*I was fortunate enough to travel to Syria and see the country in 2008, three years before the war broke out. This homage to Syria is a reminder, the story about the country with immense cultural heritage, posted here with the wholehearted wish for peace to be restored and cities rebuilt.
One of the most important buildings in the Syrian capital is the Great Mosque of Damascus.
There was the Aramaic temple at the same spot dedicated to their ancient supreme god. Afterwards, the Roman temple was built in honor of Jupiter in the 2nd century AD – on 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 of Damascus dedicated to the Arab Umayyad dynasty founder, khalif Valid the First.
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Great Mosque of Damascus
Imposing in dimensions and open for tourist visits (women will get long abayas at the entrance), the Umayyad Mosque first appears with its vast courtyard where Roman columns can still be found. (Here is a short history of Damascus Syria.)
Most of its mosaics were created during the Byzantine era. They still represent the exceptional decoration of the building, blending in Islamic tradition of non-presenting human faces in images.
There were about 400 square meters of mosaics which covered the former church. Even though only one-fourth remains, it is still imposing in dimensions and jaw-dropping.
Inside – a vast space for prayer with a nice carpet in vivid colors that covers every centimeter of the floor, pillars all around, and a beautiful decorative ceiling. They say that Umayyad Mosque was a model for all the future Muslim temples which were to be built in the same manner with spacious prayer halls, huge courtyards 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 a big octagonal pavilion in the central area of the mosque. They say that the actual head of the prophet who is also mentioned in the Quran is preserved here, the one who, according to the New Testament, baptized Jesus himself – John the Baptist.
(If you visited Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and the Holy Relics Museum, as I did, you are aware of the fact that they also claim to be guardians of the same head. Either way, I saw both of them. Just in case.)
Monument to Salahuddin
At the very entrance of Damascus’ Old Souk, there is a huge monument greeting 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 first preserved inside the Citadel walls and then moved to Madrasa Aziziye, built 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, and 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 was 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 on his great missionary journey.
There is a particular relief in the Chapel depicting Saint Paul’s escape over the Damascus walls.
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When I kept walking through one of the small streets here, I came across Roman columns. There are four of them, each with 12 meters in height.
Also, I walked out to the gate and the great Citadel 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, horns honking, people shouting out of their car windows, when a group of children rushed by my side, giggling, all dressed in blue school uniforms.
One of the must-dos in the Old City of Damascus was to stop by the fresh juice store. You pick a fruit, and the guy makes you juice and pour it into a tall plastic cup or a large glass mug adding numerous ice cubes. It was a perfect stop for a break after all that pushing through the heat and crowds. I took a couple of breaths and moved on, there was still a lot to be seen.
The National Archaeology Museum in Damascus was also not to be missed. If you want a great city view, you should head out to Kasyun Hill. Syrians used to come here on weekends (Fridays and Saturdays) to rest with their families and enjoy the landscape.
Next: DAMASCUS, THINGS TO KNOW
The full Homage to Syria SERIES