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

Icons & Eastern Rites : Visits to the  Syrian Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches of Damascus

Eastern Rites refers to the ancient ceremonies and rites practised by the churches in Eastern Europe and Middle East.  The national orthodox churches of these countries subscribed to these rites and the Roman Catholic Church, since the  Brest-Litovsk Union of 1596 (which established the Uniate Church of Ukraine), had been courting for the unity of Eastern Rite churches with Rome.  In the Middle East, they had successfully established Catholic Churches of the Eastern Rite for believers who originally belong to  Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox churches, etc.

After visiting the Armenian churches, we visited other churches, namely, the Syrian Catholic Church of St Paul and the Greek Orthodox Church of  St Mary, which also happened to be the HQ of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Damascus, admiring their often exquisite icon collections.

Located behind the Bab Keissan, one of the old gates of Damascus, St Paul’s Church was a difficult one to locate.  St Paul, after becoming a staunch advocate of Christianity, was been pursued by Damascus’ Jews (who wanted to kill him), and was lowered down in a basket from the walls.  The church was supposedly located at where this biblical incident occurred.  Run as a memorial chapel and an orphanage by the Roman Catholic Church today, it is an interesting place to visit, with Arabic icons, and paintings of St Paul.

Islamic Damascus & the Great Omayyad Mosque

 Then came Caliph al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek who in 705 A.D. decreed that he shall build the greatest mosque ever - one “whose like was never built before, nor will ever be built after.” 

The last years of Byzantine rule in Syria was a period of great strife - the wars against the Persians, the Byzantine internal court intrigue and religious conflicts between different Eastern Orthodox factions - all made the Byzantine Greeks highly unpopular.  No wonder the Bedouin Arabs carrying the banner of a new religion Islam were welcomed by the city in 636 A.D.  In the next 20 or so years, armies bearing the flag of Islam marched across a wide stretch of territory from Morocco to the foothills of the Tienshan in Kazakhstan.  Like any other new empires, the rapid rise of the new entity was often followed by conflicts over the division of gains.   A bitter dispute over whether Ali, Prophet Muhammed’s son-in-law, should be the caliph, or head of state and religion.  He was made caliph in 656 A.D., but was soon assassinated.  This led to a civil war in which the enemies of Ali, under Mu’awiyah, governor of Syria, became the new caliph.  The losers, became known as the Shiites, or Partisans (of Ali), and the bitterness that arose from the deaths of Ali and his sons still divide the Muslim world of today.
As the chief city of the Middle East and Headquarters of Mu’awiyah, Damascus was the natural candidate for the capital of the new Islamic Empire - the Omayyad Caliphate, which lasted till its destruction by the Shiite Abbasids of Baghdad.  These were the glorious days of Damascus, when the Great Omayyad Mosque was built, along with numerous palaces and villas.   The great mosque was initially shared with the Christians when the Arab Army conquered Damascus.  For more than sixty years, both religions perform their rituals side-by-side.  Then came Caliph al-Walid ibn Abdul Malek who in 705 A.D. decreed that he shall build the greatest mosque ever - one “whose like was never built before, nor will ever be built after.”  And he bought off the Christians (who probably had no choice), and took 10 years and 11 million gold dinars to build his mosque.  The result is a monument fitting for Allah - a grand prayer hall with mosaic walls ( - very beautiful mosaic arrangements depicting buildings and landscapes - so unlike most mosques one sees around the world where the only art appears to be geometric patterns), a huge marble courtyard and a few tall minarets.  What impressed me was not merely the grandeur but the sense of peacefulness that one finds within, especially as one had just entered here from the crowded and noisy souq, just outside the mosque.  That aside, visitors should be aware that this is a very holy place, as the shrine of St John the Baptist, who the Muslims consider one of their prophets, lies within the prayer hall.  Round the shrine were many people, kissing and praying softly in front of the shrine, where St John’s head (he was decapitated by the Romans) was supposedly kept.   Men are to wear long pants and ladies must put on an Islamic dark robe obtainable at the entrance.  Cousin Casey had put on one but did not button it up down to her feet, and was told to do so by an old man in the mosque.    She’d probably enjoyed dressing up like an Arabic lady but I supposed the move also hindered her photo-taking.

