In Damascus, Religions, Cultures and Worlds Collide

ByABC News via logo

Feb. 5, 2007 — -- Before New York, London and Hong Kong, there was Damascus.

The Syrian capital is the original crossroads of commerce, culture and tolerance for every religion. It's a land where modern sites and sounds meld with ancient roots, and important religious sites dot the landscape.

In Damascus, religions that are so often in conflict -- Christianity, Islam and Judaism -- live in harmony. Some women walk into Armani bareheaded, while others wear the scarf known as the hijab. Muslims pray side by side with Christians, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Catholics and Jews.

For Christians around the world, the road to Damascus is a symbol of transformation. According to the Bible, Damascus is where Paul, a tent maker who hated the Christians, was blinded by a light from heaven until his baptism in the Barada river. After the scales fell from his eyes, he became the architect of the modern church.

A tiny shrine in Damascus holds a casket that supposedly contains the head of John the Baptist. It is surrounded by one of the great wonders of the Muslim world -- the Grand Mosque of Damascus, also known as the Umayyad Mosque.

Syrians say one prayer in the mosque is worth 30,000 anywhere else in the world. Its pillars are purported to be from the Queen of Sheba, and it holds other ancient wonders as well.

"Over there, the biggest and oldest mosaic in this place goes back to the eighth century AD," tour guide Marwan Haddad told ABC's Diane Sawyer. "This is representing Damascus 100 years ago."

Ancient languages have a home in Syria as well. Maaloula, Syria, is the only place on Earth where the ancient language Aramaic is still spoken. It is a language that is not taught in school, but passed down from parent to child. Bassam Borkil, 26, told Sawyer that like the color of his skin, Aramaic was born with him.

The scenic village of Maaloula also boasts healing waters that both Christians and Muslims seek out. Legend has it, the water runs for the sick and faithful.

Back in Damascus, a healing power familiar to many Americans reigns. Two crowded shops in downtown Damascus hawk secret treasure wrapped in pretty paper -- chocolate.

A factory from a more than 200-year-old Syrian food empire makes some of the most popular treats in Europe. Bassam Ghraoui's factory churns out cocoa so rare and fine that it has beaten out European competitors -- including the Swiss and the Belgians -- to win awards. Soon, it will arrive in the United States.

Chocolate mingles with old-world pleasures in the streets of Damascus. The smells of cardamom and apricots waft over pedestrians as they did 2,000 years ago. In the city, pomegranate juice is a centuries-old staple, not a trend.

Mark Twain recognized the city's power to transcend time decades ago.

"Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives," he wrote in "The Innocents Abroad." "Though another claims the name, old Damascus is by right, the Eternal City."

By all accounts, his statement reigns true today.

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