Saturday, August 13, 2011

The beauty of Damascus

The horrific events unfolding in Syria saddens but does not shock me. The Syrian people have for many years been too afraid to stand up to the authorities and for good reason. The authorities is Syria are scarcely tolerant of any dissent and are known to severely restrict ones right freedom of expression. They are aided in this injustice by a State of Emergency that has been continually kept in place since 1963. I hope and pray for a speedy resolution to the conflict and hope that the Syrian people get the freedoms that all people deserve. Furthermore, I hope that this blog does not prevent me form ever visiting Syria again because Damascus, to me, represents one of the most awesome cities in the world. 

Three years ago, I visited Damascus for about 38 hours and in that time, I slept a total of about 5 hours. It was phenomenal and I remarked to my wife that the city seemed to revitalise me. I did not mind the short duration of our visit, because I believed somehow that one day I would return to this great city. I would like to share some of the images of that visit with you.

The Great Mosque of Damascus

The Grand Mosque of Damascus
No description of Damascus would be complete if one did not include "The Great Mosque of Damascus", also known as the Umayyad Mosque. It has always, in it's various incarnations being marveled at for its architecture and continues to remain the heart of the city. Without going too deep into the history of this building, it began in the Iron Age as a temple to the Aramaean god of rain and thunder, Hadad - Ramman but was converted after the Roman conquest of Damascus to a temple to honour the Roman God of Thunder (not Thor!), Jupiter. Signs of the old temple still exist today and I found that truly amazing.
Remnants of the Temple of Jupiter - Damascus
Towards the end of the 4th Century, the temple of Jupiter was converted into the Cathedral of Saint John by the Christian emperor  of the Byzantine empire, Theodosius I. It is believed that the site is the burial site for the severed head of John the Baptist, a legend that was further fuelled by the discovery of an embalmed head in a sealed tomb during the construction of the grand mosque and the famous visit by Pope John Paul II in 2001 to visit the site thought to contain the remains of John the Baptist. this was incidentally the first time a Pope paid an official visit to a mosque.
The Umayyad mosque is most beautiful at dawn
Damascus was captured by Arab forces in 634 AD and later became the administrative capital of the Muslim world. It was only then that the cathedral was converted to a mosque after an agreement with the Christian leaders that all other confiscated churches be returned to the Christians as compensation. It was this understanding that has led to Damascus been one of the few sites in the Arab world that contains churches from that era.

The tomb of Saladin
Saladin (Salah ed Deen Ayyubi) is one of my greatest heroes. His military prowess and compassion was so well documented that even in Europe, where he should have been hated, he became known for his chivalry and justice earning the respect of European leaders including Richard the LionHeart. His tomb is in a garden outside the Umayyad Mosque. When emperor Wilhelm II of Germany visited the mausoleum centuries later he was shocked to find that the site was not more elaborate. he donated a new marble sarcophagus to the mausoleum. The remains of saladin was however not moved so today the mausoleum contains the empty marble sarcophagus and the wooden one in which Saladin was originally buried.
Mausoleum of Saladin - Damascus
 The tomb of Zaynub bint Ali
By now, you are possibly thinking that I did not sleep much in Damascus for spiritual reasons but the last tomb that deserves mention is that of Zaynub bint Ali. Grandaughter of the prophet, she remains one of my favourite women in Islamic history (to the point that if I had my way, my daughter Sulaym would have been named Zaynub which means "the adornment of her father" :) ). After the battle of Karbala, where she lost in battle both of her sons and her brother, she was captured and taken to Damascus. En route she spoke to the people in the towns they passed and to the people of Damascus, planting the seeds that ultimately led to the overthrow of the regime of Yazid I. I often site her example when confronted with Taliban-esque people who insist that muslim women should  "be seen and not heard" and should not address mass gatherings, but that is a debate for another time.

Mausoleum (mazaar) of Zaynub bint Ali - Damascus
The Mausoeum Mazaar of Zaynub bint Ali was in my limited travels the most beautiful building I have ever visited. My daughters would have loved it for it resembled a "crystal palace befitting a princess". If you ever visit Damascus, I strongly recommend that you veer slightly off the beaten track to visit here.

I know that most of you are by know thinking that all I did in Damascus was visit spiritual sites but I assure you I did not. The reason why I hardlyt sleep was because I am experienced all aspects of Damascus life (with my tourist goggles firmly in place). I even found the time to take a traditional Turkish bath in a Hamam that was established in the 1800's.
Relaxing after a turkish bath with my friend Shameel enjoying a hookah and tea
The bath involved being led from room to room where the temperature in each was higher than the next to allow your body to acclimatise to the heat you are ultimately exposed to. Without going into too many details, it is another highly recommended activity. in the end you are not towel dried but several layers of cloth are applied and then re-applied to ensure that the oils used are not immediately rubbed off. Walking in the city at night, we found cool coffee shops, clothing stores etc. and at night the Bazaar was where we did the majority of our gift shopping for friends and family. Unfortunately you don't generally take pictures of yourself shopping and window shopping so their is unfortunately not many pictures of these activities.


  1. I definately want to go there one day: it looks incredible!

  2. It was. Just for you instead of writing the tech article I was planning to do, I am going to show you pics of Lebanon which you should plan to go to on the same trip. Judging your interests (from your blog), I think you will love Lebanon! See what happens when you comment :)