Sunday, April 25, 2010

al-Sham

For being an axis of evil country, Syria is pretty nice. And Syrians as a whole are incredibly nice. During our 3 and a half days there, practically everyone we met was friendly and kind. Even the big tourist sites had very few touts and they weren't all that aggressive. Egypt, make a note to yourself.

We spent most of our time in the Damascus area, a.k.a. al-Sham, with about a day and a half in Palmyra and Aleppo. Syria's got many major sites of pilgrimage so a good portion of our time was dedicated to checking out those places.

St Paul's Spots

According to the Bible, two thousand years ago, St Paul (who was Saul at the time) was on the way to Damascus when he was blinded by the light emanating from Jesus. Jesus uttered those famous words, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" Saul eventually made it to Damascus, was healed by a man named Ananias, and became one of the great saints of Christianity. The house of Ananias is still there today (now as a church). In another part of town is the window from which Paul was lowered in a basket to escape the city when he was being chased (refresh your memory by reading Acts 9:21-25).
Saul seeing Jesus.

Outside of Ananias' house.

The window--the building is now a chapel.

Umayyad and Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosques

Damascus is also home to some very holy Muslim sites. The Umayyad Mosque is a huge, old mosque that contains the relics of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, and the head of St John the Baptist (though many other places claim this too). This mosque is also famous for being the first mosque to ever be visited by a Pope of Rome. Pope John Paul visited in 2001 and venerated the relics of St John. I tried doing so too but it took me a little while because I didn't know which shrine belonged to him and when I asked people, they said that this was the shrine of Yehyah. I know John the Baptist as Yohanna el Maamadan and didn't realize that Muslims referred to him by a different name. Neither did most of the people I asked since they kept saying that it was not Yohanna but Yehyah. Finally, a guy explained this to me and I went back to take a blessing.

The head of St. John the Baptist is in here. I think.

The Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque is a few steps from Umayyad and is one of the holiest sites in Shi'a Islam. It contains the relics of Fatimah, the daughter of Hussein ibn Ali. While the Umayyad Mosque felt very much like a community center with kids running around and couples taking strolls, Ruqayya was a very intense place. Women were screaming and crying in prayer and men were very subdued but clearly in mourning. It was also one of the most ornate mosques I've ever seen.

Maalula

The town of Maalula is about an hour away from Damascus and contains two nice monasteries. But what makes Maalula much more interesting is that most of its population speaks in Aramaic, or the language of Jesus. It's one of the few cities in the world that still uses Aramaic in everyday life. We went to the Convent of St Thecla and the Monastery of St Sergius and Bacchus. At the latter one, one of the ladies there recited "Our Father" for us in Aramaic. On an unrelated note, the cashier in the gift shop let us try some monastery wine.

Not only does this sign make sense, but it is also informative.


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