Damascene scenes, sites and insights

June 9, 2024

A journey through the layers of an eternal city

Damascene scenes, sites and insights


y first impression of Damascus came from a fable by Sheikh Saadi Sherazi, who witnessed a scene while on a retreat for meditation at the shrine of Prophet Yahya (peace be upon him) in Damascus. I vividly remember his Persian couplets narrating the scene in these words: “I was engrossed in prayers on the resting place of Yahya, the Messenger, peace be upon him, in the grand mosque in Damascus…”.

Those Persian words are still etched in my memory. It had long been my wish to visit this place. The wish came true in 2009 when I visited the Jamia Masjid of Damascus, famously known as the Umayyad Mosque, for the first time.

In those days I was more into the outside of things.

My vacation in Damascus last year and a smattering of the Arabic language gave me time and opportunity to explore the city and its historical heritage and culture in some depth, thus connecting my inner eye with the inner reality of the things outside.

This time, my stay in Damascus was supported by some background study of the history and culture of the Levant and Arabs. Unlike previous visits, subconscious wishes and unconscious reflections seemed to burst upon my mind with every visit to a historical sites in the old Damascus.

Damascus is the oldest and longest-inhabited city in the world. It was founded in the third millennium BC. EWG Masterman, in his book Damascus, the Oldest City in the World, published in 1898, declared, “Of all the cities of the Bible, Damascus stands far first in respect to the length of its history.

It first burst upon our notice (Gen. 14: 15) as a well-known and important place many hundred years before Athens or Rome was ever thought of…” Owing to its geographical location and natural gifts, it has become a crucial cultural crucible between “the orient and the occident, between Africa and Asia.”

Throughout history, the region of the Levant, including Damascus, has witnessed diverse dynasties, conquerors, rules and cultural influences ranging from pagan, Aramaic, Hellenistic, Roman, Christian, Islamic, Mongol, Kurdish, Turkic and French.

The multilayered influences manifest in the material culture and historical sites of Syria. In this essay, I try to peel off the multi-layered history from the building of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and shed a bird’s eye view on the heritage and culture of Damascus.

The Umayyad Mosque is one of the oldest and historically biggest mosques in the world. It also embodies the remains of a pre-Islamic past. Before exploring the history, I had been under the impression that it was a purely Muslim construction.

A Syrian friend of mine informed me that the mosque housed the shrine of John the Baptist. When I entered the shrine, I realised that it was the shrine of Prophet Yahy ibn Zakariy (peace be upon him). Upon further investigation, I realised that it is the same person.

Damascene scenes, sites and insights

The tomb is in the prayer hall, with easy access for both men and women. Both Muslims and Christians revere the prophet. Here, one can see the convergence of two faiths in one person and the same space. This points towards the common roots of the Semitic religions.

In an age where the mantra of the clash of civilisations is dominant, there is a need to explore the commonalities between Christianity and Islam. This is the space where a dialogue between the two religions takes place. One witnesses both Muslims and Christian praying and prostrating before the shrine in veneration.

A stroll in various quarters of the old Damascus, in particular, and Damascus in general, allows one to converse with history. Chapters 7 and 17 in the Old Testament clearly refer to Damascus.

Some of the important figures in Muslim history lived and were buried here. Some historical events took place in Damascus. The Umayyad Mosque started as a temple of Hadad Ramman of the Aramaeans in the 9th Century BCE.

With the conquest of Damascus by the Romans, the temple site became dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter. Even today, the remains of Corinthian columns have a conspicuous presence facing the Umayyad Mosque from the Al-Hamidiyeh Souq end.

Christianity was introduced in Damascus with the arrival of the Apostle Paul circa 34 AD. In the history of Christianity, Antioch became an important hub. It covered the Levant (Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon), Turkey, Mesopotamia and parts of Ukraine, Southern Russia and Armenia.

Thus, Christianity spread to the East and the West. With the ascendency of Christianity, a ban was imposed on pagan ceremonies. In 391 AD, the temple of Jupiter was converted into a Christian cathedral containing the John the Baptist shrine.

The Umayyad caliph Walid built a mosque on this site between 705 and 715 CE. Initially, the Christians and Muslim had separate spaces for prayers within the same building. Later, it was dedicated solely for Muslims. The mosque evokes certain historical moments and memories of the formative phase of Islam.

Damascus is where women and children from Hazrat Imam Hussain’s family (with whom Allah was pleased) were taken to after the battle of Kerbala. The passage through which they were taken to the court is known as bazaar shaam in Urdu and Persian.

