Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Adventures of St Paul in Damascus: Chapter 3

St Paul and the Street Called Straight

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord."

And the Lord said to him, "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying.  (Acts 9:10-11)
I had done a little research about Damascus before we left home, and had managed to find references to Straight Street (not hard, as it's the main street of Old Damascus), but no references to the house of Judas. 

This is the map we were working from.  The darker coloured street running horizontally across the map is Straight Street, although on this map it has three different names, which confused the issue somewhat.  Also, you need to tilt the map up from the left side to align it with north at the top.  Straight Street really runs more in a north-west to south-east direction.

The street called straight is straighter than the corkscrew, but not as straight as a rainbow. St Luke is careful not to commit himself; he does not say it is the street which is straight, but `the street which is called straight.’ It is the only facetious remark in the Bible, I believe.

(Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, 1869).

Which way did St Paul come in?
Jerusalem is about 220 km south-west of Damascus.  Although some of the places where Paul is said to have experienced his vision are just west of Damascus, there was a Roman road leading to Bab (Gate) Kissan from the south.  This was the gate Paul escaped from on his way out, and this was in the Christian quarter of the city.  If you rotate the map a little clockwise, to align north to the top, this shows Bab Kissan to be at the south (near the picture of the aeroplane on the map) - so that's my guess!

Plan of Old Damascus
In the times of St. Paul, Damascus was a Greco-Roman city built according to a rectangular plan, which can be traced back to the geometer Hippodamos of Miletus (5th century B.C.)  A sturdy wall, with seven or eight gates, surrounded the city.  The two main streets, the Decumanus (also called Via Recta or Straight Street) and the Cardus Maximus, were perpendicular to each other, and crossed the whole city, dividing it into four quarters.  Despite the labyrinth of winding alleyways, most too narrow for a car, many points of the original Roman plan still remain.

Straight Street in St Paul's time
Straight Street in St Paul's time extended in a straight line from Bab Jabyeh on the north east to Bab Sharqi in the south east.  It was 26 metres wide and 1,570 metres long (to be exact), and on both sides there was a line of covered porticos, flanked by shops.  The arch at the intersection of Straight Street and Cardus Maximus would have been there.

Straight Street today
The present road is narrower than the ancient one, and about four metres above its original level.  In its widest places, it is wide enough for two cars to pass, with a narrow place either side (you couldn't really call it a footpath) for brave people to walk, preferably sideways.  At the intersection of Straight Street and what is now called Al Shallah Lane, the monumental arch has been excavated and rebuilt in 1947, by the Syrian Department of Antiquities.

From the Bab Sharqi gate to the monumental arch, the street is called Sharee al Mustaqueem, which is the Arabic word for "straight"', but it is also known as the Suq et-Tawil, which means "the large market"  (although on our map it was called Bab Sharqi Street). The other end of the street is covered by a roof and on our map is called Midhat Pasha Street, as it is the main thoroughfare of the Midhat Pasha Souq, a section of the main Al Hamidiyeh Souq.  That only left a central section on our map that was actually called Via Recta, the Latin name for Straight Street.  Can you see why I was confused?

Pictures of the Street called Straight
Having finally established that the whole street, not just the bit in the middle, was the original Straight Street, I'd like to show some pictures taken in Straight Street, progressing from Bab Sharqi at the eastern end to the Souq Midhat Pasha at the western end, although some of them may be in the wrong order, and some will be repeated from earlier blogs about Damascus.  I was (and still am) completely under the spell of this beautiful city.

Bab Sharqi from the outside.
Bab Sharqi, one of the seven (or eight) ancient city-gates of Damascus, is at the eastern end of the Street Called Straight. It is the only gate to preserve its Roman construction, with a large central arch for horse-drawn vehicles (or cars) and two smaller arches on either side for pedestrians (and bikes). There is a 13th century minaret above the northern arch.

Bab Sharqi from the inside.

