*Was fortunate enough to travel to Syria and see the country in 2008 (when the original article was written), three years before the actual war broke out. This is a reminder, a story about the country with immense cultural heritage, posted here with wholehearted wish for peace to be restored.
One of the most important buildings in Damascus is by far the Umayyad Mosque. There was the Aramaic temple once at the same spot, dedicated to their supreme god, and than the Roman temple built in honor of Jupiter in the second century AD, at the same place.
Than, in the fourth century the Basilica of John the Baptist was erected, which was converted three centuries later into a great mosque dedicated to the Arab Umayyad dynasty founder, khalif Valid the First.
More than 100 square meters of mosaics
Imposing in its dimensions and open for tourist visits (women will get long abayas at the entrance), the Umayyad Mosque firstly appears before you with its vast courtyard, where Roman columns can still be found. Most of its mosaics were created during the Byzantine era. They are still exceptional decorations of the building, blending in Islamic tradition of non presenting human faces in images.
Once, these mosaics were painted in 400 square meters. Even though only one fourth of it remains, it is still of an imposing dimensions and it will leave you with your mouth open in awe.
Inside, vast space for prayer with nice carpet in vivid colors that covers every centimeter of the floor, pillars all around, beautiful decorative ceiling. They say that the Umayyad Mosque was actually the role model for all the future Muslim temples which were to be built in the same manner with spacious preyer halls, huge cortyard with fountains for worshiper to wash their hands and feet, and numerous pillars and arches.
John the Baptist’s head
As if all of this was not enough, there is also one big octagonal pavilion in the central area of the Mosque. They say that the actual head of one the prophets mentioned in Quran is preserved here, the one who, according to the New Testament, baptized Jesus himself. Yes, John the Baptist’s head.
(If you have visited the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and its Holy Relics Museum, as I have, than you are aware of the fact that they are claiming to guard the same head. No matter where it is, and even if it actually is in one of those places, have to admit that I was glad to have seen both. It just went through my head: „Okay, and if it really is right here?“ And that was enough!)
Monument to Salahuddin
At the very entrance to Damascus’ souk there is a huge monument to greet you, depicting great Muslim leader Salahuddin (or Saladin) al Ayyubi who became widely known during the Crusades. He died in this town at the end of the 12th century.
There is a section in the Mosque dedicated to this general who led Muslims into the „holy war“ to conquer Jerusalem.
His remains were preserved inside the Citadel walls earlier, and than moved to Madrasa Aziziye, build by his son Ayyub sultan al Aziz. Salahuddin was the famous sultan of Egypt and Syria who also controlled Mecca and Medina.
Saint Paul’s baptism
The Old city of Damascus is also known for its Christian quarter. Here you will find traditional craft shops where Christian families sell mosaic-icons, charming picture frames, small boxes in interesting pattern designs. They will be thrilled to talk to you, haggle and negotiate the price for their respectable goods.
Next to the tall Roman wall there is the House of Saint Ananias. According to beliefs, this is where Saint Paul was baptized and regained his sight, and than took off for his missionary journey.
You will find particular reliefs in the Chapel describing his escape over the Damascus walls.
If you keep walking through one of the small streets here, you will come across remaining Roman pillars. There are four of them, each 12 meters high.
Also, you will see the gate and the great Citadel next to it that was built to defend the city against Crusaders’ invasion. During the Ottoman period, the Citadel also served as a prison.
There are a lot of small churches in the Christian district. Was walking and looking around one of those narrow, bustling streets, it was a rush hour, horns were honking, people shouting through their windows, when a group of children rushed by my side, giggling, all dressed in blue school uniforms.
Short break in the Old Town
Make sure to stop to one of those fresh juice stores. Pick a fruit, nice salesman will make a juice, put it in a tall plastic cup to take, or large glass mug if you are going to drink it there, along with numerous ice cubes – just perfect for a break of pushing your way through that heat and the crowd. Did breath in and out and moved on, there were a lot of things yet to be seen…
Do not forget that there is the National Archaeology Museum in Damascus, but also that you will have one great view of the city if you go up to the Kasyun Hill where Syrians come on weekends (Fridays and Saturdays) to rest with their families and enjoy the landscape.