Tomb Visits

Near the Omayyad Mosque were mausoleums of two great Middle Eastern sultans of the Age of the Crusaders - Salah Ad-Din, founder of the Ayyubid Dynasty,  and Baibars I, the most eminent of the Mamluk sultans.  Each of the mausoleums is small and almost insignificant architecturally (at least in my untrained opinion).  But the significance of the persons buried beneath stretches long after their death.  Even today, there are many who long for a Salah Ad-Din who would sign a fair peace with the Israelis (“West”), and others who long for a new Baibars who would wipe the supposedly foreign invaders off the land of the Arabs.  So who are these remarkable men ?

Salah Ad-Din ("Righteousness of the Faith”), commonly known as Saladin in the West, was a Kurdish warrior who first came into prominence as a general under Amir Nureddin, ruler of Aleppo.  Through his military genius and shrewdness, he conquered Damascus and then took over Egypt.  When Nureddin died, he took over the throne and within a short time, built an empire which included Egypt, Palestine, Syria and northern Mesopotamia. After uniting the Muslim territories, he turned his target to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.  At the Battle of Hattin on July 4, 1187, Salah Ad-Din routed the Crusader Army, capturing the King of Jerusalem and his lords.  By October 1187, his troops marched into the Holy City of Jerusalem, ending 88 years of western rule, and unlike the standards of the days, he did not celebrate his victory with a standard bloodbath of Christians.  And it was this civilised act, together with many other events of chivalry that made Salah Ad-Din legendary in the Western world.  But his victory shocked the West so much that it brought three kings to fight the Muslims.  One of them, Richard the Lionheart of England, was powerful enough to bring the whole fighting to a standstill, although the West never control more than a tiny coastal strip when Richard left for home.   Salah Ad-Din died in 1193 in Damascus and was buried in a little mausoleum next to the Omayyad Mosque.  Visitors will be surprised by the two rather elaborately-carved sarcophagus - one contains the body of the Sultan and the other was built by the German Kaiser in 1898 when he came for a visit.  Those were the extent the Germans went to cultivate the Arabs as allies before World War I.

And amidst the sounds of Islamic prayers, we browse through the collection of this ancient madrassa, which to our surprise included a very old edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as well as European classics.  Unexpected finds in unusual lands…

While Salah Ad-Din fought and later sought peace with the Crusaders, it was Sultan Baibars I who finally defeated and chased them out from the Middle East.  (He also conquered the Krak des Chevaliers.) His military prowess and victories had so captivated the imagination of the Arab world that a folk account of his life story, Sirat Baybars, is still today.  Baibars died in 1277, and was buried at the library of Madrassa (religious school) az-Zahiriyah.  We visited the madrassa, and after taking a look at the simple marble  tomb located under the graceful geometrical dome of az-Zahiriyah, we were invited into the library proper.  And amidst the sounds of Islamic prayers, we browse through the collection of this ancient madrassa, which to our surprise included a very old edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica as well as European classics.  Unexpected finds in unusual lands…

After the madrassa visit, we returned to the souq, where we did a fair bit of shopping.  Apparently there were quite a few UN personnel (stationed in Kuwait) on R&R in Damascus and they provide a fair bit of income for a city whose tourist figures had been affected by instability and uncertainty in the Middle East peace process.  I spent US$3 on a kerrifya ( - ridiculously high price - as I was told by people I met later on !), a nice Persian print and some T shirts.  We then ended the day by having a sumptuous dinner at one of the many top restaurants in town and the meal cost only S.L. 330 for two persons (about US$4) each !  And then we were ready for the next adventure - to Palmyra, City of Palms.

Next : Palmyra - City of Palms


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