Syria, the Land of Lebanon/Chapter 9

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Syria, the Land of Lebanon by Lewis Gaston Leary
Chapter IX

CHAPTER IX


THE RICHES OF DAMASCUS


THE great khans, or wholesale warehouses, of Damascus lie in the center of the city near the Omayyade Mosque. As a rule they are not detached structures, but are hidden by the surrounding shops and are entered through tunnels which pierce the sides of the bazaars. The finest of them is the Khan Asad Pasha, which was erected a hundred years ago by the governor whose name it bears, and is still owned by his family. This is one of the few really impressive pieces of Arabic architecture in Syria, rich and massive, yet effectively adapted to the purposes for which it was intended. The building is constructed of alternate courses of dark brown and yellow limestone, and its principal entrance is a high, vaulted "stalactite" gateway covered with beautiful carvings. The central court is a hundred feet across and, as one comes suddenly from the dim light of the crowded bazaar, it seems of an astounding brightness and spaciousness. The pavement is divided into squares by four pillars, and from these spring the arches of nine lofty domes, which are ornamented with elaborate arabesques and pierced by a number of small windows. On the sides of this great court, and also on a gallery above, are the offices of wholesale merchants and brokers, and at the rear are situated smaller courts and the vaulted storerooms of the khan. Around the central fountain between the pillars of the largest dome and crowding through the gateway and thronging the street outside, a vociferous throng of muleteers and camel-drivers are unloading the caravans which have come from Beirut on the coast and from northern Aleppo and across the desert from the Euphrates, bearing the choicest merchandise of the East, and some few machine-made products of the West, to swell "the riches of Damascus."[1]

There are real merchant-princes in this busy trading-center, and some of them live in royal splendor. The houses of the Damascus rich are truly palatial; but the stranger would never guess it from their exteriors, for the Syrian home has no elaborate façade and pretentious approach, such as the Franks delight to build. The prime object of the architect is to achieve the most absolute retirement for his patron. No window ever looks into that of a neighboring residence; no passer-by ever glimpses through an opened door the interior of a private dwelling. If the Englishman's house is his castle, the Syrian's is his retreat.

You pass along a dirty alley to an insignificant wooden door in a high stone wall. Just inside is the porter's cell; then comes a dark, vaulted passageway, which either has a sharp bend in it or else is screened at the farther end; then—

The open court which you enter may be three hundred feet across. Its tessellated pavement is of white marble inlaid with arabesques of darker stone. In the center is a fountain with designs of colored limestone set into its marble walls. Potted flowers bloom luxuriantly in the warm sunlight, and birds sing to the accompaniment of the splashing water. In the grateful shade of small fruit trees are placed bright rugs and soft cushions and tabarets made of rare woods inlaid with mother-of-pearl. The many lofty windows in the red and yellow striped walls of the surrounding dwelling are curtained with gorgeous silks.

At one side, usually the south, a spacious alcove reaches to the height of the second-story ceiling. This liwân, or drawing-room, is entirely open to the court; but its floor is raised a foot or two above the pavement outside, and its decorations are as rich and elaborate as if it were a huge, glittering jewel-box. No figures of men or animals are seen, for Moslems are forbidden to make representations of any living creature in the heavens above or the earth beneath or the waters under the earth;[2] yet it is
Court and Liwân of a Damascus residence

Court and Liwân of a Damascus residence

Cemetery where members of Mohammed's family are buried

Cemetery where members of Mohammed's family are buried

astonishing what splendid effects are evolved by their architects from the limited elements of Arabic script, geometric designs, foliage, fruits and flowers. In the liwân this arabesque ornamentation is profuse and elegant. The lower walls are built of alternate layers of differently colored stones, into which are set mosaic panels as intricate in design as the priceless rugs which lie upon the marble pavement. The woodwork of the room is all minutely carved, and inlaid with bits of glass and mother-of-pearl and sometimes even with jewels. The upper walls are frescoed in blue and green and gold, and from the gilded beams of the ceiling hang chandeliers of silver and beaten brass.

