If you spend any amount of time around the maHatat Hijaaz (The Hijaz Railway station) and Martyrs Square, as I did, because it is where I lived, you will undoubtedly notice a few things. One is the small number of touts asking you if you want a shaghala (lit. “female worker”, fig. “prostitute”), as this is Damascus’ not-so-secret red light district, where brothels disguised as hotels are frequented by Saudi patrons. The second is the insane number of hotels flying Iranian flags and sporting Farsi names like bustaan or faradoos. In front of these hotels, day and night, you will see buses pulling up, spitting out clouds of smoke, and dropping of loads of hunched over old Iranian ladies in chador (the black outfit they wear) and their husbands. “Why all the Tehran-Damascus express buses?” you may ask. For the answer, you have to go to the southern end of Damascus, beyond the towers of concrete apartment buildings towards the airport, where you will find the Sayyida Zeinab Shrine and the surrounding area.
Most tourists don’t make it out to Sayyida Zeinab, and it’s not on most tour itineraries, which is unfortunate, as it is one of the most religiously powerful places in Syria and the best insight into the emotion of the Shia sect of Islam without heading into Karbala and Najaf in neighboring Iraq. A visit to Sayyida Zeinab will provide you with an injection of spirituality that will leave you thinking the whole night about the world, religion, and just what it means to believe and put all your hope in a higher power. So take the 100SYP (at most) taxi ride out there and take it in.
Likely if you come by taxi, the driver drop you off on the main street that runs through the neighborhood around the mosque, and when you get out, you will be left wondering exactly where the mosque is. The fact is that the mosque is hidden behind layers of shops, markets, and hotels all geared towards Iranian pilgrims. After a bit of looking, you should be able to spy one of the towering blue minarets; if not, just follow the inevitable flood of black sheets flowing towards the entrance. Although, either on the way in or out, you should take some time to explore the surrounding markets, where you will find goods for usually cheaper than in the Old City, as well as some fantastic sweets and Iranian food.
If you haven’t had any experience with a Shia mosque before, then be warned--Sayyida Zeinab will be unlike anything you have ever seen before. The raw emotion that flows through each person in the place will throw you off at first, and I won’t blame you if you feel uncomfortable at first and like you are unwelcome or don’t belong. At first it may seem like the sort of place that shouldn’t be a place for “tourists” or “outsiders,” or that you are some sort of voyeur, but don’t worry. Likely you will find someone who will help you out, take you in, and explain what they can to you. But do remember that this is a place of extreme holiness to Shiites, and every effort should be made for proper decorum.
The mosque is said to hold the remains of Zeinab, the daughter of Ali (the fourth Caliph), who was taken captive by the army of Yazid after the massacre of her brothers Hussein and Hassan at Karbala and Najaf. For Shia, this moment, when the family of Ali was betrayed is the defining and most tragic moment of their history. Thus you will immediately notice that the air around Sayyida Zeinab is not one of quiet veneration, but one of passionate mourning with wailing, singing, crying, and chest beating.
The shrine contains a large courtyard with the shrine in the middle. The modern structure dates from the 1990s, but was built on a pre-existing shrine, and it contains all the typical traits of an Iranian mosque, i.e. extremely ornate with lots of blue tile, gold, and mirrors. The mosque itself is beautiful, but the real reason to come is for the spirituality.
As you walk around the courtyard of the mosque, you will notice trains of men and women marching in circles, chanting in Farsi or Arabic, and beating their chests. Often someone will be videotaping, and there will be one man leading the chant. As they chant and beat their chests, you will see tears stream down their cheeks and the men will have the most pained look on their face. You can see that inside each of their hearts they feel the painful tragedy that Zeinab endured, losing her brothers and being taken captive. In truth, there is no real way to describe it, the passion that overcomes those who have come to venerate Zeinab. All I can really say is that each and everyone of these people acts as if their own son or daughter had just died and this was their funeral, and that is exactly the way the Shia see it. Zeinab is their daughter, and she is gone.
The shrine itself is divided into a section for men and one for women. Check your shoes at the door. The inside space is not very large and always crowded. Having never been inside the women’s section, I can’t tell you what it looks like, but I can tell you what it sounds like, for there is only a thin wooden fence that divides the two sections. The ululating wailing and sobs that pour over the fence from the women’s side are enough evidence of the anguish and mourning that you don’t need to see it.
On the men’s side, men young and old sit around in circles beating their chests, crying and chanting. These are grown men, tough men from a patriarchal culture, on their knees in tears over the tragic death of Zeinab. Could you imagine such accepted emotion in Western culture? Some of the men chose to throw themselves against the tomb, clinging on to the bars that surround it, showering it with kisses. Others grab a piece of rock, rock taken from the ground at Karbala, kneel down, and press their head against it to pray. The Shia always pray like this so that during prayer they are always connected to Karbala and to the interred bodies of Hussein and Hassan.
The emotion may make you feel out of place, but the likelihood is that everyone else is so caught up in their own mourning that nobody will pay attention to you, but if they do, they will always be welcoming. One man stopped me and asked in Arabic, “Where are you from?”
“From the US,” I replied.
“Are you Muslim?” He aksed. I told him that I was Christian, to which he smiled, with a slight tear in his eye, and said,
“Then you know our pain. Christ was betrayed just as Ali, peace be upon him, and his family were.”
I nodded in agreement, but I have been on the Via Della Rosa in Jerusalem for the stations of the cross and never seen emotion like this.