Exploring The Christian Sites In Damascus
The shrine of John the Baptist is inside the Umayyad mosque’s prayer hall
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
In the heart of Damascus’s Umayyad Mosque, the fourth holiest place in the Muslim world, we stopped awhile to examine the domed mausoleum of John the Baptist, known to the Muslims as the Prophet Yahya. The focal point of the whole mosque, it was the first stop in our exploration of the city’s Christian sites whose history goes back to the very inception of Christianity.
Muslims claim that the tomb 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 intermixing with each other – an example of how religions, warring with each other in many parts of the world, here live in harmony.
We left the Umayyad Mosque which in the last few years has been restored on both the outside and inside, then made our way to The Street Called Straight which has been famous since Biblical times. At this renowned street, we turned toward Bab Sharqi (East Gate) – a 3rd century Roman gate. Known as Via Recta in the days of Rome, the Street is the axis of old Damascus, made famous in the conversion of Saint Paul to Christianity.
On his way to Damascus to persecute the city’s early Christians, the Roman Saul of Tarsus was blinded just outside the city by a light from heaven. His companions following the direction of a 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 mightiest 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 of faith.
We moved along the street where Saint Paul once trod, now filled with small shops, on 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. It is much different now – near 200,000 Christians are scattered throughout the city.
Chapel of Saint Ananias
Strolling leisurely on past a restored Roman arch, we reached Bab Sharqi at the end of The Street Called Straight. From this famous gate 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, we reached after a few minutes walk, the underground Chapel of Saint Ananias, called by the Arabs Kanissat (Church of) Hananiyah. About 5 m (16 ft) below ground, the church is supposedly the cellar of the House of Ananias, but more likely it was 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 only early Christian house of worship from the first century 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 is one of the earliest still standing churches where services continue to be held.
We stayed for a while 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, many of them Muslims, seemed to give the place a haunting religious aura. Like a number of other Christian religious figures Saint Ananias has been for untold centuries revered by both faiths.
From the church we walked back to Bab Sharqi, then about 400 m (1312 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.
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 the French ceded that part of Syria in 1939 to Turkey. Now headquartered in Damascus, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the main Christian sect in the country, represents about half of the Syrian Christians.
The other Christians are a myriad of sects from Jacobites and Latin Catholics to Protestants and countless others. They live mostly in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, forming about eight percent of the population, but they exercise an influence much out of proportion to their numbers.
Convent of Saydnaya
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 Damascus, which houses an icon hand-crafted by Saint Luke, 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 through the Muslim centuries. Legendary for some, but believed as authentic by many, stands the tomb of Abel atop a mountain some 40 km (24 mi) west of Damascus.
At Saint Mary Cathedral, the largest centre of Christian worship in Syria, first built in the 2nd century A.D., our exploration of the Christian sites in Damascus 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 had evolved from simplicity to richness.