Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Tabbi in the Omayed Mosque and the Tomb of Salahadin

I am still in Australia, still cold, and have decided to let you hear Tabbi's voice again for her second day in Damascus. I had meant to write up my visit to the Omayed Mosque, but time got away from me. I have combined her writing and my photographs It is long, and may slide into several sections so you may have to check this month's archives to read it all.

Tabbi's letter!

Our second day in Damascus was Friday, the Islamic holy day, so almost every shop in the Souq was closed. Hamadiya was eerily deserted, with little make shift stalls on the cobblestones selling mobile phone accessories, counterfeit jeans and other 'made in china'-esque wares.

The smell of the Souq was gone, the mix of cardamom, spice, cigarettes and people. But it was peaceful, and not too hot as we made our way to the mosque.

The Omayed Mosque requires women to be completely robed, so I stepped into the 'putting on special clothing room' (gotta love these Arabic translations!!) and donned a Star Wars costume (well, not quite, but I imagine looked very Obi Wan in the original movie in my long beige robes. Without the beard and white hair though…) and walked to the side entrance (to avoid the groups of Iranian Shiites clustered at the main doors).

(As a small aside here from Jenny – I went through the mosque several months ago with our third secretary from the Embassy in Cairo. When I asked him how I looked ‘robed up’ he gave me a puzzled look and said “Like Frodo!”)

We slipped off our shoes and entered. It is amazing how 8 years of absence makes you forget the impact of such a beautiful place. The sheer beauty of the mosaics on the ceilings in the outer courtyard, including tiny squares of real gold, would be impressive in itself. Coupled with the knowledge that it has been there for over 1200 years…it becomes truly awesome.

We wandered across the courtyard, the sun now rampant and hot, but the marble underfoot remaining cool, to the main prayer hall. The interior of the Omayed is impressive mainly due to its size – the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is far more beautiful – but it was interesting watching the groups of people coming to pray. There are panels of inlay spotting the walls, small staircases inlaid with intricate patterns of different timbers and mother of pearl, all of which gleam softly in the mildly green light (green is the holy colour of Islam –at night all the mosques and minarets around Damascus are illuminated in green).

Although the mosque itself is Sunni Moslem, there was a Shiite Moslem sermon taking place among a group of visiting Iranians in a middle area. Interesting to watch, and Dad informed me that the Imam (preacher), describing the martyrdom of Hussein, aims to get people as worked up as possible, so they start weeping and wailing. We decided to walk away before he succeeded, as a group of about 40 weeping Iranian black-chadored women would be a considerable force.

Further down the hall is the shrine of John the Baptist, supposed to contain his head. It's a rather large structure for one head – a good 3 by 5 metres. I always wondered what a shrine to a prominent Christian figure like John the Baptist was doing in a Mosque. My trusty guidebook Dad explained that JtB was revered by Moslems as one of the many prophets (known as Nabi Yahya), among the likes of Jesus (Nabi Isa) and Mohammad, and that there is more about the Virgin Mary in the Koran than the bible (there is a whole chapter devoted to her, he thinks).

People were walking up to the shrine of John the Baptist and praying, rubbing themselves against the glass and trying to kiss it between the bars. Men in business suits were working themselves into a state, pulling at the bars and murmuring to the shrine. Religion is so interesting.

We left the main prayer area and went into the Shrine to Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohammed, and the principal martyr for Shiite Muslims in their split from the Sunnis. Once again, the shrine contains the head of Hussein, in a disproportionate structure. The Sunnis apparently placed the head of Hussein in a Sunni mosque to rub the Shiite's noses in their power over them.

Traveling with my father is SO interesting!

We headed back toward the gate, where dad, in his socks, was attacked from behind by a vicious puddle (the source of much gentle teasing for the rest of the day) then walked out to Salahadin's tomb. The tomb contains two coffins – one which contains the body of Salahadin, the other a present from Kaiser Wilhelm when he was trying to ingratiate Germany with the Ottoman Empire.

After stripping off my robes, and having another delicious cup of Toot Shami, we meandered over to the Azem Palace (now owned by the Syrian government and turned into a folk museum). By now it was very hot. We walked through the deserted areas of the Souq into the old Jewish quarter of the old city. After years of pressure from the United States on the Syrian government, the Jewish community were granted freedom to leave Syria (travel had been the only restriction on the Jewish population until that point, introduced in response to the Israel situation and fears of espionage activity against the state). Unfortunately, once freedom was granted, the Jewish community in the States put a good deal of pressure on the Syrian Jews to leave – thus the old Jewish quarter is full of abandoned houses, formerly pristine and grand, slowly crumbling.

We ducked into Antiquo for shai and to say goodbye to Mohammed, then grabbed a taxi to the Damascus museum.

The Damascus museum was great, full of interesting objects (including statues from the Mari's – the first civilization, back in 3500BC) and a fabulous courtyard outside, where we sat and reminisced about the Middle East, and in particular the depressing lack of tourism to Syria, as its such a great place, incredibly cheap and interesting.

It became too hot to do much else, so we napped, headed to a local chicken place for dinner (about $4US for the two of us) then decided to get a cab up the mountain behind Damascus (Mt Cassioun) The view up there was unbelievable, the sun was setting, casting apricot light everywhere, and locals were everywhere with their picnics and families, enjoying the cooler mountain breeze and the view.

Be warned – restaurants up there, despite Mt Cassioun being a local paradise, are tourist trap, over priced, scheming and all around un-Syrian!!! As a Syrian friend put it, 'The restaurants are up there to rip off Saudi's going for illicit purposes.'

Highly unimpressed! So unlike the incredibly trustworthy, honest and kind Syrians.

Rant over. Sorry.

The following day we headed to the Saddlemakers Souq – full of

interesting leatherwork, saddles and glitz for horses. Then we hopped
into a cab and headed to NAI.

In Syria, there are no laws prohibiting pirating music. NAI is a store that has taken advantage of this for years – fabulous CDs, covers and all, for $3US each.

I stocked up. To the point where we had to get them delivered so we wouldn't be lugging them around all day. My father made subtle digs at the fact I am enrolled to study Intellectual Property law next semester and I should feel more guilty. But I don't, as the Syrian government is proposing copyright regulations which would see NAI closed for good. I'm merely taking advantage of a limited opportunity.

How is buying pirated CDs any different to purchasing $3 imposter perfume anyway?

We headed back to Souq Hamadiya where I bought a pair of Roman style sandals and some uber comfortable though kind of daggy moccasins for $6US. I'm wearing them now.

After Sfiha for lunch, and another couple of cups of Toot Shami, we headed back to the hotel.

Then I became sick. We're not sure what did it, as Dad and I ate the same things everywhere we went, and he was unscathed. I am taking a positive outlook on the experience – now that I've had this I am likely to develop immunity to the bug responsible, thus I am now fully able to enjoy the Middle East again.

I was lucky we were flying back that night, and although the flight from Damascus to Cairo was uncomfortable, I was able to stumble home into a comfortable bed and my own ensuite, and have a doctor visit the residence yesterday. It’s not a bad place to be sick, and its nice to have my father here to look after me and make sympathetic noises.

Since returning to Cairo I've done relatively little except rest and recover. Tonight we are going on a Felucca ride down the Nile which is very exciting. Tomorrow I'm going to the dentist which is not.

Tabs (in the State of De Nile)
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