31 May 2008

Touring Damascus

My hotel is a very charming old-fashioned place near the city center of Damascus. Here's a picture of the lobby, snagged from their website. The room is small by stylish, only $50 per night, and within walking distance (albeit a fairly long walk) to the Souk al-Hamidiya, the main souk of old Damascus.

My friend took me on a long walking tour of the old city. We went to the Omayyad Mosque. The site was originally an Aramic temple, then a Roman temple to Jupiter, then became a Christian church. When Kaleed Ben Al Waleed conquered Damascus, he turned parts of it into a Mosque, and for a while Christians and Muslims both used it, staying to different sides. Eventually it became just a mosque, but not just a mosque--a very special one. It containst the tomb of Salah al-Din, the great warrior who died in Damascus at the end of the 12th century after beating hell out of the Crusaders.

The Mosque also contains the tomb of John the Baptist...that is, the tomb of his head. Muslims consider him a prophet, and there was a great crowd around his tomb, with only about three of us being non-Muslim.

Most interestingly, the Mosque also contains the tomb of another head, that of Husayn, Mohammed's grandson, who was killed in a dispute over the Caliphate that led to the Sunni/Shiite split. His head was buried here as a sign of strength, and is an insult to Shiites (who, to add another layer to the intrigue, are mostly Persian (Iranian), while Syria is, of course, Arabic. Although Syria is predominantly Sunni, as is the Mosque, it is a place of pilgrimage for Shiites, who come to pay homage.

But not far away, in the old city, there are also numerous churches, including Greek Orthodox and Armenian orthodox. Damascus was a Christian city before Muslims conquered it, and still has a large Christian population that worships openly. And unlike most Middle Eastern states, a person's identity card does not list their religion.

1 comment:

James K said...

Saladin's tomb, that pretty cool.

One thing you don't really get in new Zealand is history. After all when the country is less than 200 years old there's not a lot to have a history of.