I’ve Been On The Road To Damascus

No, not actually.

Damascus is a very dangerous location these days. But figuratively, yes. So much has been revealed. My mind is ablaze. What follows may seem at first like a religious rant. I assure you, it is anything but.

Damascus has been a major Middle East city for over 8,000 years, and archaeological evidence of settlement in the area dates back 11,000 years. Imagine the learning buried beneath its walls and in its ruins. The history to which it has borne witness.

It is not only a Saul of Tarsus-type voyage, revelation and conversion I have been on. Lawrence arrived in Damascus, too, on October 1st, 1918, the Great War only 49 days from its merciful end. A very different man than when he was first posted to the Arab revolt.

I have always loved the story of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a story of clashing civilizations and cultures … Arab, British, Turkish, waning empires, the call of family and tribe, the role of duty, rugged individualism, unthinkable victory, and devastating false hopes.

And how what happens today has a long delayed and unknown aftermath. We are all an imperfect, badly flawed replica of our history.

Just before he left Damascus 4 days after its surrender, Lawrence wrote:

‘I was sitting alone in my room working and thinking out as firm a way as the turbulent memories of the day allowed, when the muezzins began to send their call of last prayer through the moist night over the illuminations of the feasting city. One, with a ringing voice of special sweetness, cried into my window from a nearby mosque. I found myself involuntarily distinguishing his words: “God alone is great: I testify that there are no gods but God: and Mohammed is his Prophet. Come to prayer: come to security. God alone is great: there is no god but God.” At the close he dropped his voice two tones, almost to speaking level and softly added: “And He is very good to us this day, O people of Damascus.” The clamour hushed, as everyone seemed to obey the call to prayer on this their first night of perfect freedom.’  T.E. Lawrence Seven Pillars of Wisdom

I wish I had perfect freedom. I do not. But I have always felt that knowledge, while not full, perfect freedom, is certainly liberating. I feel more liberated.

The Guardian published this at the time, about the capture of Damascus by the Arab armies:

Arab horsemen from distant Hejaz today galloped in triumph through the streets of Damascus. As the sun was rising over the mosques and spires, Major TE Lawrence, the young British officer whose tactical guidance has ensured the success of the Arab revolt, drove through the lines in an armoured car. One Arab rider waved his head-dress and shouted, “Damascus salutes you”.

Led by Emir Feisal, son of Sherif Hussein, now to be King of Syria, and his British friend Lawrence, who had fought the Turks all the way from Arabia, the Arabs were first into the capital.

At about the same time that they arrived, the first patrols of the Australian Mounted Division of General Allenby’s army also converged on the great city, having fought their way from Egypt to Gaza, captured Jerusalem, and freed Palestine from Ottoman rule before finally entering Damascus.

The capture of the most famous city in the Arab world was an event filled with high emotion for Major Lawrence and for Feisal, the Arab prince who had led tribesmen on their long fighting, camel march from the barren wastes of Arabia. Multitudes of Syrians thronged the streets to celebrate liberation from the Ottoman Empire. The only Turkish soldiers remaining in Damascus today are the wounded, crammed in hospitals and abandoned by their doctors.

There is a serious danger that law and order may break down in a place packed an excitable mixture of desert and city Arabs. Notables who until the last minute worked with the Turks now proclaim their loyalty to the Allies. Already there are reports that some have been shot. General Allenby’s first task will be to install a military government to keep order and restore the city’s public services.

Conforming to arrangements agreed with Britain, the French will take control of Syria. General Allenby’s army is preparing to move east to link up with French forces whose task is now to take the port of Beirut in Lebanon.

In that dispatch can be seen the seeds already sown but yet to surface of treachery, promises unfulfilled, and dreams and hopes dashed. Another legacy from Damascus.

Will I fill you in on what I learn if and when I get to Damascus? It is possible. Then again, maybe not. Like most things in life, it all depends.

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