by Tan Wee Cheng, Singapore
Damascus of Islam and the Unknown Damascus of Christianity
Old Damascus
Christian Damascus
The Street Called Straight and the House of Ananias
The Armenians
Icons & Eastern Rites : Visits to Syrian Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches
Islamic Damascus & the Grand Omayyad Mosque
Tomb visits

23 July 1996

Old Damascus

Got up early in the morning and went to the Citadel, the age-old guardian of Damascus, which defended the city (not successfully all the time) against the Crusaders, Mongols, Tatars, Ottomans, etc.  The Citadel appeared to be closed, and so we walked through Damascus’ premier souq al-Hamidiyeh, whose entrance lies at a gate of the Citadel.  And as with all other prominent locations of this city, there was a huge mural of President Assad with smiling workers and peasants, as well as images of a prosperous country as a backdrop.  And one certainly won’t miss him in the (perhaps) half-a-mile long souq - the canvas portrait of him or his son in various postures and costumes overlooked the ceiling of the souq every 50 meters or so.   (I’d better stop all these comments, or any one of the 8 major mukhabarat, or security forces, will get me !)  It was still early in the morning and most of the shops were closed. We were to return later and helped to relieve the country’s budget deficits by doing a bit of shopping in the afternoon.  We then walked to the Roman Temple of Jupiter at the end of the souq, hoping to enter the grand Ommayad Mosque from a gate near here.  The gate’s closed too, at this hour, and so we decided to venture around the dark, narrow allies of the old town of Damascus, hoping to hit the Christian quarter of the city.  As we moved further east, we passed through a seemingly cleaner and more prosperous part of the old city, and we knew we have entered the Christian area when we saw pictures of Virgin Mary in a bakery shop along Bab Touma (Thomas Gate) Street…

Christian Damascus

Syria to most foreigners appears to be a purely Muslim country.  Few realised that this is a country with 1.2 million Christians, about 10% of the population.  Christianity came early to Damascus.  This was where according to the Bible Acts 9:1, Ananias, an early Christian disciple, was asked to “go to the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus (St Paul) so that he might be able to touch him and restore Saul’s sight.”  Thereupon, Saul, a persecutor of the Christian, became convinced of the divinity of the religion, became the apostle of the non-Jews.

"go to the street which is called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus (St Paul) so that he might be able to touch him and restore Saul’s sight."  
                                                             Bible Act 9:1

Damascus, as the capital of Greater Syria under the Byzantine Empire, was naturally an important centre of religious worship and theological study.  The huge Roman Temple of Jupiter was converted into the holy church of St John the Baptist in the 4th  Century.   Great theologians lived in this city, among them St John of Damascus, whose essays on the veneration of holy images, or icons, sent shockwaves through the Eastern Orthodox churches.

The supremacy of Christianity in Damascus lasted till the conquest of Damascus by the Muslim Army of the Arabs, who converted the great church of St John the Baptist into a mosque.  Ever since the event, the Christian population had undergone a period of decline, which was made worse by emigration to other parts of the world under the later Ottoman and the French periods.  Even so, today’s Damascus has a fairly large Christian population, and it is even surprising to know that they are divided into so many denominations - Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Maronite, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic - many of which have only slight theological differences.

The Street called Straight and the House of  Ananias

“The street called straight is straighter than the corkscrew, but not as straight as a rainbow.  St Luke is careful not to commit himself; he does not say it is the street which is straight, but `the street which is called straight.’  It is the only facetious remark in the Bible, I believe.”

         Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869

The Street called Straight was one of the places I looked forward to in Damascus, not so much for spiritual reasons ( - I’m not a Christian) but more for touristic reasons.  True enough, Bab Sharqi (East Gate Street), the modern name for this famous street, is not straight at all.  And it is certainly not the wide boulevard that one would have expected it to be (as the main thoroughfare of Roman Damascus).  Instead we encountered a street of varying width at different sections, in a rather cosy neighbourhood, with clothes hanging above, small provision shops, antique and souvenir shops, etc.  We took quite an effort to find Ananias’ Home, which unfortunately was closed that day.  In any case, I found a postcard of it and proceed to explore other parts of Christian Damascus.

The Armenians

The first church we visited was the Armenian Orthodox Church of St Sarkies.  The Armenians are an Indo-European people from the southern part of the former Soviet Union.  These people once lived across a huge region stretching across eastern Turkey and what is today the Republic of Armenia.  The Armenians’ sympathies for Russia and Turkey’s fear of an Russian invasion from the east during the First World War led to the infamous Armenian Massacres, which decimated more than a million Armenians, perhaps more than half of all Armenians in the world.  Most of those who survived were only saved by the arrival of the Soviet Red Army in Yerevan, eastern part of Armenia where they set up the Soviet Socialist Republic of Armenia, which became an independent country in 1991, with the downfall of the USSR.