This half out-of-doors alcove gives access to the rooms which we should think of as being really in the house. Some of these may be even more lavishly decorated than the liwân, and all are comfortably furnished—according to the Syrian idea of comfort. Into the apartments of the ladies, however, no male guest may enter. These are hareem—"forbidden." Indeed, it is very likely that they are in a separate building, which opens on an inner court whose existence the casual visitor does not even suspect. No men save her nearest relatives are supposed ever to look upon the unveiled face of a Moslem woman. This prohibition, however, is of necessity little observed among the poor, hard-working peasants and the desert Bedouins; and in the cities the universal characteristics of the female sex have not been entirely obliterated by the law of Islam. An unusually thin gauze almost always reveals a remarkably beautiful face, and I have seen veils coquettishly dropped—of course by accident—even in the bazaars of fanatical Damascus. Yet among the upper classes the thought of social intercourse between the sexes is so repellent that no good Moslem ever willingly alludes to his wife. If he is absolutely forced to speak of her, he apologizes by saying Ajallak!—"May God lift you up!"—that is, from the degradation of having to hear such a thing mentioned. He uses the identical expression when he refers to anything else unfit to be spoken of in conversation between gentlemen. "Men are superior to women on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other," said the Prophet.[3] There is no place for female suffrage in the world of Islam!

If we think of Damascus as the port of the desert, then its wharves lie along the Meidan. This narrow handle of the spoon-shaped city, which stretches far southward en both sides of the Derb el-Haj or "Pilgrim Road" to Mecca, is a comparatively modern quarter; but it is most akin to the wilderness, and its one long avenue is thronged with Children of the East who have journeyed far to visit what they firmly believe to be the world's largest and most beautiful city. Long caravans, weary, dusty and heavily laden, are led Into the Meidan by wild-looking, shaggy Bedouins. A little flock of sheep on its way to the slaughter-house Is driven by no gentle shepherd, but a black-bearded giant armed with rifle and dagger and club. Groaning camels kneel in the street while Immense sacks of wheat are untied from their backs and rolled into the vaults of the grain-merchants. We see here the choicest mares of Arabia ridden by tall, stalwart Hauran Druses whose cruel, handsome faces, wrapped around with flowing headgears of spotless white, look down upon the hurrying crowds with a haughty contempt. Yonder group of strangely dressed fellows with red and white cloths bound about their brows are Chaldeans from Baghdad. The shops here seem very poor and shabby in comparison with the bazaars of the older quarters; but the simple country folk, and even the proud Bedouin Arabs, stand spellbound before the astounding wealth and bewildering tumult of the great city.

The south end of the Meidan is known as the Gate of Allah—though it has no gate; for it is here, amid impressive ceremonies, that there starts the annual Pilgrimage to Mecca.[4] Back to the same Bab Allah straggle, four months later, a sick and exhausted remnant who have survived the journey to the holy city, to bear henceforth the envied title of haj or " pilgrim." Then cholera or plague breaks out with renewed virulence.

Of the ancient fortifications of Damascus, only a short, ruinous piece now remains. The city is surrounded, between the houses and the orchards, by an almost unbroken succession of cemeteries. In the burying ground of the Orthodox Greeks is the small, unimpressive tomb of St. George, who is said to have assisted the Apostle Paul in his escape over the wall. This cannot, of course, be the same St. George who killed the dragon, as the hero of that famous exploit was not born until nearly three hundred years after the time of Paul.

In the large Moslem cemeteries at the southeast of the city are the tombs of Mohammed's muezzin, two of his nine wives, and his favorite child, Fatima. Not far from the sepulcher of the Prophet's daughter, though outside of the cemetery, is buried an unfortunate Jew who aspired to the hand of Fatima. The presumptuous lover is said to have been stoned to death, and his grave is now entirely hidden under a great heap of the rocks which passing Moslems still cast upon it as a sign of their contempt.

