In the midst of sorrow and devastation it is easy to forget beauty and history. For Syrians living in Damascus the wreckage that the war has produced and the harsh living conditions have sometimes made them oblivious to the place they live in. It has made them forget that it is a world heritage site for being the oldest continually inhabited city-for encompassing many civilization, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic.

Damascus boasts of many monuments from the great Ummayed Mosque to other no less grand monuments like Azem Palace, the citadel of Damascus and many , many others.

Damascus was also a trade center for the whole middle east and Mediterranean  area- a hot spot breathing life and culture into the region.

Reneva Fourie is a policy analyst specializing in governance, development and security. Most of all she is a lover of Damascus where she currently resides. The following article reflects, her thoughts and feelings about the place she lives in.           

Syria: The place where history, mythology and mysticism meet

The high number of deaths emanating from the COVID-19 pandemic has evoked introspection. Questions about the source, purpose and value of life, in particular, have dominated contemplations, as more loved ones departed from this earth than usual, and as resolutions for 2021 were being formed. While taking all necessary safety precautions into consideration, a pilgrimage to Syria could provide consolation in these troubled times. The country’s rich and well-preserved historical, archaeological, and religious sites provide an enchanting serenity, especially now that peace is in the process of being restored.

Syria is home to one of the oldest civilizations in the world.  Fossils confirm that Neanderthals wandered the land as far back as 700,000 years ago. It necessitates a visit to Syria to appreciate why its citizens love their country so much that they will do whatever is required to prevent it from falling into foreign hands. Syrians have outlasted occupation by numerous regimes, some of which included the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans and they fought a bloody revolution against the French before gaining independence in April 1946.  It was inevitable that the recent attempt at regime-change would be resisted. Throughout these invasions, Syrians not just defended their right to dignity, they also sought to preserve the primeval, while embracing the new.

The country boasts an endless litany of wonder-cities that include Bosra, Palmyra, Aleppo and Latakia, all of which present lessons in the evolution of humanity, culture, architecture, religion and civilisation in general.  The more obvious marvel however is Damascus, Syria’s capital, and now its most populous city. Known as the “pearl of the east” due to is lushness and beauty, it is one of, if not the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, dating back to approximately the year 2500 BC.

An aura of spirituality traverses the narrow, cobble paths that define the “old city”, which remains dignifiedly surrounded by centuries-old, large stone walls, with only the original seven doors as its entrance. Its commercial centrality in ancient trade routes is still evident in the continued functional souk. The intellectual sophistication of its citizens is reflected in the intricacies of the architecture of its long-standing buildings and palaces. Temples and statues from the eras of paganism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam prevail with the progression in each era being distinctly observable, yet blended into a tapestry, along with modernity, to provide an elevated sense of national pride.

It is only in Damascus that one can follow the footsteps of Saul, who was also named Paul, after he was struck blind, to the home of Ananias where his sight was restored, and he converted to Christianity. A chapel was built around the cave where he worshipped and hid from persecution and a tunnel runs from it to the wall from which he escaped in a basket, which now too boasts a chapel. The exquisite Umayyed Mosque is a symbol of deep commitment to religious tolerance as it holds relics of all Abrahamic religions and the diversities within it.

Overlooking the city is Mount Qasioun, which is steeped in legend.  It is said to have been inhabited by Adam and is even recorded in Medieval Arab history books as the place with Cain killed Abel.  The mountain is regarded as sacred and is recognized as a place where both Abraham and in later years, Jesus, came to pray.  Prayers offered here are viewed to be accepted immediately.

Mark Twain, when visiting Damascus in 1867 wrote, “To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.”  While modernization has forced the expansion of Damascus to well beyond the “old city”, the city makes for a compelling feature on even the most reluctant traveler's bucket list.

Maaloula and Saydnaya are two further cities on the outskirts of Damascus that offer miracles. Maaloula is located at the foot of the Qallamoun mountains, 57 km north of Damascus.  In addition to its engraved grottos, fortresses, churches and monasteries, it is most well known due to the Aramic language, which continues to be spoken today.  According to a specialist in Semitic languages, Mr Ribhi Kamal, “The spoken language of the holy Christ was not Syriac, but the Aramic. It is one of the Semitic languages, well known in the Babylon and Persian time, and also the common language of Palestine at the time of holy Jesus”. Maaloulah also hosts the oldest holy shrine in the world and a drink from its spring is said to cure all ills.

Saydnaya, a historically small Aramaic town, is approximately 27 km northeast of Damascus. Its rich history includes occupation by pagan Greeks at the end of the 4th century BC, followed by a Roman influence, and in the first century of Christianity it became a big Episcopal centre that lasted up to 170 years ago.  Its most distinguishing feature is the Monastery of the Lady of Saydnaya, which is ranked second out of all sacred sanctuaries in the world, with Jerusalem being first. In addition to a breathtakingly beautiful chapel, the monastery harbors a small dark room, which serves as a shrine to Mary, the mother of Jesus, and which contains an icon of her that was painted by St Luke.  Many have narrated stories of the wonders that have occurred in their lives after paying homage to the shrine and it is one monastery that remained relatively unscarred during the conflict.

The effect of sanctions on the people of Syria, particularly after an almost decade-long war, and in this period of Covid-19, is devastating.  But despite it all, the country and its people still offer believers and atheists alike, a sense of peace and belonging that not even the sounds of mortars and missiles can shatter. The deeply sincere, pious, yet jovial nature of spiritual leaders, creep under your skin. You have to love them for their phenomenal faith; for they strongly belief that a greater power has carried the country through the war and assisted them to defeat all foreign powers. They remain resolute that victory and peace is certain.

The historical value of Syria is blatantly apparent in the architecture of its cities and its endless archaeological sites. The unshakable faith, not in a narrow sectarian sense, but in a collective valuing of spirituality and heritage carries with it, an air of mysticism. Then there are the beautiful narrations, of baffling mystical and mythical experiences, which have been preserved over centuries, so perfectly blended with history that the lines between it all are completely blurred.  If you need a break from the COVID-19 blues, Syria is the place to choose. It is one of very few places in the world where history, mythology and mysticism truly converges.


Editor- In- Chief- Reem Haddad