Bab Sharqi from a bit further down Straight Street, along with some of the beautiful ancient buildings that line the street.

St Sarkis Armenian Apostolic Church can be seen on your left as you begin to walk down Straight Street from Bab Sharqi.

The Armenian Apostolic Church is the world's oldest National Church and is one of the most ancient Christian communities. Armenia was the first country to adopt Christianity as its official religion in 301 AD. The Armenian Apostolic Church traces its origins to the missions of Apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus in the 1st century.

Al Khair Palace Hotel, Straight Street is 400 years old and was the first hotel for Silk Road caravans entering Damascus.  It then became a carpentry establishment where Muslim, Christian and Jewish families lived and worked.  In 1995, it fell into disrepair, and then reopened in 2005 as a hotel. 
Bikes are an efficient means of transport in Old Damascus.  Helmets are unheard of. 

Straight Street, looking back towards Bab Sharqi.

Via Recta is the Latin name for Straight Street.  This building is receiving a bit of assistance to stay up.

Straight Street Witch's Hats
Where the footpath was too narrow or non-existent, potplants or cardboard cartons were placed in the street to define a place where men (never women) could sit and have a cup of tea, the Damascan equivalent of going to the pub.  They did not seem to be worried that the propped-up buildings might collapse on them.

Fresh basil is assured in this restaurant, on the corner of Straight Street and Al Abbarah Street, which leads down to Bab Kissan, where Paul later made his daring escape over the wall.

Beit Zaman Hotel, on the corner of Straight Street and Bab Touma Street, has been made into a 5 star hotel by combining four 300 year old Damascan houses.

Fragments of Roman columns, around 2,000 years old, remain in their original positions along Straight Street.  These have been made into features in gardens lining the street.

This Roman arch at the intersection of Straight Street and Al Shallah Lane, has been excavated and rebuilt in 1947, by the Syrian Department of Antiquities.

Pat keeps a firm grip on our map.

The Roman arch now provides a handy spot for the locals to chat, or enjoy a cool drink in the shade.

Straight Street Restaurant
We had a seriously splendid lunch here, just across from the Roman Arch.

Stand-alone minaret on Straight Street, seen through the window of the restaurant where we had lunch.

Another Straight Street Restaurant
The Othman Bek is a Via Recta (Straight Street) restaurant where we didn't have lunch.
The outdoor wiring is typical.

Straight Street House
The street might be called Straight, but many of the buildings are not.

Straight Street abandoned building.
Between1995-2005, more than 20,000 people moved out of the old city for more modern accommodation, so that a growing number of buildings are being abandoned or are falling into disrepair. In 2007, the local government announced that it would be demolishing some Old City buildings as part of a redevelopment scheme. These factors resulted in the Old City being placed by the World Monuments Fund on its 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites in the world. It is hoped that its inclusion on the list will draw more public awareness to these significant threats to the future of the historic Old City of Damascus.

Straight Street house in disrepair
I suppose it's easy for us who don't live there to say that these ancient buildings should be kept in good repair.  After all, we're finding it hard enough to save the Brisbane City Hall.

Produce stall, Souq Midhat Pasha Street.
At its western end, Straight Street is called Souq Midhat Pasha Street, as it enters the covered souq.

 Spice stall, Souq Midhat Pasha Street.

The house of Judas in the Street Called Straight.  (This is the exciting bit!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)
The reason I took this picture was to show the cars, pedestrians and goods for sale all jostling for a place on the street.

I hadn't found any references to the house of Judas before we left, or even when we were there.  It was only after we came home that I finally found the following clue:

About 450 metres from the western entrance of Midhat Pasha Street, in a stretch covered with a large metal dome, there is a small mosque with a balcony in the form of a pulpit, which serves as a minaret. The mosque is called Jakmak or Sheikh Nabhan. It is here that the Christian tradition locates the house of Judas, the place where Saul remained for three days without eating or drinking (Acts 9,9). It is probable that here he was baptized at the hands of Ananias. The Christians of Damascus say that the mosque was built over the ruins of a very ancient church that commemorated the episode narrated in the Acts of Apostles.  

