Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Seriously Syria: The Great Mosque of Damascus

"I love you when you bow in your mosque, kneel in your temple, pray in your church. For you and I are sons of one religion, and it is the spirit." 
~Kalil Gibran
Saturday, July 28, 2001

Today we slept in. Perhaps we need it, we didn't sleep well in Amman. We had a hot room on the roof so we kept the door open since we seemed to retain a lot of heat from the day. All of the people who paid to sleep on the roof slept in sleeping bags on mats on concrete right outside our door, which meant we had to step over bodies to get to and from the shared bathroom. We were tired enough we slept right through the call to prayer which is happening later and later as fall approaches. 

I did get to chat with some young Canadian girls who just came back from Beirut. Apparently Lebanon was too expensive for a shopping spree, so they came to Damascus. Bags and bags of spices, pestles and mortars (stone), three gallabeyahs each, miscellaneous water pipes and four or five pairs of shoes each, they were the souk merchants wet dream! None of them knew the Canadian exchange rate, and didn't seem to care . All the money was spent and they were heading home to Montreal. I can imagine the theme party these four would have! 

And so after a lazy morning start  We finally made it to the Ummayad Mosque, known to me in Art History as the Great Mosque of Damascus. This is Islam's most holy building outside Mecca and Medina, making it the most important Islamic building that a non-Muslim can enter in the world. First, a bit of history. This site has seen many temples. The first being dedicated to the Aramaic God Haddad. The Romans identified him with their God Jupiter; Some Roman ruins remain between the mosque and the souk.

 Next, the Byzantines converted the temple into a church dedicated to John the Baptist. When the Ummayads came to power, they destroyed the Church and found John the Baptist's body in the process. They kept his head for good luck and made a little green dome enclosure inside to house it. (But I am assuming he was found with his whole body- but what did they do with it? Did they really need to save the space it would take to house a whole body?)

(Side note here: when we arrived in Istanbul and went to the Topkapi palace, we were lucky enough to see the OTHER head of John the Baptist. Who knew JB had two heads?!!? I feel doubly blessed. ) 

 And of course there are the Byzantine mosaics of lush trees and improved fantastical versions of Damascus. Apparently at the time of building there were no skilled mosaicists so they just hired Byzantine ones- kind of ironic since the Ummayads had just cleared away all the Byzantine rubble. It was the Ummayads who made Damascus the center of the Islamic world and the Abbasids who took it away to Baghdad. I'll get into Damascus history later on right now I just talk about her experience at the mosque. 

We ran to gauntlet of the souk which now, being Saturday,  was in full throw and we couldn't walk a minute without hearing, "Welcome to my shop!" "Where you from?" Finally we arrived at the mosque and headed for the ticket office. There René and I paid our 50 pound entrance fees, and because we are female, we got fitted with  dingy, unattractive  sackish brown monk-like robes. (René described them as grayish-brown hospital gowns with hoods) Once fitted in the somewhat hot annoying ugly outfits, we headed to the mosque. Maybe it's just the tourist area, but I didn't find the people we met to be very friendly. Upon entering and wandering around the mosque, I felt a little intimidated. Some of the looks I got especially from other women had me checking that I was properly done up and my head was covered. Perhaps it's because I am a foreign woman with no attached husband. At least that's the most logical reason I can think of. 

The mosque's courtyard was very beautiful, and when I saw the Byzantine mosaics everything I learned in Art History flooded back to me. It's funny. When I studied in Art History, I always had the idea that I would like to visit these places one day, but somehow it seems impossible. It was a very satisfying feeling to be standing in front of those mosaics and know again I had come full circle. 

Unfortunately my freaking robe  kept getting in the way of taking photos. It was a particularly windy day and either my sleeve blew in front of my camera lens or the wind tried to blow the hood of my head and my ankle would be exposed under the ankle length robe if I were facing the wrong way. As well I had a really annoying young guy (dressed in head to toe denim), 'psssting' me if I were to fall out of line in this regard. Of course Denim Man did it to all the foreign women running around and like he did with me, he smiled and try to pick them up after he had finished chastising them for not having their necks covered. (But this feature wasn't built into the robes, so I felt he just have to live with it.)

So even though I took the photo with great difficulty as my feet were burning on the sunbaked marble tiles as well, I got my Byzantine Mosaics in the end. 

And I got a slight feel of what it must be like for Muslim women on a day to day basis, especially in Damascus. The women here were few and the ones we saw were in full purdah; not even their eyes visible. A lot were in head to toe black and had their eyes and nose covered. Many women who were covered but didn't wear black wore tan trench coats over their dresses. How anyone could wear that in this heat was beyond me. Omar told me it was the woman's choice what she wanted to wear and that they chose to cover. Standing there in the Great Mosque of Damascus I decided there must be serious social pressure for the women to cover- probably most enforced by other women. I know now why there aren't many Muslim women photographers! Damn sleeves keep getting in the way. 

René and I went into the mosque  and to my surprise the inside was austere compared to the outside. there were cushy rugs all over the floor and people were either lounging or sleeping. I eyed René suspiciously as lounging is her new favorite hobby- after Dahab she can practically sleep anywhere at anytime! But this makes for a boring travel partner so she didn't sleep in the mosque. In the middle of the interior there was the large green domed enclosure holding poor John the Baptist's head. Rene and I sat down next to a group of women and apparently a little wrinkled lady kept getting giving me hell behind my back, but when I turned around she just stared. Apparently whatever I was doing wrong was not dire enough to let me in on it. I was really beginning not to like Syrian women, based on the little contact I had with them. René had also been complaining a lot about being elbowed pushed and shoved in the markets as well. 

 And so hot and a little bothered, but still happy to have been able to see the Great Mosque of Damascus, Rene and I continued on. We went to the mausoleum of Saladdin but this was largely uninteresting. I mention it only because it was there I realize that Denim Man was following us. He had there been the one chastising us in the mosque. With some fancy footwork near the entrance of the souk we were rid of him! The rest of our day was fairly boring. We had our shoes fixed as all this traveling has really put some miles on my Birkenstocks, my only pair of shoes at the moment- My other leather sandals didn't react well to the day at the Dead Sea and are now unwearable. (But it was so cheap we got everything fixed- even things that weren't quite broken yet! I got new soles on my Birks for twenty five cents Canadian!)  The most memorable part of this night was our discovery of tasty lemon ice-like a soft slurpee-only for 10 pounds. The lemon ice vendors sure make killing continuously scooping frozen ice into cups- usually they're sold before they melt in the 40+ degree heat. I would always watch for him to scoop a fresh one and I would scoop it for myself, yum!

-To be continued-


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