The Cave of Thecla is an ancient Christian site, dating perhaps as far back as the mid-1st century. Thecla, an early Church convert, did not appear in the New Testament but was an important figure of Apocryphal Christian literature. According to the Acts of Paul and Thecla, she may have been one of the first, or possibly even the first woman martyred for the Christian faith. During the years of her persecution, Thecla apparently took refuge in a cave. While the exact location of her cave is unknown with certainty, and several places in Syria and Turkey claim it, the Cave of Thecla outside of Maloula in Syria has the oldest and strongest tradition. The Monastery of Mar Thecla above the cave has been a popular pilgrimage site since at least Byzantine times.
Thecla was one of the most popular figures of Apocryphal literature in ancient Christian times. Although her story was not included in the New Testament canon, it was nevertheless recognized as both a legitimate and important document of the early Church. According to the text, Thecla was a young woman of noble birth, possibly the daughter of a Seleucid prince, who followed Paul, converted to Christianity and adopted a chaste lifestyle. This did not sit well with her betrothed, for obvious reasons, or with her family, who sought to marry her off for political purposes. Despite repeated threats, she refused the marriage.
Thecla was condemned to be burned at the stake for her obstinence, but she was miraculously saved when a fierce storm doused the flames. After this narrow escape, she departed with Paul to seek safety in Asia Minor. However, once again she became the subject of a nobleman’s unwanted attention, and once again she protested her virtue. This time, however, she was forced to defend herself from violent attack, at which time the nobleman suffered minor injury. A popular man, he accused Thecla of assault, and had the authorities confine her with wild beasts. Once again she was saved by a miracle, when the female animals defended her from the males.
Based on these stories, early Christians esteemed Thecla as a paragon of female virtue, and a model of virginity and chastity. The rest of her story is based on legend rather than on Apocryphal writings. According to tradition, her family apparently never gave up on marrying her off, and hired soldiers to go after her. While trying to escape, she offered up a prayer. In answer, a cave opened in the mountain upon which she was standing, offering her a place to hide. There she lived for some time as a hermit. Little is known about how long she remained in the cave or about the rest of her life, although it is strongly believed that she was eventually captured and martyred.
Thecla was one of the earliest popular figures of the Church who did not personally know Jesus of Nazareth. At some point before or during the Byzantine era, she began to be venerated as a saint. The site of her cave was identified in Syria near the modern day city of Maloula. A church was built in the mouth of the cave in very early times, and later the site became home to a large monastery, the Mar Taqla. The Mar Taqla Monastery has been around, in one form or another, ever since. The local Christian community, though small, is one of the world’s oldest, and is the only one to speak Aramaic, the language probably spoken by Jesus of Nazareth. This makes a visit to Maloula an even more authentic experience for pilgrims.
The Monastery of Mar Thecla is an impressive and unique Christian complex. It is literally built right into the mouth of the cave in which Thecla once took sanctuary from her pursuers. The cave opening is both very wide and tall, and it is actually more like a giant dent in the mountainside. The older portions of the monastery, where the original shrine was located, is actually inside of the cave, its sides and contours almost melting into the surrounding rock. The majority of the monastery complex is built into a series of levels on the mountainside outside of the cave opening. The entire site is interconnected by a string of narrow alleyways, suspended walkways and underground passages.
The main shrine of the monastery is a domed church just outside of the cave entrance. Much of the complex is relatively recent. The interior of the church is famous for the hundreds of painted frescoes which cover nearly every inch of surface area. Behind the monastery, in the remaining space of the cave, is the shrine of Thecla, the highlight of which is an ancient natural spring whose water is highly prized by visiting pilgrims.
The Cave and Monastery of Thecla are located on the outskirts of Maloula, which is itself largely located on the lower slope of the mountain and a neighboring hill. Maloula is located about forty miles north of Damascus and can be visited in a daytrip. As of this writing, no visitor information was available the Cave of Thecla. Web: Not currently available due to ongoing problems in the region
Located between Antioch and Aleppo to the north and Damascus and the Holy Land to the south, the area around Maloula was once home to a thriving Christian community. It once abounded with churches, monasteries and the like, some of which can still be found. Among the most important and interesting is the Monastery of Mar Sarkis, a Roman soldier who had been martyred for his conversion to Christianity.