Wouldn't you agree that towards the back of the picture, on the left hand side of the street, that is a "balcony in the form of a pulpit"?  And, by memory, it would have been about 450 metres from the western end of Midhat Pasha Street!  (That's my story anyway.)

The house of Judas in the Street Called Straight 
 This is a closer view, also accidentally captured, of the "balcony in the form of a pulpit" which I'm maintaining marks the site of the house of Judas.

Whatever Christian tradition located the house of Judas here, it wasn't very strong on the internet. Obviously, I should have spoken to more Christians of Damascus. In any case, my theory of photographing every inch of Straight Street in the hope of accidentally photographing the site of Judas' house worked! I'm happy now.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Adventures of St Paul in Damascus: Chapter 2

St Paul: The Road to Damascus

"No journey was ever taken on which so much interest is concentrated as that of St Paul from Jerusalem to Damascus. It is so critical a passage in the history of God’s dealings with man ..... that the mind is delighted to dwell upon it, and we are eager to learn or imagine all its details."  (The Life and Epistles of St Paul by W. J. Conybeare and J. S. Howson). 

Can't say I was ever quite as excited as Conybeare and Howson about Paul's journey, but being on the spot certainly evoked a sense of wonder and awe at being in the vicinity of the very place where such a significant event occurred.

Map from: http://www.bu.edu/bridge/archive/2000/02-04/photos/map.jpg

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:1-2)

Paul sets off for Damascus, filled with zeal and purpose. 

This picture is from a series on the life of St Paul that we saw in the House of Ananias, Old Damascus.  They were difficult to photograph because of the angle they were at, and the lighting in the small room.

Paul would have travelled about 220 kilometres from Jerusalem to Damascus, and the journey would have taken his company about six days.  His journey has been dated to around 33 - 36 AD, not long after Jesus' crucifixion.

Statue of Paul having his vision, outside the Chapel of St Paul, Bab Kissan, Old Damascus.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"  (Acts 9:3-4)

Paul parts company with his horse.  Another picture from the House of Ananias, Old Damascus.

"Who are you, Lord?" Saul asked.

"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting," he replied. "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."   (Acts 9:5-6)

Conversion of Saint Paul 1600, by Caravaggio (1571-1610).  Public domain image. 

Paul appears here to be somewhat incompletely and inappropriately dressed for Christian hunting.  I hope his friends were able to cover him up a bit before taking him into Damascus.

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.  (Acts 9:7-9)

Paul’s vision.
Paul's sudden fall, and the fact that he first lay motionless on the ground but was then able to get up unaided, led people very early on to suspect that this dramatic incident might have been caused by a epileptic seizure. In more recent times, this opinion has found support from the fact that sight impediment - including temporary blindness lasting from several hours to several days - has been observed as being a symptom or result of an epileptic seizure. Temporal lobe epilepsy has been suggested, as the temporal lobe is associated with religious feelings. Other hypotheses have included keratitis (an inflammation of the eye that can lead to loss of vision); solar retinopathy (damage caused to the eye after staring at the sun for too long); a migraine headache or being struck by lightning. My good friend Monica had heard he could have had sand blight from galloping along too zealously on the dusty roads.  However, most doctors agree that it's not easy to make an accurate diagnosis for someone who lived nearly two thousand years ago.

Which spot on the road?
Paul's companions were probably unlikely to have prioritised marking the spot, what with Paul having had a nasty tumble and not being able to see. 
Local tradition is not unanimous as to the exact spot of his vision. Some say it was in Daraya, 14 km west of Damascus; some in Merjisafra-Kiswe, 17 km away; others say that it was on Tell Kawkaba, 18 km away, where the Crusaders later built a chapel dedicated to St. Paul; yet others claim it was at el-Tell, which is 700 metres south of Bab Sharqi, the eastern gate of Old Damascus.

