Syria has been in the news for almost a year now and the news has not been good. The Red Cross has declared that the conflict between the government of Bashar al-Assad and the opposition now amounts to a civil war. Although caught up in a violent struggle for its future, Syria is nonetheless one of the oldest and most interesting cultures in the Middle East, if not the world.
Here are five interesting facts about this country that has very deep religious roots:
1- Aleppo, Arabic Halab, is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and the largest city in Syria. Excavations show that there was a village on the site already 6,000 years before Christ. For over 5,000 years, the city has been at the crossroads for trade between Europe, the Middle East and Asia. For many centuries it was the beginning of the Silk Road to China.
2- The Hebrew Bible never mentions the word Syria, which is a Greek word, but always refers to the area as Aram. Aramaic, which is perhaps the language spoken by Jesus and which has developed into several dialects, received its name from this part of the world. There are Christian villages in Syria where the people still speak a modern form of Aramaic.
3- In the Acts of the Apostles 9:10-11 Ananias is instructed in a vision to go to meet Paul at the house of a disciple named Judas who lived on Straight Street. Although most of the streets in the old city of Damascus are not marked, the author was able to find Straight Street, which is a rather long and, yes, unusually straight street that still exists in the old city of Damascus.
4- The Umayyad Mosque. The Romans constructed a huge temple to Jupiter over a much older Semitic temple. In 391, the Roman Temple of Jupiter was converted into a Christian cathedral, which was ultimately dedicated to St. John the Baptist. According to pious legend, which is continued by Muslims, the head of John was preserved in the cathedral and is still in the present mosque. In 635, the Muslim armies conquered Damascus and from 635 until 706 both Christians and Muslims shared the building for worship. Beginning in 706 the cathedral was demolished and the present mosque was built. One of the minarets is called sayyiduna ‘Issa, “Our Lord Jesus.” Some Muslims believe that at the end of the world Jesus will return to the mosque in Damascus.