It was here that Syeda Zainab (with whom Allah was pleased) delivered her famous speech. The places where the head of Hazrat Imam Hussain (with whom Allah was pleased) kept and the place where Imam Zainul Abedin (with whom Allah was pleased) was detained are also here.

Damascus witnessed umpteen vagaries of power in its history. It can be said that art preserves history and culture more than power does.

This reminds me of John Keats’ famous Ode on a Grecian Urn, where he describes how art eternalises life and history by capturing the fleeting moments from perishing lives.

Damascus becomes what you cherish in your heart and mind. If you are looking for the pagan age, the Corinthian columns will become your contemporary. If you are roaming in the city with the biblical references in mind, the Byzantine mosaics will speak to you.

The ancient religions that contributed to the building of what is now the Umayyad Mosque may have disappeared from the pages of history or from the land of the Levant, but they have kept their presence in the form of art. In his ode on a Grecian urn, Keats says that the Grecian urn and the imagery on it are going to outlive him. Art cheats the death and immortalises whatever it captures. Keats says:

Thou, silent form, dost

tease us out of thought,

As doth eternity: Cold


When old age shall this

generation waste,

Thou shalt remain, in

midst of other woe.

It is the beauty of art that preserves truth. Hence, he utters his famous declaration:

“Beauty is truth, truth

beauty, — that is all

Ye know on earth, and

all ye need to know.”

I first read this ode during my college days. Since then, it has been one of my favourites. However, its inner meaning had remained an enigma to me until a reflection on art and architecture of the Umayyad Mosque.

One of the minarets of the Umayyad Mosque is called the Jesus minaret because some Muslims believe that Prophet Isa (peace be upon him) will descend to earth from the minaret. Though nominally a Muslim praying space, the Umayyad Mosque has a profound religious significance for Christians. Damascus is mentioned in Chapters 11 and 17 of the Old Testament.

The passages in these chapters refer to the geopolitics and conflicts of the time and Israel’s relationships with Aram (modern Syria). The Book of Isaiah in the Old Testament warns, “Behold, Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a heap of ruins.” In Jeremiah, it states, “I will kindle a fire in the wall of Damascus, and it shall devour the strongholds of Ben-Hadad.”

It seems that the prophecies of doom and expectation of salvation by a messiah descending in this historic land are still operating. Today, Syria stands on the ruins wrought out by the civil war. The city of Damascus has oscillated between the prophecies of doom and the creative elan of the Syrians to rebuild their society.

This perseverance is evident in their resurgence after every conquest and destruction brought by various invaders throughout the city’s history.

Today one can see the signs of devastation in the shape of battered and bombed buildings on the outskirts of the city. It is heartening is to see young Damascene men and women flocking in front of and around the Umayyad Mosque, in the city and battered buildings with their elegant dresses and confidence to express their appreciation of beauty and zest for life.

This is a sign of life sprouting out from the womb of the city, nurturing its inhabitants for more than five millennia. Damascus is a metaphor for the resurgence of life from the ashes of death and destruction. The famous Syrian born poet Nizar Qabbani has immortalised Damascus in his poem Mada Taf’al bie Dimishq? (Damascus, What Are You Doing to Me?”

In this poem, Qabbani returns to Damascus riding the clouds and the two most beautiful horses in the world: “The horse of passion and, the horse of poetry.” For him Damascus is like a mother. He outpours his love for the city in these glowing words:

“I return to the womb in

which I was formed . . .
To the first book I read in it . . .
To the first woman who taught me
The geography of love . . .
And the geography of women . . .’

He then continues,

I enter the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque
And greet everyone in it
Corner to . . . corner
Tile to . . . tile
Dove to . . . dove
I wander in the gardens of Kufi script
And pluck beautiful flowers of God’s words
And hear with my eye the voice of the mosaics
And the music of agate prayer beads
A state of revelation and rapture overtakes me…

Damascus becomes what you cherish in your heart and mind. If you are looking for the pagan age, the Corinthian columns become your contemporary. If you are roaming in the city with the biblical references in mind, the Byzantine mosaics speak to you. If you are touched by the atrocities committed against the house of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), it houses the resting places of Bibi Sakina and Syeda Zainab (with whom Allah was pleased). If you are filled with God’s words, the wall with Kufi script reveals divine revelation to you.

If you are seeking beauty, the aesthetic sense of the Syrian people, cuisine and vivacious culture is a feast for your heart and mind. Damascus is like Rumi’s trickster idol-beloved who makes appearances with different faces every time and comes out in a different garb. Its multilayered history and multi-hued culture are a bulwark against the forces of darkness prowling the land of Levant.

The writer is a social scientist interested in the history of ideas. Email: azizalidad@gmail.com

Damascene scenes, sites and insights