*Was fortunate enough to travel to Syria and see the country in 2008, three years before the war broke out. This is the reminder, the story about the country with immense cultural heritage, posted here with the wholehearted wish for peace to be restored and cities to be rebuilt.
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 the supreme god.
Afterwards, the Roman temple was built in honor of Jupiter in the 2nd century AD – at the same grounds.
Then, in the 4th century AD the Basilica of John the Baptist was erected, which was again converted three centuries later into the great mosque dedicated to the Arab Umayyad dynasty founder, khalif Valid the First.
Imposing in its dimensions and open for tourist visits (women will get long abayas at the entrance), the Umayyad Mosque firstly appears before visitors with its vast courtyard where Roman columns can still be found. Most of its mosaics were created during the Byzantine era. They still represent the exceptional decorations of the building, blending in Islamic tradition of non presenting human faces in images.
Once, these mosaics covered the 400 square meters of the former church! Even though only one fourth of it remains, it is still of an imposing dimensions and it will leave every visitor with a jaw dropped 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 prayer halls, huge courtyard with fountains for worshiper to use, 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 prophet who is also mentioned in the Quran is preserved here, the one who, according to the New Testament, baptized Jesus himself. Yes, John the Baptist.
(If you have visited the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the Holy Relics Museum, as I have, then 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 or not, I have to admit that I was glad to having 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’ Old Souk there is a huge monument to greet you, depicting the 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 famous 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 Salahuddin’s son Ayyub sultan al Aziz. Salahuddin was the great sultan of Egypt and Syria who once also controlled Mecca and Medina.
Saint Paul’s baptism
The Old City of Damascus is also well 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 where he regained his sight before he took off to his great missionary journey.
There is one particular reliefs in the Chapel depicting Saint Paul’s escape over the Damascus walls.
When I kept walking through one of the small streets here, I came across the Roman columns. There are four of them, each with 12 meters in heights.
Also, I have walked out to the gate and the great Citadel next to it that was built to defend the city against Crusaders’ invasions. During the Ottoman period, the Citadel also served as a prison.
There are a lot of small churches in the Christian district. I was walking and looking around, enjoying one of those narrow, bustling streets, and it was a rush hour, horns were honking, people shouting through their car windows, when a group of children rushed by my side, giggling, all dressed in blue school uniforms.
One of the musts in the Old City of Damascus was to stop by the fresh juice store. You just pick a fruit, the guy makes you a juice, pour it in a tall plastic cup to take or a large glass mug if you are going to drink it there, along with numerous ice cubes. It was a perfect stop for a break after all that pushing my way through the heat and crowds. Took couple of breaths and moved on, there was still a lot to be seen!
The National Archaeology Museum in Damascus was not to be missed, but also the great view of the city from the Kasyun Hill. Syrians used to come here on weekends (Fridays and Saturdays) to rest with their families and enjoy the landscape.
The full Homage to Syria SERIES.