A Mosque Too Far: Rusafa On The Barbarian Plain

The first time I saw the image I did not realize that it would significantly change the way I looked at the world around me.

It was a drawing of an 8th century shrine to a Christian saint somewhere deep in the Syrian steppe, then known by the Greek speaking world as ‘The Barbarian Plain’.

That was the name given to the region between the frontiers of the Roman empire and Sasanian Iran.  The shrine was in the city of Rusafa that lay near center of the vast plain Syriac-Mesopotamian plain. And it was dedicated to the cult of St. Sergius who legend had it was martyred in Rusafa when he refused to renounce his faith.

On first examination the drawing suggests nothing remarkable.  But on closer examination, it reveals something fascinating – that the shrine to St. Sergius was connected directly to a mosque! On even closer examination, one sees that the entrance to the basilica of the shrine was through the mosque itself!

I studied at an Irish Catholic High School – St. Patricks High School, in Karachi, Pakistan.  I spent 8 years in close proximity to Karachi’s Christian community, but I never had a Christian as a friend, and I never stepped inside a Church.  The closest I ever got to a Christian institution was when I would wait outside the St. Joseph’s Convent girl’s school to pick up my younger sister, and of course, to check out the girls!

These were two different worlds that were never to cross each other.  The Christians lived alongside, but apart, and there was little or no curiosity at least amongst the dominant Muslim community to know or understand who they were.  As Muslims, we had nothing in common with them.

The first time I stepped into a Church was at college with a girlfriend of mine -  lovely, soft spoken girl from Bartlesville, Oklahoma, who took me to a Mass of the Vigil on Christmas eve.  It was a beautifully clear New York city evening, but I remember it most for being in the company of this beautiful woman and that it was the first time I heard a Bach choral piece.

The Umayyad Caliph Hisham was a cultivated man and supreme in a dynasty characterized by its synthesis of regional traditions; architectural, artistic, political, economic and most strikingly, religious.  The shrine to St. Sergius that Hisham inherited after the defeat of the Gassanids (Rome’s Arab allies in the region) at Yarmuk, was extended by him to include the magnificent mosque in such a way that the shrine itself would not be harmed.

We have to remember that the Umayyads were the second of the four caliphates established after the death of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and direct descendants of the family of the Prophet himself.

That is, they were Muslims of impeccable pedigree.

And of an incredible cultural, artistic and creative sophistication. It is the Umayyads who arrive in Spain in the 8th century and set the stage for perhaps one of the greatest empires in Europe under the reign of Abd al-Rahman I, who happened to be the grandson of Hisham and in fact had spent time in Rusafa.  See Menocal’s ‘Ornament of the World’ or a more recent work by David Lewis, ‘God’s Crucible’.

Hisham’s contribution to Rusafa was the construction of the mosque adjacent to the shrine to St. Sergius and incorporating the church’s courtyard. As a result the worshipers had to walk through the mosque to enter the courtyard and then the shrine itself. That is, this most Islamic of dynasties welcomed non-Muslims to move about inside the mosque on their way to their saint’s shrine! The center courtyard was used by both communities as a shared social space.

In fact, it is documented fact that the Muslims of the region venerated St. Sergius and frequented the shrine itself.  There is a belief that Hisham himself may have been a devotee who saw no contradictions between his being the leader of the then Islamic world and devotion to this Saint who gave his life for his beliefs.

The fundamentalists imagine a past that never existed.  They depict it as a time purified and erased of ‘the other’, where life is lived within the absolute bounds of a scriptural script that is cleansed of all human frailty, creativity, randomness and discovery.  A past erased of its humanity.

But the past reveals when examined closely far greater complexity, flexibility, accommodation, openness and synthesis than they are prepared to admit.  Hisham’s synthesis of the shrine of this Christian saint into his mosque is a reflection of the dynasty’s commitment to cohabitation without usurpation.

And it is a reflection of a fundamental attitude and outlook on life that underpins the intellectual, architectural, creative and political sophistication of that dynasty and its ancestors.  It is the attitude that achieved the remarkable life of Islamic Cordoba in Spain and helped create an atmosphere where ideas, science, literature, philosophy and politics could flourish.  A tolerant, pluralist attitude that accepted ‘the other’, that recognized the diversity of life and belief, and that choose to accommodate and tolerate rather than destroy and dominate.

The past the fundamentalists seek never existed, and could never be tolerated by them either.

And should anyone think that all this was simply twelve hundred years ago, they should turn their attention to modern day Syria and the city of Ma`lula where both Muslims and Christians reside and where there still remains a Church to St. Sergius.  Pilgrims from both faiths are often seen at the monastery of the third Saint of the city, St. Thecla.  The city of Ma`lula remains one of the finest existing examples of the overlapping of Christian and Muslim practice.

William Dalrymple has written extensively about Muslim-Christian syncretic practices in the Levant in his work From The Holy Mountain’ and in various essays over the years.  You can also see his articles on this subject – one about the Monastery of Seidnaya in Syria, another about St. Anthony’s Monastery in Southern Egypt.  There is even Colin Thubron’s ‘The Hills of Adonis’ a book of travel writings from his walks across Lebanon before the destruction of the country because of war.  Thubron traveled there at a time when the syncretic Muslim-Christian traditions were still alive and could be witnessed.

My most recent experience in a church was in a village of landless peasants in Okara, Pakistan.  A movement of the landless has been fighting against the Pakistan Army’s corporate professionals and local feudal landlords who wish to evict them from lands they and their ancestors have lived and worked on for over 100 years.  Nearly 40% of these peasants are Christians and this struggle had erased religious barriers and both communities were fighting for rights and issues larger than sectarian purities.

On a cold November morning as mist gathered over a small church in one of the villages, I was invited to attend a mass baptism ceremony.  When I quietly walked out of the church because the interior was too dark, the priest stopped the proceedings and moved them outside where I could make better pictures.  A small act of generosity by him and his congregation for an individual they saw first as a man there to represent their struggle and never as someone outside their faith.

The only church I today want to visit is the one in Rusafa – the Church of St. Sergius and the mosque that abuts it.  It is only ruins today; damaged by earthquakes, ravaged by time and neglected once Rusafa lost its importance and the Islamic Caliphat moved from Damascus to Baghdad.

A pilgrimage is a penance; for wrongs committed and forgiveness sought, or for luxuries received but felt unjustified. For me, the trip to Rusafa is a pilgrimage, because there an idea was created that twelve hundred years became a gift that has helped me see the world anew and clearer.  A world where possibilities and communities he had never imagined existed and can do so again in the future.  It is a luxury of insight I am unworthy of.

The Syrians have refused me access to their country.  For the moment it is a mosque too far.  And perhaps in this world of growing sectarian nationalisms and bizarre, infantile interpretations of religious philosophies, the world that the mosque/shrine complex at Rusafa represented is just a place too far as well.

Further Reading

Fowden, Elizabeth Key, ‘The Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius Between Rome & Iran, University of California Press

Lewis, David L., ‘Gods Crucible: Islam & The Making of Europe, 570-1215, University of Pennsylvania Press

Menocal, Maria Rosa, ‘Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews & Christians Created A Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain, Little, Brown & Company

Dalrymple, William, From The Holy Mountain’, Flamingo Press

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