[ by Charles Cameron — convinced that the architecture of sacred geography is of extraordinary importance, now and always ]
On April 24, the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo’s UNESCO world heritage site was destroyed… with both the rebels and government forces blaming the event on the other. There’s a beautiful post at Syria Deeply about the mosque and its destruction, which is worth reading in full – here I’ll simply excerpt the paragraph which explains the graphic at the head of this post:
It’s very symbolic. People are really devastated. A lot of people changed their picture on social media to show the minaret. Or rather, a broken minaret. It’s part of our identity [in Aleppo.] The BBC got backlash for heavily covering it, because people said, ‘Why are you covering the destruction of a minaret when so many people are dying?’ But there is that sense that it’s part of our identity, and people are mourning it.
and two more, which convey in the poetic words of Amal Hanano, a rich sense of the accompanying tragedy:
The lesson of the minaret: every tyrant will fall and the city remains. History has taught us that the people find a way to pick up the pieces of their city and rebuild. One thousand years from now, these years will be a chapter in history books. The future people of Aleppo will visit this sacred site and will feel the calm and peace once more. The stone will be old again. They will point to the square tower and whisper to their children the tale of this minaret that falls every few centuries when the lesson of tyranny must be taught to a people who had forgotten. Those people of the future are lucky. They will be unaware of the pain of living those years, unaware of the shame of writing this chapter. History is abstract and seamless to them, like it once was for us. It is merely a story they can recite while they trace their fingers over the stone and remember without consequence. I envy them.
We were once like those people, telling tales of barbaric Mongols or tragic fires that had destroyed the Umayyad Mosque, the Great Mosque of Aleppo. Instead we will have to be the ones to pick the pieces this time and find a way to rebuild, to heal and to restore what was erased. Even when the rebuilding is done and the blood has stopped flowing, we will never be able to enter these sites without remembering what was lost. It will never smell timeless again for us. History will never be seamless with our memory again.We know that what we will rebuild is a replacement for something that was once perfect. Something that can never come back and will never be the same. We will be destined to whisper to our children and grandchildren: “Once upon a time, there was a minaret that was 1,000 years old. We loved it and we loved our city. But we had forgotten our history. We had forgotten that the hatred of men destroys all that we love, all that is sacred. And one day we woke up and the minaret was gone.
My thoughts turn now to another Umayyad mosque…
The Umayyad mosque in Damascus is one of the holiest shrines in Islam, including within its precincts the tomb of the great warrior Saladin / Salah al-Din, but also featuring a minaret described in Muslim eschatology as the place where Jesus will return to earth. The hadith, presented by Aaron Zelin in a post on Jabhat al-Nusrah at al-Wasat, says in part:
it would at this very time that Allah would send Jesus, son of Mary, and he will descend at al-Manarah al-Bayda’ (the white lighthouse or minaret) in the eastern side of Damascus wearing two garments lightly dyed with saffron and placing his hands on the wings of two Angels
If my readings are correct, the two most recent imams of the mosque have been (i) Moaz al-Khatib, who was deposed and imprisoned under Assad, and during the Syrian revolution led the National Opposition Coalition until his April 21st resignation, and (ii) Mohamed al-Bouti, the famed scholar who replaced him, who was killed in a suicide attack on another Damascus mosque, the Iman Mosque, on March 21st.
The burial of al-Bouti — who had supported Assad and called the Syrian opposition “scum” — in the Umayyad, close to the tomb of Saladin, is therefore a potentially incendiary move, giving extraordinary high honor to the imam in the aftermath of a revolutionary strike against another mosque in which that same Assad-supporting imam was killed while preaching.
May the Umayyad mosque of Damascus, now a locus of possible contention, avoid the fate of its sister in Aleppo. May the “white lighthouse” minaret be preserved…