Sights and lights at the Covered Bazaar in Damascus, Syria (© M Hussain / sxc.hu)
LIKE St Paul, I, too, saw the light on the road to Damascus.
When I told my friends I was going to Syria for Christmas, they generally responded with one of three questions: Why? On a holiday? Is it safe?
Part of the pleasure of going on a holiday is telling people your plans and watching them go green with envy. Since that was not immediately forthcoming, my travelling companion and I consoled ourselves by congratulating ourselves on what imaginative travellers we were, and how dull everyone else was (Christmas in Melbourne? Shopping in London? Bor-ring!).
I was so busy being smug and insufferable that it was only on our flight to Damascus that I started having a few pricks of uncertainty. All those sound bites from CNN started flooding my mind — “axis of evil”, “rogue terrorist state” — but luckily, an article on Syrian cuisine in the flight magazine soon distracted me.
With visions of baba ghanoush, lamb kebabs and pomegranate juice dancing in my head, I took consolation in the fact that a veritable who’s who — Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Tamerlane and Lawrence of Arabia, to name but a few — had all visited the city at some point in time. If nothing else, at least I would be in good company.
Twenty-four hours later, via an eight-hour transit in the distinctly un-atmospheric Abu Dhabi airport, we were enjoying a drink at a jazz bar after dinner at one of Damascus’ best restaurants.
As we sat under the ubiquitous portrait of the Syrian President, Bashar Al-Asaad, we were surrounded by large families, elegant women dressed in European fashions, teenagers with blonde-streaked hair and tight jeans, and distinguished grandfathers in impeccably cut suits, nearly all of them enjoying a glass of wine (Syria is a wine producer) with their meal.
The next day, we explored the oldest living inhabited city in the world. Having been occupied at one time or another by some of the world’s greatest civilisations, the city un-self-consciously bears the architectural imprint of its Byzantine, Roman, Greek and Ottoman past.
Umayyad mosque, one of Islam’s great architectural sitesThere is no attempt to reinvent history to create any false impression that the city owes its heritage to a monolithic culture. Instead, Roman ruins coexist very comfortably with Byzantine Churches and Ottoman houses. In fact, we walked through a Roman archway to visit Damascus’ Umayyad Mosque, built in the eighth century on the site of a former Byzantine church, itself erected on the remains of a Roman temple to Jupiter.
As we entered the mosque, we heard quiet sobbing as a group of Shiite pilgrims in black robes from Iran encircled the tomb of Hussein, the son of Imam Ali. On our left, a group of worshippers — both Muslim and Christian — prayed by the tomb of St John the Baptist, leaving behind them a paper trail of handwritten prayers, squeezed into the metal grilles surrounding the tomb.
At dusk, the gold on the minarets slowly turned a deep rosy pink as the last of the light disappeared. Despite the crowds of people, there was a stillness that one experiences standing in a vast marble courtyard. It was as if centuries of cumulative worship and prayer had imbued this sacred site with an almost tangible sense of peace.
Wares at a souk in DamascusAs the call for prayer echoed in the evening, families and courting couples thronged Bakdash Cafe for their famous pistachio ice cream — another religious experience. We explored the city’s great souks, where you can buy anything from spices to carpets to rare Berber jewellery, and met a group of young students who engaged us in a lively discussion.
While they were cautious of discussing Syrian politics, they were very curious about Malaysia. I found it very refreshing that they were completely uninterested in our religious backgrounds; the fact that I am a Christian and Suryani a Muslim didn’t seem particularly important. As they explained, “In Syria, we are Syrians first, Muslims and Christians second.”
On Christmas Day, we attended Christmas service at the Orthodox Syrian Cathedral in the city. There was a sizeable Christian population in Syria, and there was a large crowd of people at the church, including, apparently, the Grand Mufti of Syria, Dr Sheikh Ahmad Badr al Din Hassoun, who attends the Christmas service every year.
I have to admit I initially found it nonplussing to see Arabic script inscribed above the altar and to hear Arabic words being used in the service. Then I was reminded that Arabic is a language, one that has been used by Christian Arabs for thousands of years in their daily life and in their worship.
As the congregation bent their heads to say the “Our Father” in Arabic, I wondered what they and the thousands of Christian Arabs in the Middle East would say if they knew of the controversy in Malaysia surrounding the use of the word “Allah” in church services.
Before I’d left for Syria, I had made jokes about spending Christmas in the Middle East as if there were something inherently ironic in that statement. On that Christmas day, it was easy enough to remember it was from this part of the world that the three great religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — were born.
There is a general misconception that Christianity has its roots in the West when, in fact, some of the earliest Christian communities can be found in countries like Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria and India. Despite the challenges faced by minority religions everywhere, these communities practise their faith and celebrate their religious holidays in their own unique ways, while retaining their own cultures and traditions.
And it felt to me, sitting in that ancient church that morning, that all of the trappings we now associate with the festivities — the towering Christmas trees, the fake snow, Bing Crosby’s White Christmas — were not missed, because in their place was something much more inherently valuable. Everything fake and commercial fell away, and we were left with just the sounds of prayer and the rituals of tradition that had been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years.
Rahel Joseph has over 10 years’ art management experience in both performing and visual arts. She is currently employed at a leading contemporary art space in Kuala Lumpur.