The huge hole in the centre of Damascus is the courtyard of the Umayyad (Umwiye?) Mosque.
A group of Japanese tourists traipses by – dutifully bound up in their Islam-friendly grey robes with pointy hoods handed out to visitors. Three Arab looking girls, about eighteen years old, sail past their grey gowns flapping open in the breeze to reveal tight jeans and tops and lots of hair and make up.
We’re surrounded by incredible green and gold mosiacs showing trees and rivers and fantastical buildings. Islamic, the guide, says but the style is more Byzantine except no human or animal form is used. That’s forbidden in Islamic art.
Whatever the origin they still impress, which was surely the real point.
The mosque is the Christian basilica turned sideways so the focus is now towards Mecca instead of along the two rows of some twenty columns to where the altar would have been. The Koranic inscription in the dome before the mihrab is along the lines of, “Be what you are and do not try to be otherwise”.
I say it’s similar to something from Shakespeare and the guide says yes but it’s a-thousand years earlier and he has a BA in Eng Lit from Damascus University.