When Americans hear about the death and destruction in Syria, most probably don’t worry about the possible impact on Christian historical sites. They should. The city of Damascus includes preserved locations dating from the earliest days of Christianity.
According the Book of Acts, Paul was on his way to Damascus to round up followers of Jesus when he was blinded and fell from his horse. Paul was led to a house on Straight Street in Damascus, where he was baptized by a follower of Jesus named Ananias. His vision was immediately restored, enabling Paul to make the missionary journeys that eventually spread Christianity throughout the Roman Empire.
Damascus is the capital of modern Syria, with a population of nearly two million. Straight Street today is a major commercial avenue, its beginning marked by an ancient gate. A large statue along Straight Street memorializes Paul’s fall from his horse and an underground chapel along Straight Street is believed to be the house, originally at street level, where Paul was baptized. Along the chapel’s wall are pictures telling Paul’s story, one showing him being lifted in a basket through the city wall to evade people trying to kill him. A well-preserved wall along Straight Street is said to be where that event occurred.
The Great Mosque of Damascus honors the Christian history of the city. The tallest of its three minarets is officially called the “Jesus Minaret” and the mosque itself contains a shrine holding what is claimed to be the severed head of John the Baptist.
The areas near Straight Street are inhabited by large numbers of Christians. A sign on the historic gate opening onto Straight Street reveals an important Greek Orthodox Church just inside. Many Syrian Christians support the current Syrian regime because they fear the opposition could eliminate the religious freedom they enjoy in what is officially a secularist country.
Now is not the time to go to Damascus, but we can all hope that when the fighting is over its connection to Christian history and the religious freedom of its citizens will have been preserved.