Religion of Love

A religious lesson at the Mosque of Ibn Al-Arabi in Salhieh, Damascus.

Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) is one of the most famous Muslim philosophers. He was born in southern Spain and lived during the golden era of openness and tolerance in Arab-ruled Andalusia. He spent years traveling around the Arab world before finally settling in Damascus, where he completed his greatest book Al-Futuhat Al-Makkiyyah (Meccan Revelations), which is an encyclopedia of Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and Sufi teachings. He was buried in Damascus; and the Mosque, pictured above, was built in his honor by Ottoman Sultan Selim I in 1516.

Throughout his life, Ibn Arabi preached tolerance among all faiths. In one of his most famous poems, he considers his heart "a center of love":

O Marvel! a garden amidst the flames.
My heart has become capable of every form:
It is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
and a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Kaa'ba,
and the tables of the Torah and the book of the Quran.
I follow the religion of Love:
Whatever way Love's camels take,
that's my religion and my faith.


Founding Father

Rida Said Street leading to the Headquarters of Damascus University.

Rida Said (1876-1945) is one of the founders of Damascus University. He studied medicine in Turkey and served in the Turkish Army during the Balkan War. He was the mayor of Damascus in the hardship days of World War I, during which most schools and colleges in Damascus were closed. After the War, he lobbied for the revival of educational institutes in Damascus, and in 1919 he became the President of the newly established Syrian University, the first state-run university in the Arab World. He kept the position until 1936.

The pink building in the background, to the left of the University Headquarters, is that of the old National Hospital (dating back to 1899). A few years ago, it was renovated and turned into a conference center that also carries the name of Rida Said.


Spring Again?

Shortly after President Bashar Al-Assad assumed power in the year 2000, Syria witnessed a period of relative freedom of expression, during which political forums where opened for an extensive public debate, and a newborn civil society movement started to push for reform and change. What had been known then as the "Damascus Spring" came to an end in early 2002, when the government closed down most forums and arrested many activists.

Now the country is living a similar atmosphere. Everybody is talking about the changes that are expected to take place after the upcoming Regional Congress of the ruling Baath Party in June. In newspapers, on satellite TV channels and on the web, Syrians are participating in a debate about the future of their country. Although the increasing freedom of expression is most clearly noted on the internet, you can also feel it on the street; people who seemed to have no interest in politics now boldly express their views on change and reform.

In Damascus, for the first time in years, there is hope in the air: It will be spring again!

Update (24.5.2005): No. Not yet.

Picture: Barada River at Al-Jisr Al-Abyad


Green Meadows

The old buildings of Damascus International Fair were raised to the ground after the opening of the new Fair Grounds off the Airport Highway. Fortunately, earlier rumors that the old Fair grounds will be invested by the influential businessman R. M. turned out to be false. It seems that the Governorate of Damascus has finally decided to turn the area into a public park, with cafes, restaurants, shops and other tourist facilities. The area will also regain its old historical name: Al-Marj Al-Akhdar (Green Meadows).

Al-Marj Al-Akhdar was a huge green space located outside walled Damascus. It was where the King of Germany camped with a huge Crusader army and besieged Damascus for four days before a failed attempt to capture the city in 1148. It was where Sultan Baybers built Al-Ablaq Palace in 1260. Damascenes used to go there for picnics; and for a period of time, they used to send their ill and dying animanls to spend their last days in a beautiful green environment. In the mid-1950s, the area became the Damascus International Fair Grounds. The Fair was annualy held there till 2003.

Now how long will it take to bring Al-Marj Al-Akhdar back to life again? The nearby 3-year-old mess in Omayyad Square makes everybody pessimistic!



In Damascene tradition, condolences are accepted separately by the men and the women of the family. In the case of the former, the family of the deceased sit in a row near the door to see all those coming and going, and every time a mourner comes in they stand up and welcome him, shaking his hand and then leading him to sit alongside the rest of the mourners, while the sheikh reads from the Quran. Every time a group of mourners comes, another group leaves. Passing the parents on the way out, they shake their heads exclaiming, "May God compensate you for your loss" to which the family members respond "God thank you for what you have done." They must accept condolences on three consecutive evenings.

As for the women relatives, one of them volunteers to get in touch with the closest of the female relatives, calling them to the deceased person's house to stand in the room in which they accept condolences, the 'asriyya. Thus, all the aunts, parents-in-law, nieces, sisters-in-law, daughters-in-law, and all the closest female relatives come to the house as soon as possible. The older women, of course, are the ones who actually stand in the 'asriyya accepting condolences. This act is one of showing how the deceased person stood with the relatives and the respect they owe him. Sometimes about ten women stand in the 'asriyya and at other times maybe even forty-five women, naturally depending on the deceased person's place in the hearts and minds of his friends and relatives.

Adopted from Siham Tergeman: Daughter of Damascus, English version by Andrea Rugh, Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, 1994.


Guided Tour

The Friends of Damascus Society invites you to participate in a guided tour in Al-Salhieh neighborhood on Friday, May 13, 2005. The tour will start from Al-'Afeef Park (near the French Embassy) at 9.30 Friday morning, and will be guided by Architect Luna Rajab, President of the Society's City Protection Committee. The tour is free. Just be there tomorrow morning at 9.30.


Moroccan Battalion

Few people know that official name for Sahat Al-Saba' Bahrat (Seven Fountain Square), a main square in central Damascus, is Al-Tajrida Al-Maghribiyyah (The Moroccan Battalion) Square. A battalion from the Moroccan army was sent to Syria in 1973 to participate in the war against Israel to liberate the occupied Golan Heights. The Moroccans took part in the fiercest battles of the war and lost many soldiers on the slopes of Mount Hermon. In 1974, Al-Saba' Bahrat was renamed in honor of their courageous stand.


May Rain

A foggy, rainy and cold day in May, usually the first month of summer in Syria. Temperatures today reached a low 8°C as thunder rocked the city and heavy rain formed huge ponds in bumpy crumbling streets. This is the weirdest weather I have seen in years.


Happy Easter

Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter today (while Catholics celebrated it on March 27). The difference is due to the use of two methods for calculating the date of Easter. Orthodox churches use the Julian Calendar, while Catholic and Protestant Churches use the Gregorian Calendar. There have been various attempts to reach a common date for Easter. In 1997, a meeting in Aleppo sponsored by the World Council of Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches and attended by various representatives of Eastern and Western Churches, issued what has been known as "The Aleppo Statement" which urged all churches to start celebrating Easter on a common date beginning in 2001. However, the suggestion was never implemented and the issue is still a matter of great concern, especially for Middle Eastern Christians, who believe it should be addressed seriously and urgently.

The picture above shows a new Church in a suburb of Damascus that stands as a wonderful symbol of unity among Syrian Christians. The Church of Saint Paul and Saint Peter in the suburb of Dummar is the first church to serve both Orthodox and Catholic communities. It was inaugurated last February by Beatitude Ignatius IV, Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, and Gregorius III, the Melkite Catholic Patriarch. Will the event inspire church leaders to reach a common date of Easter?