Once a year, the parking lot of St. Elias Orthodox Church becomes a hub for Middle Eastern food, dancing, and shopping — bringing a taste of the culture to Syracuse. In its 94th year, the Middle Eastern Festival is the longest-running festival in New York. 

The smell of spices wafted from the tall white tents outside the church as people waited in line for zalabye, crispy fried dough balls dipped in syrup, and other dishes both savory and sweet. DJ Ibrahim Khal played upbeat Arabic music with heavy percussion. Inside, the Souk Marketplace featured vendors selling jewelry, crafts and books.       

Lina Abu-Manneh attends St. Elias Orthodox Church and handles the marketing and advertising for the festival. She moved from the country of Jordan to Baldwinsville after marrying in 2009.

“It started out as a picnic, the parishioners would go on to commemorate the feast day of St. Elias, which is in July,” Abu-Manneh said. “And it just kept evolving and getting bigger and bigger. Now, it’s a full-fledged festival.” 

The biggest draw of the festival is the food, according to Abu-Manneh. The menu is vast and features savory meals like chicken and beef shawarma on pita paninis ($12-$13) and meat or vegetarian platters served with hashweh (spiced rice), grape leaves, hummus and pita bread ($16-$22). The dessert options feature the flavors of nuts, spices, and syrups, with baklawa — filo dough filled with sweet walnuts — being a popular treat. The sweets can be found both in the tent and in the marketplace and range from $3 to $8.      

“Our food is made from scratch. We only outsource a few items on the menu. Everything else is made right here in the church,” Abu-Manneh said. “It is really made with quality ingredients. It’s not something that we just say, this is how we would make the food at home.”

The recipes have transcended generations. Each region brings their own influence to the dishes, said Diane Sopp-Sauro, Vice Chairperson of the Parish Council and Choir Director at St. Elias Antiochian Orthodox Church. Her grandparents were among the founders of the church, and she has been attending the festival since she was born. 

“I’ve seen the community support really blossoming,” Sopp-Sauro said. 

Church tours take festival-goers into the history of the St. Elias Parish that dates back to the 1920s, when a small group of Orthodox Christians from the Middle East wanted to continue celebrating their faith in America. The parish constructed their current building in 1969, and it’s been home to the festival ever since.  

Sopp-Sauro estimated that over the course of the four days, somewhere between 12,000 to 15,000 people will attend the festival. 

“We have repeat customers, because they might want to try something different,” Sopp-Sauro said. “Or they come with other members of their family or friends. Or they just can’t get enough Middle Eastern food.”

In addition to the menu, Middle Eastern culture is celebrated through Dapkeh — a traditional folk dance combining circle dance and line dancing that is popular in Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

The youngest dance troop consisted of four kids line dancing in coordinating red and black outfits as the audience clapped along. Performing in a circle dance, a group of seven young adults in colorful embroidered vests moved around the tent with white handkerchiefs. 

“The kids practice over the course of the summer, and the ones that are teaching are young adults that also grew up dancing,” Sopp-Sauro said. 

The St. Elias Middle Eastern Festival is free to attend and features a kid-friendly menu, games and a playground. The festival runs:

  • from 4 to 10 p.m. on Friday, July 14
  • from noon to 10 p.m. on Saturday, July 15
  • from noon to 6 p.m. on Sunday, July 16

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