Layer Cake of Civilization

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
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Trip End Ongoing


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Where I stayed
Al Haramain

Flag of Syria  ,
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Damascus is a layer cake of history, with thousands of years of iceing.  Of course, in most places, only the top layer is visible, the others buried or destroyed over time.  But even the top layer in Damascus is old, with mosques dating to the eighth century and old souks, where merchants still sell spices, candies, and clothes.

The crown jewel of Damascus is the Umayyad Mosque, whose mosaics show scenes from old Muslim Damascus, over twelve hundred years ago, with scenes of flowing water, oases, and lush greenery surrounding graceful buildings.  Below the mosque was the next iceing layer, a Byzantine Church, once a Temple of Jupiter.  Prior to that, a layer of cake shows a temple dedicated to Hadad, a fertility god of the Aramaeans.  Before that, there could be more layers, but they are currently hidden from sight.

What is within sight, however, is a tale of two heads

Two heads can be found in the Umayyad Mosque.  The first head is of John the Baptist, whose head was served on a platter to the daughter of Herodias, Salome (Matthew 14:3-11).   The head was discovered when the mosque was being build, supposedly with hair and skin remaining, but at least a handful of other sites also claim to have the head.

The other head is that of Hussein, the Shi'a martyr who battled with the Sunni Umayyads.  This is when the sectarian differences began and the head was placed here as a symbol of victory over the enemy.  Now, however, a shrine of Shi'a Hussein houses the head, with the faithful entering this Sunni-built mosque to pay homage.  But still the most popular shrine to Hussein in at Karbala, where he was martyred. 

Although it's hard to keep track of various body parts and pieces over the centuries, still you can think of the fundamental value of these sites for the faithful or inspired.

Around the shops in the new town, I bought some new threads for the warmer weather, as my winter clothes were becoming useless in the growing heat.  Walking around, I ate snacks from the many ovens around town.  At the Al Haramain Hotel, I met people from various places.  Damascus was busy with tourists enjoying the spring weather, along with the many locals shopping in the covered souks, which provided a grand entrance into the old town with its narrow streets, mosques, palaces, medrassas, and churches.  

On one morning, I visited the National Museum, where three things stood out in my mind.

First, a small modest clay tablet, 3,300 years old, was one that could easily be concealed in the palm of your hand.  This tablet, from Ugarit, a coastal Caananite city, contains the first known written alphabet of Ugaritic cuneiform, and was the precursor for Hebrew, Aramaic, and other Middle Eastern languages.

Second, a tower tomb, brought from Palmyra and reconstructed.  As the temple tombs in Palmyra were mostly looted, this room gave a good idea of the tower tombs, with high-relief limestone busts in excellent condition.

Third, a reconstruction of a second century synagogue from Dura-Europos.  Unlike most synagogues, frescoes with scenes from the Bible covered the walls, with brilliant colors, battles, miracles, and prophets.  God is depicted as a hand reaching down from above, in Michaelangelo fashion.

Having taken a bite from the layer cake of Damascus, I left from the National Museum at mid-day and took a bus to Bosra, before a long night of crossing the border into Jordan.
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