JOHN II TO FOLLOW THE STEPS OF SAINT PAUL IN DAMASCUS
Damascus's main bazaar was milling with humanity as I walked with
a friend who had recently graduated from the University of
Damascus. We made our way slowly examining the endless shops displaying
their superb artisan products for which the city is famous. I felt
elated and content for I was being guided by a knowledgeable
Damascene Christian whose forefathers had lived in Damascus since
the first Christian community had been established a few years
after Christ had been crucified.
I had explored Damascus before, but this time it was to be
something special. I
had just heard that Pope John the II is to travel to Damascus in
May 2001. During his
stay, the Pope is slated to visit the Umayyad Mosque - the oldest
grand mosque in Islam. Inside,
the Pontiff and Grand Mufti of Syria will hold a joint prayer.
It would be the first time in history that the leader of
the Catholic Church sets foot in an Islamic mosque.
Hence, my feeling of excitement as we moved along.
Passing by a number of Roman columns we reached the Umayyad
Mosque ‑ the pride of Damascus.
Built in 705 A.D. on the location of a basilica which
itself was erected on the ruins of a pagan temple, the mosque is a
masterpiece of Arab/Islamic architecture.
This day, the mosque was to me of much interest since I had
just heard that in May 2001 Pope John Paul II would visit this
oldest grand mosque in Islam and, inside, the Pope and the Grand
Mufti of Syria will hold a joint prayer.
It would be the first time in history that a Pontiff would
be praying in a mosque.
The fourth holiest
place in the Muslim world, the mosque is a rich collection of
domes, minarets, and gilded mosaics of delicate colours.
In the past, travellers described its decorations as the
ultimate in Arab art. Today,
renovations are in progress but it will take many years before all
its former splendour is totally renewed.
From the finely
proportioned courtyard we entered the richly carpeted prayer hall
rows of arches resting on Corinthian columns.
In the heart of this huge chamber we stopped to examine the
domed mausoleum of John the Baptist, known to the Muslims as the
Prophet Yahya. It is the focal point of the whole mosque and was the object
of our visit.
Writers have called it
a fine example of Islamic art and the Muslims claim that it
contains, in a silver coffer, the head of John the Baptist.
Venerated by both Christians and Muslims, the tomb has been a
magnet for endless pilgrims since early Islamic times.
Christians crossing themselves and Muslims reading the Koran
intermixed with each other ‑ an example of how religions can
live in harmony.
We left the Great Mosque which in the last few years is being
restored on both the outside and inside, then made our way to the
Street Called Straight which has been renowned since Biblical times.
At this famous street, now named Souk al-Taweel or Madhat
Pasha, we turned toward Bab Sharqi (East Gate) ‑ a 3rd century
Roman gate. Known as Via Recta in the days of Rome, it is the axis of old
Damascus and the street celebrated in the conversion of Saint Paul
On his way to Damascus to persecute the city's early
Christians, the Roman Saul of Tarsus was blinded by a light from
heaven on a hill called Kawkab (Celestial Light).
Here, 10 km (6 mi) south of Damascus, where Christ is said to
have spoken to him, a shrine now stands.
following the direction of the message from Christ led him by hand
to the Street Called Straight on which was located the House of
Judas. According to the
story, God had told the devout Christian Ananias to go to this
building and enquire for one called Saul. When Ananias saw the
blinded man he placed his hand on Saul's shoulder and is reported to
have said, "Jesus...hath sent me, that thou mightest receive
thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost".
Saul's vision returned and he was baptised Paul. His
conversion from an enemy of the Christian believers to one of their
greatest defenders has ever since been equated to a dramatic change
We moved along the
street where Saint Paul once trod, now filled with small shops
catering mostly to bedouins and peasants.
At one of the stores we stopped to buy some of the colourful
traditional Syrian clothing. During
our haggling, we talked with the shop owner about the country and
life in Damascus. He
seemed satisfied with
his lot. “The Americans and Europeans have come back!
Business is booming!”
