The news and photos coming from Syria might make you think the country is a heap of ruins and refugees. This photo of the transcendent Umayyad Mosque on a cold, rainy January day in 2009 tells us something different, something that I hope survives the current conflict.
The mosque was built in 634, on the site of a basilica dedicated to John the Baptist, whose head is supposed to be enshrined in an alcove. On the north wall is the tomb of Saladin, who led the Arab reconquest of these lands. Some Christians believe that Jesus will return here at the End of Days.
The original shrine on this spot was an Aramaean Temple to Hadad-Ramman, the god of rain and thunder, but only one stone remains, and it is in the national museum (a dismal place, but let us hope it survives unplundered). When the Romans conquered Damascus in 64 CE they synthesized Hadad with Jupiter.
This is the fourth holiest place in Islam, but open to the public. Several of the mosques that I have been in struck me with their extraordinary horizontal spaces, unlike the soaring verticality of Christian churches. At the Umayyad Mosque the interior is a bit cluttered and there are many guides lecturing to groups of pilgrims, but outside in this washed-fresh courtyard I felt ‘the peace of mind that passeth human understanding.”