Just outside of Damascus, also, is a sad house of "life more terrible than death." It was once, they say, the residence of proud Naaman, and it is still tenanted by lepers who, alas, have known no Elisha and washed in no healing Jordan. My Syrian friends were afraid even to enter its court, but I talked with eight of the thirty or forty inmates. Some were voiceless and shapeless—grotesque, horrible caricatures of humanity. But there was still a "little maid" in the House of Naaman. Miriam was a pretty, slender girl, just beginning to burst into the bloom of early Eastern adolescence. She seemed the very incarnation of health and youthful joy, and could hardly stop laughing long enough for me to take her photograph. Yet I could not laugh with her; for on the rich brown of her cheek was a tiny pinkish swelling, and close beside her graceful form crouched an awful figure, loathsome, unsmiling and unwomanly, like which she would some day be.

Over the now closed Kisan Gate at the southeast corner of the city wall is a small, bricked-up window, through which tradition says that St. Paul was let down in a basket. Unfortunately for the story, this part of the fortification dates from the Turkish occupation. The bend of the wall includes, however, as it probably has always done, the Jewish Quarter. The Hebrews of Damascus are unique among their coreligionists of Palestine and Syria in that they are not comparatively recent immigrants drawn back to the land of their fathers by Zionist ideals, but are descended from ancestors who settled here in very ancient times.[5] Some of them bear family names which can be read in the earliest census lists of the Old Testament. Many of them are very estimable people; but I cannot describe the quarter where they live, further than to state that it is the most filthy and malodorous place I have yet visited. I am not especially squeamish; I have often, for the sake of the human interest found there, traveled in Mediterranean steerages and lived in the slums of great capitals; but after a brief glimpse of the Jewish Quarter of Damascus, I beat an ignominious retreat. There are said to be houses there whose interiors are wonderfully beautiful; but I am not going back to see them.

There are in all five "quarters" in Damascus: the Christian and the Jewish at the east, the peasant market of the Meidan at the south, the suburb of el-Amara north of the Barada, and the Moslem heart of the city. The "Street called Straight,"[6] which cuts across the center of the bazaar district from east to west, may roughly be considered the dividing line between the Jewish and the Christian Quarters. The flippant jest to the effect that the writer of the Acts said only that the thoroughfare was "called" straight, is hardly justified by the facts. This is, in fact, the straightest, longest street in all Damascus, as well as one of the widest. It was once divided into three parallel roadways by Corinthian colonnades, some few remains of which can still be found. To-day it is covered for half its length with a high, arching metal roof, and contains many of the largest and most modern stores in the city.

Beside this busy bazaar the Damascus Moslems show the tomb of the disciple Ananias, whose memory they hold in great respect. His reputed residence, which lies some distance away in the center of the Christian Quarter, is in charge of Latin monks. All that remains of the house is a low, cave-like chapel, twenty or more feet below the street. By itself, however, this fact furnishes no argument against the correctness of the location; for the level of every crumbling, undrained Syrian city constantly rises century by century.

Turning now into the Moslem Quarter, we pass through a tasteful little garden, closely planted with shade trees, and enter an unpretentious building. Here rests one of the greatest Moslem heroes and the most formidable opponent of the Crusaders — the invincible Salah ed-Din, whose sonorous name we Franks pronounce "Saladin." It seems very strange that the tomb of this valiant champion of Islam was long unhonored, if not entirely unknown, by the inhabitants of Damascus, until it was discovered fifty years ago by an American missionary. The original casket of walnut has since been replaced by an exquisitely carved marble sarcophagus, upon which lies a cover of green silk. In a niche of the wall at the foot of the tomb now hangs the large bronze wreath given by the German Emperor in memory of his visit to Damascus. One hopes that it was a Christian spirit of forgiveness which prompted the placing of a Maltese cross on this tribute to the Crusaders' greatest foeman. But as soon as the Christian emblem was noticed by the custodian of the tomb, the wreath was removed from its original position on the sarcophagus.

The one notable ancient building in Damascus is the great mosque of Neby Yahya or "St. John," better known to the Western world as the Omayyade Mosque. The site where this stands has probably always been marked by a place of worship, and the present structure is some of those immemorial religious edifices which, so far as we definitely know, was never built, but only rebuilt. It was doubtless here that there stood the House of Rimmon in which Naaman, captain of the host of the king of Syria,
The street called Straight. Photo down a dirt street inhabited by children and adults. Single and double story buildings either side.

The street called Straight

The Bride's Minaret of the Omayyade Mosque

The Bride's Minaret of the Omayyade Mosque (elevated view of minaret)

bowed down with his royal master.[7] About the year 400 A. D. the then Roman temple was transformed into the Church of St. John the Baptist. When Damascus fell into the hands of the Omayyade Dynasty in the seventh century, the Christian house of worship was converted into a mosque of such miraculous splendor that the vast multitude of human artists and artisans who labored upon it were later believed to have been assisted by the genii. All Syria was ransacked for ancient columns to adorn the new structure. The pavement was of the most expensive marbles, the prayer-niches and pulpits were set with jewels, the carved wooden ceiling was inlaid with precious metals, and six hundred hanging lamps of solid gold cast their mellow light upon the exquisite mosaic decorations. Since then, the building has been burned and burned again, and at each restoration has lost something of its former magnificence. Yet still it ranks with St. Sophia of Constantinople, the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem and the Sacred Mosque of Mecca, as one of the greatest of Moslem sanctuaries.

Time would fail to tell of its size and splendor, its holy impressiveness to Moslem eyes, and the inspiring views from its lofty minarets. In its great court rise the Dome of the Hours and the Dome of the Fountain, which is believed to mark a point on the Pilgrim Route exactly half-way between Constantinople and Mecca, and the Dome of the Treasure, where, hidden jealously from infidel eyes, are kept the sacred books and the records of the mosque. Above tower three minarets, which are known as the Western, the Bride's and—strange as this name may at first seem—the Minaret of Jesus. The Moslems, however, believe that 'Isa, as they call Him, was one of the greatest of the prophets, hardly, if at all, inferior to Mohammed himself;[8] and the "Son of Mary" is held in unusual reverence by the inhabitants of Damascus, who say that He will stand upon this minaret at the Last Judgment.

The mosque itself extends along the entire southern side of the court. I know of no other non-Gothic structure which seems so well fitted to uplift one's thoughts in solemn, spiritual worship of the unseen God. Here are no confusing chapels, no gaudy pictures or distracting statues, no gilded altar lit by smoking candles, no thin blue clouds of slowly rising incense. All is clean, bright, commodious, and yet of an appropriate richness and beauty. A careful inspection shows that the architects used the ground-plan of a basilica with aisles and transepts; but, in spite of the two rows of columns and the heavier pillars which support the central "Dome of the Eagle," the chief and lasting impression of the mosque is its ample, unbroken spaciousness.

The building is larger even than the visitor first thinks: a hundred and fifty paces will hardly take him from one end of it to the other. Its stone floor is entirely covered by rugs, whose variegated patterns have worn to a dull, somber tint. From the lofty ceiling a multitude of lamps and several gigantic chandeliers are hung by long chains, so low that they just clear the head of a tall man. Between two of the columns stands a lavishly decorated, domed structure which is said to contain the head of John the Baptist, after whom the mosque is named. The shrine is about the size of the Chapel of the Sepulcher at Jerusalem, but it seems smaller on account of the far larger building which surrounds it. In the south wall of the mosque—toward Mecca—are four shallow prayer-niches, and near the middle of this side stands a tall, graceful pulpit, whose minute and elaborate inlays of silver and ivory and mother-of-pearl make it a marvel of chaste richness. Unlike all Oriental churches and most other mosques, there is comparatively little gold used in the decoration of this great building. The prevailing colors are cool white and blue and silver, and the really immense amount of mosaic and inlaid work seems hardly more than delicate tracery upon the broad, unbroken surfaces.

Such is the Great Mosque when it is empty, a fitting place for quiet communion and solemn contemplation of the vastness and unhurried power of the Almighty. But when you behold this same building thronged with strangely garbed, proud, intellectual-looking and intensely devout men—women are seldom seen in mosques—you feel the grip of something portentous, irresistible, relentless. Long lines of turbaned figures facing toward the holy city of Arabia, now bending low together like a field of wheat swept by the summer breeze, now standing erect with arms outstretched toward Allah the Merciful and Compassionate, reciting their confession of faith in shrill, quick tones which lose their individuality in a tremendous momentum of sound like the wave-beat of the sea—these thousands of worshipers have firm hold on a great truth, though it be but a half-truth; they believe in their religion with an impregnable, unquestioning confidence, and they render to its precepts an implicit obedience such as is not enforced by any Christian sect in the world. They would gladly die for the faith of Islam, and nothing but the strong restraint of European armaments holds them back from again raising the standard of the Prophet and setting forth on a new jahâd, or holy war, in obedience to the sacred mandate, "When ye encounter the unbelievers, strike off their heads until ye have made a great slaughter among them. … As for the infidels, let them perish, and their works shall God bring to nought. … And their dwelling the hell fire! … Be not faint-hearted then, and invite not the infidels to peace!"[9]

Be he preacher or statesman, that man is a fool and blind who does not realize the tremendous vitality and undiminished strength of Mohammedanism, the power instinct in its half-truths, and the unsleeping menace of its essential antagonism to all the "infidel" world. Politically Islam is being rapidly shorn of its power; but as a religion—a religion for which men will cheerfully give their lives—it has lost no whit of its potency. As the cry of the muezzin echoes across the earth to-day from Japan to Gibraltar, there are, not fewer, but many millions more who obey its call than there were four centuries ago when Mohammed II. hurled his Turkish regiments against the ramparts of a then Christian Constantinople.

The Omayyade Mosque, as has been said, was once a church. In the marble wall beside its most beautiful prayer-niche is set a large mosaic panel, among whose intricate geometric traceries there stand out distinctly three large Maltese crosses. The Moslem artist apparently copied the design from some earlier decoration without realizing that he was including the hated symbol of Christianity. So the worshipers in the Great Mosque who face towards Mecca face also the Cross!

But the strangest feature of this ancient sanctuary is seldom viewed by travelers; for it is hard to reach, and dragomans are averse to taking the necessary trouble. You must go to the Joiners' Bazaar, which lies just south of the mosque, and borrow a long ladder. Setting this up in the busy street, you then climb through a small hole which has been broken in the wall just under the roof of the covered bazaar, and step out upon a dusty housetop. Here is seen a bit of an old stone portal, elaborately carved with leaves and flowers, and bearing on its lintel the unexpected Greek inscription, standing out clearly in capital letters—

THY KINGDOM, O CHRIST, IS AN EVERLASTING KINGDOM,
AND THY DOMINION ENDURETH THROUGHOUT ALL GENERATIONS.

It is a startling, suggestive sentence to read upon the wall of the greatest mosque of fanatical Moslem Damascus. But you have to get up on the housetops before you can read the promise that is written there.

  1. Isaiah 8:4.
  2. According to the most strict Moslem teachers, the commandment of the Prophet (the Koran, sura 5:92, etc.) would prohibit the use of even the carved figures of the chess knights.
  3. The Koran, sura 4:38.
  4. In this effete generation, however, those who have the inclination and the money may take the sacred railway as far as Medina, and for many years the majority of the pilgrims from outside of Syria have traveled by steamer to Jeddah, the seaport of Mecca—under the direction of an English tourist agency!
  5. See further the author's The Real Palestine of To-day, chapter VII.
  6. Acts 9:11. The ancient name has survived, or possibly has been revived, and the thoroughfare is still called Derb el-Mustakîm or "Straight Street." Its more common name, however, is Suk et-Tawîlek, the "Long Bazaar."
  7. II Kings 5:18.
  8. Jesus is frequently mentioned in the Koran as a prophet, though His divinity is denied and the Christian Trinity is misunderstood by Mohammed as consisting of the Father, Son and Virgin Mary. Characteristic passages are: "O Mary! Verily God announces to thee the Word from Him: his name shall be Messiah Jesus the Son of Mary illustrious in this world and in the next, and one of those who have near access to God. And He will teach him the Book, and the Wisdom, and the Law, and the Evangel, and he shall be an apostle to the Children of Israel" (Sura 3:40, 43). But—"It beseemeth not God to beget a son" (Sura 19:36). "God shall say, O Jesus, Son of Mary, hast thou said unto mankind, Take me and my mother as two gods, besides God?" (Sura 5:116). "Jesus is no more than a servant whom We favored" (Sura 43:59).
  9. The Koran, sura 47:4, 9, 13, 37.