Pilgrims and Passion Plays

Damascus, Syria

Wow. What a day. With our fairly early start, we had a nice brisk walk down mostly empty streets to the Ummayad Mosque (once a cathedral). We donned our culturally appropriate cheap polyester robes, and I my hijab (photos forthcoming), and first saw the tomb of Saladin al-Ayyubi, the great noble opponent of King Richard in the Crusades, who eventually united his Kurdish people and the Arabs to their southeast to retake Jerusalem and most of the rest of the Holy Land from the Europeans.

Then we rounded the corner and rejoined a crush of what, judging by the women’s abayas and chadors, were several tour groups of Shi’ites. It took a while to figure out what they were doing in Syria, a predominantly Sunni country … until I read on the tickets that Hussein bin Ali bin Muhammad‘s head is supposedly enshrined in the Ummayad Mosque. (There are actually three possible locations for Hussein’s head, but this is the most likely, since Yazid bin Mu’awiya lived in Damascus, and he ordered the army against Hussein that took his head.)

Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, and it is one of the formative moments of Shi’ite Islam when the Caliph in Damascus sends his son Yazin to kill Hussein, whom Shi’ites supported as their rightful Imam and Caliph. When Hussein sent to his supporters in Kufa, they failed to come to his aid in Karabala, and a central theme of Shi’ism is atoning for the failure to protect their God-given leader and his entourage, mostly women and children.

So, intrigued, we followed these Shi’ite tour groups and their mullahs through the mosques, and sat for some time to watch one mullah’s abbreviated recitation of Hussein’s martyrdom at Karbala and the mourning of Zainab his daughter … or at least I think so; it was all in Persian. In any case, the intersting part is watching the weeping and wailing and mourning in religious trance, much like what you would see in an evangelical Christian Passion Play.

Then we followed them into the shrine of Hussein’s head, and saw them mourning again, including one middle-aged man leaning against the wall and flat-out sobbing so that his whole body shook. It was a very deeply moving experience for me, how these people can feel such a profound personal connection to a 1,300 year old story. And of course evangelicals are known to react similarly to the Passion of Christ, and Jews at the Wailing Wall, but in some inexplicable way, this just felt so much more legitimate….

And then, to top it all off, we went shopping. Oh, did we go shopping! Scarves, scarves, scarves! and jewelry and inlaid boxes and shoes (including some really fun ones for the little girls in the village)! I’m almost ready for Christmas already!

P.S. Apparently, there are quite a few sacred places for Shi’ites in Syria … going all the way back to the hill where Cain killed Abel! Find out about them here.


  1. Hi Maryah,Zaynab, Imam Hussein’s sister and the daughter of Imam ‘Ali, is entombed (as tradition goes) in a beautiful shrine on the outskirts of Damascus. Hussein’s head was (again, tradition) taken to the court of Yazid, which was in the Umayyad Mosque. It was laid to rest in the shrine that’s still inside today. From what I understand from a mentor of mine from Mason who specializes in the Fatimids, according to Fatimid sources, when they were losing ground in Bilad al-Sham (historical Syria, I mean) to the Crusaders, they brought the remains of Hussein and Zaynab to their capital city of Cairo. There’s a shrine, Masjid al-Husseini, near al-Azhar where his head is supposedly interred. Similarly, there’s a major shrine to Zaynab. Imami Shi’is, of course, hold that Hussein’s body was interred at Karbala and that his head was eventually brought back there as well. Zaynab is believed to be buried in Damascus. Best,CHRIS


  2. Thanks very much, Chris! I was counting on you to get my facts straight! We did notice the shrine of Zaynab in the guide book as well, now that you mention it, but Megan immediately suggested that we give it a wide berth. She and I both have that former/future State Dept employee aversion to potentially controversial and potentially high risk areas like Shi’ite gathering places. Had we known about the shrine of Hussein’s head in advance, we might have given in a wider berth, too!


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