== History ==
It is said that Justinian I, Emperor of Byzantium, 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 Most-holy 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. In the late eighth century, a certain venerable Marina was abbess of the convent, and she was widely revered for her piety and sanctity of life. It happened that a hermit monk, a Greek pilgrim from Egypt named Theodore, stopped at the convent on his way to the Holy Land. When he was leaving, Abbess Marina asked him to buy in Jerusalem a precious and fine icon of the Holy Virgin. While at Jerusalem, he utterly forgot the task entrusted to him and started on his return journey. However, when he had not gone far from the city, he was stopped short by an unfamiliar voice: "Have you not forgotten something in Jerusalem? What have you done in regard to the commission from Abbess Marina?" Monk Theodore returned at once to Jerusalem and found an icon of the Theotokos. During the journey back to the convent, he was astounded by the miracles accomplished through the icon. He and his whole caravan were ambushed by bandits, and then attacked by wild beasts. Amidst these dangers, the hermit always invoked the aid of the Holy Virgin while holding her icon, and he and all the
caravan were saved from every peril.
== History ==
The village of Saydnaya has many ancient associations with the Holy Bible. The local inhabitants can show you the reputed place where Cain slew his brother Abel. It is also an area renowned for its faithfulness to Orthodoxy. In former times when many cities and villages in Syria apostatized from Christianity, Saydnaya always remained a zealous defender of the Orthodox Faith.
The convent rises above the town like a veritable fortress and is dedicated to the Nativity of the Most Holy Theotokos. One may not enter the small chapel without removing one's sandals; inside, the walls are covered with myriad signs of gratitude to the All-pure One. The Icon of the All-holy Virgin is believed to be one of four icons extant that were painted by St. Luke the Evangelist himself. In the Syriac language this icon is called the Chahoura or Chagoura, which means "The Illustrious, Celebrated, or Renowned." The word is a loan-word from the Arabic Chahira or El Mash Hura which have the same meaning. There are also many other fine icons of the Holy Virgin and the saints, which date from the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries.