and the Knights Templar,” by Benjamin Z. Kedar. It is found in the book The Crusades and the Military Orders: Expanding the Frontiers of Medieval Latin Christianity, edited by Zsolt Hunyadi and Jozsef Laszlovzky.