Searching The Environs Of Damascus For Abel's Tomb
By: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing writer
“And the Lord said unto Cain, where is Abel thy brother?
And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper?
And He said, What hast thou done?
The voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto Me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:9)
So it is written in the Bible. But where did Cain commit this evil deed? My Damascene friend was sure that it was near Damascus – the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. “And why should you doubt that the first crime in history should have been committed in this part of the world? Is not this land the birthplace of civilization? Here, we believe that Damascus was the Garden of Eden – the place where man first walked the earth.” Like a good number of Syrians my friend had no doubts that Adam’s sons are both buried near Syria‘s capital.
As to their graves, there are two tales which people would relate – each one believing that their own version was the true story. The first tells how Cain killed his brother near the resort town of Zabadani and that Abel’s body is entombed on top of a nearby mountain. The other relates of how after Cain slew Abel, he did not know what to do with his brother’s body since this was the first homicide in mankind.
Confused, he carried the body on his shoulders and walked back and forth for 40 days until he reached Jabal al-Arba’an (Mountain of the Forty), overlooking Damascus. Stopping to rest he saw two birds fight until one was killed. The victorious one then scratched a hole in the ground and covered the dead bird.
A guide relating to me the story ended it by saying, “Taking as an example what he had seen, Cain dug a hole and buried his brother then, grieving, lay by the grave until he died. “Today, there are two graves alongside each other, which are said to be those of Cain and Abel atop Jabal al-Arba’an. To see them, visitors after parking their autos below, must labour up many steps – a task which should only be attempted by the physically fit.
Nabi Habeel Mosque: Tomb of Abel son of Adam and Eve, Syria
To me, the first story seemed to be the most logical and I decided to make a journey to see the tomb. I hailed a taxi and asked the driver if he knew the whereabouts of Abel’s grave near the Zabadani. “Of course.” He did not hesitate, “I want 1,000 liras (about $21. U.S.) to make the trip.” After some bargaining, we agreed to a price of 800 liras.
The hot Damascus sun was scorching as my daughter and myself began our journey to the tomb of what to many people is the resting place of the first murdered man in history. As our taxi made its way out of the expanding capital of Syria crawling up the slopes of Mount Qasioun (Jabal Qāsiyūn), we could see new apartment buildings going up everywhere. Soon we were in a narrow green valley filled with orchards, driving by a river that winds its way between barren cliffs. These threw their shadows of bewildering colours on the valley below with its ancient villages, encompassed by modern galloping construction and newly planted trees.
Seeing a sign indicating Beirut, I asked the driver if he was sure where we were going. I had read that at the Beirut-Zabadani crossroad one takes a side road to Abel’s tomb. The boastful driver haughtily replied, “I know every place around Damascus.” Having had experiences with macho types before, I was leery but kept quiet, thinking he must know the best route.
As we drove on and on, I became edgy asking again and again, “Are you sure you know the route”? Making our way through the orchard-filled Zabadani plains toward the mountain top resort of Bludan, his answers became weaker and less reassuring. After much insistence he stopped and asked a roadside farmer about the road to the tomb. “You are a long way past”, the old man pointed back, “Take the road to the left at the Beirut turn.
I wanted to gloat, but felt sorry for the know-it-all driver as he continually muttered under his breath, “0 God! 0 God! I am going to lose money. I will not have enough even for the gas.” Hoping to make him feel better, I offered him another 100 liras. Immediately, his mood changed and his boastful ways returned.
Near the Beirut junction, I told him to ask at the nearby police station for the road. “No! I will ask the chauffeur of that taxi. He will know better.” The man pointed back from where we had come. After about 5 minutes I became angry, “We are wasting time. Return and ask the police.” Seeing that I was upset, he turned back mumbling something under his breath.
The pleasant policeman pointed to a road barely 10 m (33 ft) away. The driver became like a purring cat as we climbed upward on the mountain road. By the time we stopped at an army checkpoint, surrounded by the apparatus of war, his boasts had evaporated. We were disappointed when told that we would have to leave our camera at the checkpoint. One of the main purposes of our trip was to photograph the tomb.
Syrian road to Abel’s tomb
The soldiers by the pot-holed narrow stony tract waved as we passed, apparently glad for something different on their mountain crest. Six km (4 mi) from the Beirut crossroad, we saw it looming before us – a large white dome set on top of a large mosque-like building. We had travelled over 100 km (62 mi), but the tomb was in reality only 40 km (25 mi) from Damascus. The stubbornness of the driver had made us waste time, but I was not too unhappy. Our meandering had taken us through fantastic desert mountain scenery, encompassing rich farming valleys.
Parking our taxi near a somewhat large structure, we walked in the refreshing cool air to the entrance of Abel’s Tomb, looking down the fault where the Barada River winds its way downward, giving life to Damascus. Seemingly set on the top of the world, the tomb is a holy site for the Druze – a secretive offshoot Islamic sect.
Evenly divided between Syria and Lebanon, the Druze, founded in the 11th century, honour most of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim prophets. Fiercely independent, they live in mountain areas and make great warriors, assuming that if they fall in battle Paradise will be their reward. They believe in reincarnation and revere saints. Many come on pilgrimage every year to get the blessing of Adam’s son – one of their saints.
The keeper of the tomb, a kindly old man, opened the door to the mausoleum. Inside there was a 7 m (23 ft) long sarcophagus covered with green silk tapestry inscribed with verses from the Qur’an. The old man pointed to the crypt, “This is the coffin of Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve. When I asked the keeper why the sarcophagus was so long, he smiled, “The father of mankind was a giant and his sons were giants.” To the faithful, it is truly the coffin of Abel; to the sceptics, it is a colourful fairytale.
Nabi Habeel Mosque
We moved on to a large new section that has recently been added to the tomb site. It includes a huge courtyard edged by rooms and a prayer chamber. The whole aura was that of a mosque, yet it was different. It appears to be a Druze meeting place, which, like their religion carries the mystic nature of Islam, but with some ornamentation.
I thought about the Biblical figure who had become a saint as we made our way back to Damascus on a new autostrat, bordered on both sides by newly planted trees. As we roared through valleys overflowing with new construction, I decided that I would not climb Jabal al- Arba’an.
Visiting one of Abel’s tombs had satisfied my curiosity. “Legends are made for those who really believe”, I reflected as I handed the driver 1,000 liras. My bargaining had come to naught. His arrogance had been overwhelmed by my pity. I knew that he did not deserve the tip. Perhaps, it was the kindness of the old Druze keeper of the tomb that had made me mellow or, perhaps, it was the memory of Abel who was the first murdered man in mankind.