The first and only time I saw Damascus --March 3, 2006--I was fascinated with the capital and vowed to go back. The oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, Damascus is a mind-boggling mixture of Roman ruins, living Bible history and Muslim mosques.
I came as part of a group of about ten on a shore excursion from a small cruise ship. Our guide took us to the old center of the city to see the Umayyad Mosque—one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world, and the fourth-holiest place in Islam.
We walked through the covered bazaar to get there, but most of the shops were closed because it was a Friday. I was getting a little nervous because I was told that the banners hanging overhead were full of anti-American rhetoric.
Here is a photograph that shows the mixture of Roman ruins and one of the three minarets of the Mosque-- all in the same place.
Before entering, the women in the group had to put on “special clothes”—a very unappealing heavy gray djellaba (Well, that’s what they call it in Morocco.) I’m the one on the left in the sun glasses. You can see that the man in the red shirt didn’t have to change into more solemn clothing.
The Umayyad Mosque is unbelievably large and rich in its mosaics and tiles and gilded decorations. Everything that looks gold is gold, we learned. In the time of its full glory, the mosque had the largest golden mosaic in the world.
We entered the immense outer courtyard and found the families inside just hanging out-- children playing, old men sleeping, people washing their hands before prayers.
Everyone regarded us with friendly curiosity, despite the anti-American slogans in the marketplace. This man asked me to take a photo of him and his three children.
Thenwe entered the vast covered prayer hall, and again, everything was casual. A small white chapel with green windows is in the center, reportedly holding the head of John the Baptist. In the fourth century, after it housed a Roman temple to Jupiter, this site held a church to John the Baptist and was an important pilgrimage destination for Christians in the Byzantine era. Then the building was shared by Muslim and Christians alike. But when the present mosque was built between 706 and 715, the church was demolished.
But now, at the little chapel with the green windows, I was surprised to see Muslims praying and slipping money into it, presumably to honor John the Baptist. (And one of the minarets in the Umayyad Mosque is called the Minaret of Jesus because of a Muslim tradition that, on the day of judgment, this is where Jesus will appear.)
After we admired the golden mosaics in the interior, we moved on to a smaller outdoor courtyard with fountains where families were enjoying the fine weather.
These young women came over and asked me to photograph them, and of course I did, although we had no language in common and I had no way of sending the photos back to them.
This little boy was playing with his miniature car on the cover of a well.
And I was amused to see that the little girl with these black-clad women was dressed in a pink outfit covered with the word "Barbie".
Now, when I read the reports nearly every day of massacres, suicide bombs, streets lined with the dead in Syria, including in Damascus—thousands killed so far and so many of them children—I remember the families I saw in the Mosque, all so hopeful and proud of their children, and I pray that the current bloodshed can be stopped before it claims any more innocent lives.