The International Writers Magazine

Habeeb Salloum

n the heart of Damascus's Umayyad Mosque, the fourth holiest place in the Muslim world, we stopped awhile to examine the domed mausoleum of John the Baptist, known to the Muslims as the Prophet Yahya. The focal point of the whole mosque, it was the first stop in our exploration of the city's Christian sites whose history goes back to the very inception of Christianity.

Pic: Umayyad Mosque

Muslims claim that the tomb contains, in a silver coffer, the head of John the Baptist. Venerated by both Christians and Muslims, the tomb has been a magnet for endless pilgrims since early Islamic times. Christians crossing themselves and Muslims reading the Koran intermixed with each other - an example of how religions, warring with each other in many parts of the world, here live in harmony.
We left the Umayyad Mosque which in the last few years is being restored on both the outside and inside, then made our way to the Street Called Straight which has been famous since Biblical times. At this renowned street, we turned toward Bab Sharqi (East Gate) - a 3rd century Roman gate. Known as Via Recta in the days of Rome, it is the axis of old Damascus and the street made famous in the conversion of Saint Paul to Christianity.

On his way to Damascus to persecute the city's early Christians, the Roman Saul of Tarsus was blinded just outside the city by a light from heaven. His companions following the
direction of a message from Christ led him by hand to The Street Called Straight on which was located the House of Judas.

According to the story, God had told the devout Christian Ananias to go to this building and enquire for one called Saul. When Ananias saw the blinded man he placed his hand on Saul's shoulder and is reported to have said, "Jesus hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost". Saul's vision returned and he was baptised Paul. His conversion from an enemy of the Christian believers to one of their greatest defenders has ever since been equated to a dramatic change of faith.

We moved along the street where Saint Paul once trod, now filled with small shops, on our way to the old Christian quarter whose heart is Bab Touma (Saint Thomas's Gate). In the medieval ages all the followers of Christ lived in this part of Damascus. It is much different now - near 200,000 Christians are scattered throughout the city.

Strolling leisurely on past a restored Roman arch, we reached Bab Sharqi at the end of the Street Called Straight. From this famous gate through which the Muslims first entered Damascus in 636 A.D., we followed the ancient walls to the left. Passing workshops where most of Syria's exquisite inlaid furniture and rich silks are made, we reached after a few minutes walk, the underground Chapel of Saint Ananias, called by the Arabs Kanissat (Church of) Hananiyah. About 5 m (16 ft) below ground, the church is supposedly the cellar of the House of Ananias, but more likely it is built at the level of the Roman street. On the other hand, a number of historians have written that the chapel is what remains of a large Byzantine church built where the home of Ananias once stood.

Restored many times, it is the only early Christian house of worship from the first century to survive in the city. A simple structure consisting of two small rooms with bare stone walls, it houses only an altar, some icons and a few pews. It represents the simplicity of the initial Christians and is one of the earliest still standing churches where services continue to be held.

We stayed for awhile watching mostly women worshippers praying, many with tears in their eyes, to Saint Ananias, the first bishop of Damascus. The sunlight coming through two small openings in the vaulted roof shining on the faces of the people, many of them Muslims, seemed to give the place a haunting religious aura. Like a number of other Christian religious figures Saint Ananias has been for untold centuries revered by both faiths.

From the church we walked back to Bab Sharqi, then about 400 m (1312 ft) south on the outside of the walls to Bab Keissan (Keissan Gate), or as it is often referred to, Saint Paul's Window. Legend has it that from this gateway, while fleeing from the Roman soldiers trying to kill him, Saint Paul was let down at night in a basket by his disciples. An early church, now in ruins, once stood near this gate where it is believed the basket landed.

Back in Bab Touma, we stopped to explore Kanissat Mariyamiyah (Saint Mary Cathedral), part of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Syria and Lebanon. The Patriarchate was located in Antioch until the French ceded that part of Syria in 1939 to Turkey. Now headquartered in Damascus, the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the main Christian sect in the country, represents about half of the 1,200,000 Syrian Christians.