He was all smiles.
Leaving our happy
merchant, we made our way to the old Christian quarter whose heart
is Bab Touma (Saint Thomas's Gate).
In the medieval ages all the followers of Christ lived in
this part of Damascus. During
that era, it was much different than in our times.
Today, the city’s near 200,000 Christians are scattered
throughout the city.
Strolling leisurely on
past a restored Roman arch, we reached Bab Sharqi at the end of the
Street Called Straight. From
this restored imposing structure through which the Muslims first
entered Damascus in 636 A.D., we followed the ancient walls to the
left. Passing workshops where most of Syria's exquisite inlaid
furniture and rich silks are made, in a few minutes, we reached the
underground Chapel of Saint Ananias, called by the Arabs Kanissat
About 5 m (16 ft) below
ground, the crypt was presumably the cellar of the House of Ananias,
but more likely it is part of his home, built at the level of the
Roman street. On the
other hand, a number of historians have written that the chapel is
what remains of a large Byzantine church built where the home of
Ananias once stood.
Restored many times, it
is the earliest Christian house of worship to survive in the city.
A simple structure consisting of two small rooms with bare
stone walls, it houses only an altar, some icons and a few pews.
It represents the simplicity of the initial Christians and
has one of the earliest histories of any still standing church.
We stayed for awhile
watching mostly women worshippers praying, many with tears in their
eyes, to Saint Ananias, the first bishop of Damascus.
The sunlight coming through two small openings in the vaulted
roof shining on the faces of the people in prayer seemed to give the
place a haunting religious aura. My friend pointed out that many of the women were Muslims.
Like a number of other Christian religious figures Saint
Ananias has been for many centuries revered by both faiths.
From the church we
walked back to Bab Sharqi, then about 400 m (1,312 ft) south on the
outside of the walls to Bab Keissan (Keissan Gate) or as it is often
referred to, ‘Saint Paul's Window’.
Legend has it that from this gateway, while fleeing from the
Roman soldiers trying to kill him, Saint Paul was let down at night
in a basket by his disciples. An
early church, now in ruins, once stood near this gate where it is
believed the basket landed.
Many of the city's
Christians believe that it is the same gate, still standing from the
days of Saint Paul. However, it has been rebuilt many times since
the Roman centuries. Turkish
in style, it was last rebuilt by the Ottomans during their long
occupation of Syria.
Back in Bab Touma, we
stopped to explore Kanissat Mariyamiyah (Saint Mary Cathedral), part
of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Syria and Lebanon.
The Patriarchate was located in Antioch until that part of
Syria was ceded in 1939 to Turkey by the French.
The Antiochian Orthodox Church, formerly the Greek Orthodox
Church of Syria, representing about half of the 1,000,000 Syrian
Christians, has now its headquarters in Damascus. It is the main Christian sect remaining from the 300 years of
Christian Syria and the 400 years when Christians under Muslim rule
formed the majority of the inhabitants.
In today's Syria,
besides the Orthodox, there are a myriad of Christian sects from
Jacobites and Latin Catholics to Protestants and countless others.
They live mostly in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, forming about
6 percent of the population, but they exercise an influence much out
of proportion to their numbers.
The country's innumerable churches, convents, monasteries and
shrines have come through the ages remarkably unscathed.
Christian religious edifices have existed in peace for
hundreds of years next door to mosques.
The great Convent of Saydnaya 37 km (23 mi) north of
is venerated by both Christians and Muslims and the historic
churches of Maloula, an Aramaic speaking town 60 km (37 mi) from
Damascus, have flourished throughout the Muslim centuries.
At the Saint Mary
Cathedral, the largest centre of Christian worship in Syria, our
retracing the steps of Saint Paul came to an end. We sat down and relaxed while admiring the church's dazzling
white marble walls and floors which contrasted so vividly with the
bareness of Saint Ananias's Chapel.
Like most other places around the globe, Christianity in
Saint Paul's city, which the Pope is soon to visit, had evolved from
simplicity to richness.