In AD 301, Armenia became the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion, when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted the Armenian king Tiridates III 

In AD 301, Armenia became the first nation in the world to adopt Christianity as the state religion, when St. Gregory the Illuminator converted the Armenian king Tiridates III (or Terdat III in Eastern Armenian).  Since then, the Armenian Apostolic Church, together with the 38-letters Armenian alphabet (invented by St. Mesrob Mashtots  in the 5th Century), has become symbols of Armenian national identity.  The Armenians first arrived in Damascus in the 12th Century while on the way to Jerusalem on pilgrimage.  Some settled here and formed an important station of an extensive Armenian trading network in the Levant.  However, large numbers of Armenians only came during the W.W.I, when refugees from the Massacres settled here as well as (in greater numbers) in Aleppo, Syria’s 2nd biggest city.

According to Father Klikor Ohanian of St Sarkies, there are about 10,000 Orthodox and 4000 Catholic Armenians in Damascus, and most of them are either in professions or operate gold and jewellery shops.  The very friendly Father Klikor  brought us around the church.  We had expected to see the beautiful icons normally seen in Orthodox churches but to our surprise, we were told that  Armenian churches, whether Orthodox or Catholic, generally do not venerate icons as much as other Eastern churches.  There may be murals devoted to the glory of the Almighty but worship is essentially centred around the ancient ceremonies of Armenia (“Armenian rites”).  Indeed, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Armenian rite “is dependent upon such books as the Donatzuitz, the order of service, or celebration of the liturgy; the Badarakamaduitz, the book of the sacrament, containing all the prayers used by the priest; the Giashotz, the book of midday, containing the Epistle and Gospel readings for each day; and the Z'amagirq, the book of hours, containing the prayers and psalms of the seven daily offices, primarily matins, prime, and vespers.”

In addition, we were shown a memorial to the 1.5 million victims of the Armenian Genocide, as the Armenians called the massacres of W.W.I.  The beautiful but sad column bears carvings of another symbol of the Armenian nation - Mount Ararat - which today lies in Turkey.  Such memorials can be found in Armenian churches all over the world, as the Armenian nation, naturally, find it difficult to forget the series of events that nearly destroyed their nation forever.  And even today, this event continues to hamper relations between Armenia and Turkey, which refuses to acknowledge that this event had ever occurred.   This is an issue that will continue to haunt tiny landlocked Armenia, which despite aggressive lobbying by its émigrés in Washington D.C.  and other world capitals, has little bargaining power with respect to Turkey, which is a much more important country by virtue of geopolitics and economics.  Such are the realities of geopolitics.  (A friend of mine commented that "the Armenian lobby has indeed blocked some very important investments that Turkey wants--though the Humanitarian Corridor Act, which says that no country which refuses to open  its borders with another for humanitarian aid may receive aid form the USA. Azerbaijan and Turkey  are both blocked from receiving aid right now from the USA. The air corridor is now open with  Turkey, and there are weekly flights to Istanbul from Yerevan. What I receive vis a vis this situation is that Diaspora Armenians take a much harder stand against Turkey and Azerbaijan than locals. Locals are more pragmatic - they want to get their economy going again, while the Diaspora already have an economy - the economy of their host country - and simply forget the plight of their brothers in the homeland.")

After St Sarkies, we stumbled onto the Armenian Catholic Church of Lady Mary.  The church came into being in 1740, 400 years after the collapse of the Catholic Kingdom of Little Armenia in Cilicia in southern Turkey.   It practises Armenian rites but acknowledges the supremacy of the Roman Catholic Pope.  The church has its own supreme patriarch,  who resides in Beirut, Lebanon and is known as the "Patriarch of the Catholic Armenians and Catholicos of Cilicia".  The liturgy, like that of the Orthodox Church, is celebrated in the classical Armenian language.  Lady Mary is a rather large, light-filtered new church, unlike many Eastern churches which are dark within.  One can admire the beautiful wall murals, with biblical  scenes amidst Armenian landscapes.  Elderly parishioners pray to the ancient tunes of Armenia and in middle of all these, I lighted a candle here on behalf of a Roman Catholic friend back at home.  There is a primary school here too, with a number of Armenian kids, happily playing games only to be interrupted by the sudden arrival of these strange yellow-skin people. Everything is so beautiful, except for the portrait of the President who stares down from its high place in the chapel courtyard.  And so back to the harsh Syrian realities…

Next : Eastern Rites & Islamic Damascus


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