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A day in old Damascus

salah aldin.jpgDAMASCUS, July 10, 2011 - The courage of the Syrian people during the great Syrian revolution, which is in progress nowadays, reinforced the already strong feeling of belonging inside me. I now belong more to the flowers of  Damascus, to the simple people of Damascus, and most important to the history of Damascus.


I decided to visit old Damascus last week. I come from one of the major families of old Damascus which had sentimental links to the ottoman empire’s rule. When the empire (1299 AD- 1923 AD ) was about to collapse, Arab nationalists called for secession of the Arab countries from the empire, and  for the forging of a united Arabic state instead.

My grand father (a lawyer) was an element in the camp which  stood against that trend, but his camp lost the historical  battle of the nation’s identity. The Turks has special love to Damascus, they have always called it : “AlCham shareef”, meaning  the honorable or holy Damascus. 


The defeated ottoman army withdrew from Syria as the allies won the First World War (1914-1918). The  victorious French army entered Damascus (the French mandate 1920-1946), defeated the small Syrian army in the battle of Maissaloun (1920), and in 1921 destroyed the Arab nationalists’ dream  of  building a united Arabic state when the French expelled King Faisal  from Damascus.


The Courage we witness now by the Syrian protestors is not new to Syrians. The Syrian defense minister Yusuf Al Azmeh   was killed in the battle of Maissaloun, while defending his country.The odds were against him but he refused to capitulate. The family links to old damascenes are holy, the minister’s last statement  before he died at the age of 36 was : “take care of my daughter “.


As I was walking to old Damascus, I passed by Al-Halbouni  area where I was born. I remembered my father. He went to a French school in Damascus (Frères) and admired the French culture but, nevertheless, he was a leader in the protests against the French occupation. He  was arrested once, and when the French captain knew that he is a student at the Frères he told him : “listen Mr. Adnan, I usually release similar detainees 8 hours after arrest, but in your case you will be jailed for 24 hours”. My grand mother came and pleaded with the captain to release him, but he refused allowing her only to bring food to the young rascal. She brought later  all sorts of the Damascus famous Kubeh. My father told me that this was the best meal he ever had. I asked my father, did the French  torture you?, he said no.


I entered into Souk Al Hamidiah (built by Ottoman’s Sultan Abdul Hamid in the early 20th century). I was so surprised. The street dwellers are in full control of the traditional market now! Before the revolution (March 15, 2011) non of them even dared to enter to the market, but with the police busy oppressing the protestors, the dwellers felt free to show their much cheaper  goods every where, even in the middle of the road! I looked at the faces of the shops’ owners, who lost most of their customers to the vendors, as they contemplated their bad luck. One of them told me if things continue like this for one more month, I will close my store.


The place was so crowded and full of life, pretty young ladies just walking around, young men flirting with the ladies, Iranian visitors heading to their shrine near the Umayyad mosque  at the end of the Souk , and few serious buyers bargaining. I did not see a single European tourist in the market.


I reached the Umayyad mosque, a living proof of the ingenuity of Arabic architecture and of  the harmony between Islam and Christianity. The Mausoleum of John the Baptist stood there as Muslim worshippers touched the silver bars (installed  as boundary wall),  to get the blessings of the saint.


After that, I went to the modest room near by hosting the tomb of sultan  Saladin (1137-1193 AD). When he faced the crusaders, he was defending not only his home land, but also the entire civilization. Saladin is a prominent Kurdish figure and lover of Damascus  who was a strict adherent of  Sunni Islam. His Chivalrous earned him the respect of  Christian chroniclers, including Richard the Lionheart and he became a celebrated example of the principles of chivalry. His brother married the sister of Richard. Many say he had one green eye and one blue eye .


But for many Shia Muslims, Saladin is a hypocrite since he ended the Fatimid dynasty, and converted Egypt from Shia Islam to Sunni Islam .


Inside that modest room there were two tombs :

- The true tomb of Saladin (covered with  green garment);

- An empty marble tomb which was granted by the German emperor Wilhelm II in 1910 in honor of a true noble hero.


I  went to the shrine of  Sayyida Ruqqaya, who is the grand grand daughter of  Prophet Muhammad. The Sayyida (lady) is cherished by the Shia Muslims who believe (among other things) that the family of the prophet should have ruled the nation after his death (hereditary system). I, for seconds , thought I was in Qoum, Iran. Thousands of Iranians were visiting and receiving the blessings of the lady. I looked at the shrine and noticed the largeness and richness of the place. Marble floors, golden plated domes and Mosaic walls.


I tried to locate the old Arabic house of my grandfather near by, but I couldn’t.  An old blind beggar (accused by the streets vendors of being a liar and a womanizer as well !) told me he is willing to help me find it for 10 USD. I laughed and went back home.


Written by Basel Adnan, Damascus
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