Seen through the smog, it looks like just another huge gray brown building. But from within, the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus is simply the most awe inspiring religious edifice I have ever seen. As Lonely Planet's guide explains:
Happily, the mosque is a welcoming place, wide open to respectful visitors and allowing photography throughout.
Women with uncovered hair are asked to put on hooded robes (no less comfortable and much lighter than the vestments I wear when serving at the altar at my local Episcopal Church.)
Stepping across the threshold, you are confronted by the grand mosaic façade of the prayer hall opposite.
And you can begin to pick out the details. Such mosaics once covered all the arches and walls of the courtyard, but most of the detail was lost in a fire several centuries ago.
Not that the stone walls and arches don't make an imposing spectacle. The brown-clad figures walking in the center of this picture are women wearing the rental coverings offered to tourists. All visitors remove their shoes.
Parts of the floor decorations are as impressive as the walls.
But the true grandeur of the place becomes evident inside the great prayer hall which extends along one entire length of the building.
The interior is beautifully carpeted, quiet but not solemn, calm, and, above all, feels safe.
Some visitors take advantage of this peaceful place to sleep. One member of our group was quite sick with tourist maladies. While others went off to visit the market, we simply left her asleep inside. Mosque authorities didn't even evict this blonde interloper when it came time for prayers.
Some visitors studied books or prayed.
Others seemed to be enjoying family time together.
I tried lying on my back to take this shot of the great center dome.
Toward one end of the hall sits a strange little green building, the reputed resting place of the head of John the Baptist. The legend goes that during the construction of the mosque on the site, around 700 AD, a casket was found containing only a head. This agreed with the Biblical account of John's execution by Herod Antipas, so the head was reburied and the site is venerated. John is the Prophet Yehia in Muslim tradition.
Would that all religious buildings should be so welcoming.