The other Christians are a myriad of sects from Jacobites and Latin Catholics to Protestants and countless others. They live mostly in Damascus, Aleppo and Homs, forming about eight percent of the population, but they exercise an influence much out of proportion to their numbers.
The country's innumerable churches, convents, monasteries and shrines have come through the ages remarkably unscathed. Christian religious edifices have existed in peace for hundreds of years next door to mosques. The great Convent of Saydnaya 37 km (23 mi) north of Damascus, which houses an icon hand-crafted by Saint Luke, is venerated by both Christians and Muslims and the historic churches of Maloula, an Aramaic speaking town 60 km (37 mi) from Damascus, have flourished through the Muslim centuries. Legendary for some, but believed as authentic by many, stands the tomb of Abel atop a mountain some 40 km (24 mi) west of Damascus.
At Saint Mary Cathedral, the largest centre of Christian worship in Syria, our exploration of the Christian sites in Damascus came to an end. We sat down and relaxed while admiring the church's dazzling white marble walls and floors, which contrasted so vividly with the bareness of Saint Ananias's Chapel. Like most other places around the globe, Christianity in Saint Paul's city had evolved from simplicity to richness.

Facts to Know When Travelling in Syria:
1) All foreigners entering Syria require a visa, which is best obtained from an embassy or consulate outside of Syria. Visas are valid for 15 days, but can be extended once inside the country.
2) Convert money only in banks. New exchange rates have eliminated the once thriving black market - currently $1. U.S. equals about 54 Syrian liras in banks.
3) Despite being depicted in some of the Western media as a land full of terrorists, Syria is very safe for travellers - one of the safest countries in the world. Even women travelling alone find few problems. Urban crime that plagues most modern cities is virtually non-existent in Syria.
4) The best way to get around Damascus is by taxis, which are metered and dirt cheap - average cost of trips in the city average from $1. to $2.
5) Four good dining places are: Cham Palace Chinese Restaurant, serving the best Chinese food in Syria; Abo Alez located on the edge of the Umayyad Mosque; and Beit Jabri and Al Shami House Restaurants, housed in removed of homes. Very reasonably priced, they offer excellent Arabic food.
6) Local products to buy in Syria: silk brocade, brass and silver inlays, mosaics inlaid with mother of pearl, hand-woven rugs, hand blown glass products, all types of delicious sweets and pictures of epic and folk heroes painted on glass or cloth.
7) For enjoying a water pipe while sipping on Arab coffee try the Rawdah Coffee House in the Salhiyah area in Damascus. It’s a favourite haunt of Syrian actors and actresses.
8) Internet cafes are found in all the major cities in Syria. Many use DSL and are very up-to-date. In luxury hotels the price is from $6. to $7.; in regular cafes from $1. to $2.
Sites Not Mentioned That Should be Seen:
Azem Palace, a mid-eighteenth century palace built for the Governor of Damascus, it now houses the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions. Within its walls, one finds a sense of space, a wealth of polychrome stone, splendid marble, cascading fountains, and fragrant flowers.; Syrian National Museum, one of the finest historic museums in the world; Citadel of Damascus, a huge fortress that once guarded Damascus against Crusaders’ attacks, now being totally renovated; Tekiyeh al-Saleimaneiyh, military museum and tourist market place; Tomb of Sayyada Zeinab, a holy place which is a jewel of architectural splendour; Saint Ananias Church, the first Christian church in the city and Bab Keissan, the gate where Saint Paul escaped his pursuers; Bimaristan al- Noury, housing the Museum of Arab Medicine and Science.
Good Places to Stay in Damascus:
The top places to stay in Syria are the Cham Palaces and Hotels - a deluxe chain covering the whole of Syria. In Damascus there are 3 excellent Cham Palace Hotels. The Cham Palace, the flagship of the chain, located in the heart of town, is the place to stay. A luxury abode, its inside is richly decorated with inland mother of pearl furniture and panels and its lobby is seemingly out of the Arabian Nights. For prices and for reserving rooms in all the Cham Palace Hotels in Damascus and the remainder of Syria, check As well, Cham Tours and Cham Car Rentals cover the whole of Syria.
Note: All prices quoted are in U.S. dollars.

For Further Information, Contact: Syrian Embassy, Ottawa, 151 Slater Street, Suite 1000, Ottawa Ontario, Canada, K1P 5H3. Tel: 613-569- 5556. Fax: 613-569- 3800. E-mail: or Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic, 2215 Wyoming Ave. N.W., Washington D.C., 20008 U.S.A. Tel: 202/232-6313. Fax: 202-234-9548. E-mail: or see website:

© Habeeb Salloum October 2005

(It might be good to check with the US Embassy first to check they aren't planning to invade that week before you go- Ed)

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