Like Saul, I greatly anticipated my arrival to Damascus, an ancient city even in his day. I, however, was not coming to persecute Christians, but to retrace his important life-changing events that would prove to be the most important in Christianity after the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
As Saul approached the city, a light shown from heaven all around him and he fell to the ground. Saul was a Jew from Tarsus (in modern-day Turkey); on a mission to arrest new Christian converts in Damascus. As he lay on the ground blinded and confused, a voice spoke out: “Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me?” It was Jesus speaking to him.
Unable to see, his companions led him into Damascus to the house of Judas where he waited, having nothing to eat or drink for three days.
The Conversion of Saul
Meanwhile, a local disciple Ananias heard God in a vision tell him to go to the street called Straight, and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul.
So Ananias arrived and put his hands on Saul and carried out the Lord’s orders. Immediately scales fell from Saul’s eyes and restored his vision. Saul of Tarsus left the house as a baptized Paul and began proclaiming Jesus as the Son of God.
At the St. Ananias Chapel, a wall of illustrations takes me through these events of Paul’s conversion. The chapel, located deep in the Christian quarter of old Damascus, commemorates his conversion and baptism of Saul.
I follow the stairs down to the original Roman street level where the stone house stood in the time of Christ. The chapel is small with a few pews in front of an altar adorned with more depictions of the miracles. In a side shrine, the visitors before me have stuffed hand written petitions through a metal grate.
Leaving the St. Ananias Chapel, I continue down the narrow lane to the biblical Straight Street and through the Bab Sharqi, or Eastern Gate, around the outside edge of the old city walls to the Shrine of Saint Paul on the walls. This is the place that most accurately marks where Paul escaped out of a window through the ancient gate, Bab Kisan. It lies in the southeastern part of Damascus, which even at that time was populated with Christians, close to the start of the Roman road that led to Jerusalem.
Inside the church, my travel companion, who was once in the seminary, enthusiastically explains the painted scenes that depicted Paul’s activity before, during and after his journey to Damascus. He reiterates just how crucial these places were, not only in Paul’s life, but for the whole of Christianity. If Saul had remained a Jewish rabbi, we wouldn’t have fourteen books of the New Testament.
My friend goes on to explain that after his conversion, Paul went on to preach the word of Christ in the synagogues around town and consequently the Jews quickly conceived a plot to kill him. So they stood guard around the city gates and as described in Acts, “the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket.” We gazed at the replica basket to help us imagine the events better.
Today, the church’s fortress-like appearance appropriately resembles a high city gate, its thick stones, including some originals, represent the barrier between Paul and his freedom, and consequently, the future of Christianity. As Ananias’ original house was destroyed and replaced by a mosque after the Arab conquest, so was the fate of the church which originally commemorated St. Paul’s escape.
The present shrine was finished in 1941 and in 2001 the site was visited by Pope John Paul II on his footsteps of St. Paul pilgrimage. Since 1964, the Melkite-Greek Catholic Church has maintained the site along with its adjacent orphanage and home for the elderly.
After leaving Damascus, Paul returned to Jerusalem before going abroad to become one of the church’s foremost evangelizers. Pope Benedict designated the Pauline year to run from June 28, 2008 to June 29, 2009, commemorating the approximate 2,000th anniversary of the saint’s birth.
We left Damascus in a more stress-free fashion than Paul did, surprised by the Christian presence that still thrives in this heavily Muslim country and by the friendliness and hospitality of both the Syrian Christians and Muslims alike.
If You Go
Damascus, one of the oldest cities in the world, is a magnificent place to visit, chock-full of history. Syria is safe for U.S. citizens to visit and a visa, available only at the Syrian embassy in Washington, DC, is required. If including Syria on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands, remember to visit before traveling on to Israel because an Israeli stamp in your passport will bar your entry to Syria.
Stephen Bugno visited Damascus during a six-month overland journey from Istanbul to Cairo. His articles and essays have appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Seattle Times, and Transitions Abroad magazine. He edits the Gomad Nomad Travel Mag.