I'm sure Pat is pleased I didn't know about these four places before we went to Damascus, otherwise I'd have been dragging him all over the place.....

A road to Damascus moment (or change or experience) has become an idiom in the English language to describe an important point in someone's life where a great change, or reversal, of ideas or beliefs occurs.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Adventures of St Paul in Damascus: Chapter 1

Over the next few blogs, I’d like to tell about St Paul’s association with Damascus, and our detective work in tracking down the places where he had been. This may not be too accurate, as the trail is nearly 2,000 years old.
At this stage, I’ll follow roughly this plan:
1. St Paul: Baddie to Goodie
2. St Paul: The Road to Damascus
3. St Paul and the Street Called Straight
4. St Paul and St Ananais
5. St Paul’s Adventure in a Basket
So here we go:
1. St Paul: Baddie to Goodie
Have you noticed that God seems to have a habit of asking the most unlikely people to do his greatest works, and then makes life very difficult for them?
Let’s start with the Old (or as former BCT lecturer Elaine Wainwright would say), First Testament. Abraham was 90 when God asked him to pack up everything and go off to Canaan to found the Jewish nation. He was 100 when he and his wife Sarah (90) had their first little Jew Isaac, who almost didn’t make it as God asked Abraham to sacrifice him, just giving him a reprieve at the last minute.

In the nick of time, an angel arrives and tells Abraham he doesn’t need to sacrifice his son Jacob, but can sacrifice instead the unfortunate ram caught by his horns in a nearby thicket.
Picture: http://www.menorah.org/abraham&.jpg

Isaac’s son Jacob cheated his older brother Esau out of his birthright, yet Jacob’s 12 sons gave their names to the 12 tribes of Israel (but not before Jacob had to endure various trials such as wrestling with an angel.)

Picture:  http://www.jamescordovaarts.com/2004/jacob_angel.html

Jacob’s youngest (and hence most insignificant, in those days) son Joseph (of amazing technicolour dreamcoat fame) was hated by his brothers, left in a pit to be devoured by wild animals, sold as a slave and then falsely imprisoned for two years for seducing Potiphar’s wife, when it was actually the other way round.

Picture: http://www.maryofvernon.org/smv/prod/files/images/Joseph_Coat.jpg

David, to whom the book of Psalms is traditionally ascribed, was another youngest son, who had to be called in from the fields where he was looking after the sheep, to be anointed by Samuel as king of Israel. When he was king, he saw Bathsheba bathing on the roof (rather unwisely) and arranged for her husband Uriah to be killed in battle so he could have her for himself.
David and Bathsheba Lucas Cranach, 1534
I imagine David is the lecherous one with the harp.  I’m glad to see Bathsheba is sensibly wearing a hat for her bath.
Picture:  http://www.arts-info.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/david-and-bathsheba-by-lucas-cranach-1534.jpg

Jonah tried to run away when God called him to be a prophet, but was thrown into the sea and swallowed by a large fish.

Jonah picture 1:  http://www.gardenofpraise.com/images/jon.jpg
Jonah picture 2:  http://www.halfthedeck.com/images/Jonah%20And%20The%20Whale.gif

Let’s look at the New (Second) Testament.
John the Baptist, who foretold Jesus’ ministry, was distinctly unorthodox in his choice of dwelling, diet and dress (the wilderness, locusts and wild honey, and a camel hair tunic, respectively).
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This is where we were told John the Baptist spent much of his early life, near where the Jordan flows into the Dead Sea.  Locusts and wild bees would have had a hard time finding something to eat there, let alone a fully grown John the Baptist.

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John the Baptist was eventually imprisoned by Herod for expressing his opinion about Herod’s marriage to Herodias, his late brother’s wife, and then of course ended his earthly days with his head on a platter.  His said head is considered to be resting in this shrine to him in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus.  Pat looks somewhat bemused.

Mary, chosen for the enormous responsibility to be the mother of Jesus, was a simple, very young, peasant girl, who had to deal with the stigma of being pregnant before her marriage to Joseph, and then saw her son die in the most appalling circumstances.
Picture:  http://www.cartoonstock.com/newscartoons/cartoonists/cgo/lowres/cgon63l.jpg

Peter (I’ve always liked Peter) was a passionate, hot-headed simple fisherman. When he saw Jesus walking on the water during a storm, he leapt out of the boat to meet him, and nearly came to grief. When Jesus was washing his disciples’ feet, at first Peter refused that Jesus should perform such a menial task for him, but when Jesus explained the significance of this action, Peter impulsively asked for his head and hands to be washed as well. The Gospel of John claims that it was Peter who cut off the ear of a servant of the high priest who came to arrest Jesus, but then Peter denied Jesus three times when Jesus really needed a friend. Even so, it was to Peter that Jesus entrusted his earthly Church. After a life of preaching the Gospel, Peter was imprisoned and, according to tradition, crucified upside down, at his own request, not considering himself worthy to die in the same way as Jesus.

Jesus gives Peter a lesson on walking on water.
Picture:  http://www.wga.hu/frames-e.html?/html/b/borrassa/st_peter.html

Now we come to Paul. To be honest, I’ve always found Paul a bit hard to like, even after his conversion. Paul was a Jew who had Roman citizenship, born in the late 1st century BC or early in the 1st century AD. He was involved in the persecution of the early Christians in Jerusalem (they weren’t called that then) and during the stoning of the Christian martyr Stephen later recounts “I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” (Acts 22:20) He spent his days “entering house after house; dragging off both men and women” (Acts 8:3) and committing them to prison. He had done such a thorough job in Jerusalem rounding up the followers of Jesus that he asked permission from the high priest to go to Damascus and continue his activity there.

Paul (or Saul as he was called pre-conversion) is the sanctimonious one holding the clothes.
Picture:  http://www.beloit.edu/nuremberg/book/images/New%20Testament/big/Stoning%20of%20St.%20Stephen%20CIIIv.jpg
Of course, on the road to Damascus, he experienced his vision and blindness, was healed by Ananais in Damascus, and then went on to preach the gospel, and write the first books of the New Testament. Although the New Testament begins with the Gospels of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, followed by the Acts of the Apostles, the letters of St Paul, considered to have been written in A.D.50-62, actually predate these. Paul’s writings have continued to have an enormous influence on Christian thinking to the present day.
After many years of travelling, preaching and writing, Paul was imprisoned in Rome and reported to have been beheaded under Nero in either A.D. 64 or 67.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Damascus: Nawfara coffee shop to Bab Touma

After a heart-stoping coffee at the Nawfara coffee shop, we navigate ourselves to Bab (Gate) Touma, using Elias’ map.  Most of the “streets” are wide enough for pedestrians only.

Damascus alley_1

Vines grow from one side of the alley to the other.


Damascus Alley_2

Buildings almost meet overhead.


Buy me

Buy me! Buy me!


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Pat clutches the map, and presses on.


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Enticing doorways.


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Riotous colour.


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Pat presses on.


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Another beckoning doorway.


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Enough to start a shisha shop in Boondall.


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The colours and textures amaze me.  I am in a dream.


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“Are you coming?”  I’m in trouble again.


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Looking up.


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“What are you doing?”  (Taking pictures).



Vines across the alley way.


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How old are some of these buildings?


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I can’t believe these alley ways (pity about the wiring though).


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Another restaurant beckons.


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Another seductive doorway.


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Looking down, looking up.  Yes, they could be eucalypts.  We saw quite a few in this part of the world.


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At last (probably through the efforts of our trusty map reader), we arrived at Bab Touma, the Gate of Thomas.  Named after the last of the Byzantine defenders of Damascus, the Gate of Thomas marks the entrance (or exit) to the Christian Quarter of the Old City.

Note that here, only the gate remains – none of the walls.