A short time after we moved to Damascus last year, we decided to hike to the top of Jabal Qasiyoun, the huge mountain that stands firm on the northern edge of the city. It is ancient, and its weathered rocks, lifeless and rough, bear witness to its age. Only Allah knows how many prophets and ‘awliyaa have walked its surface. There are many maqams (noted burial sites), on it, including that of the Prophet Dhul Kifl (alayhis salaam). It’s not hard to believe, walking through the city of Damascus with all of its ancient buildings, relics, and graves, that Qasiyoun has been a silent witness to much of human history including the ages of the prophets.
We planned on hiking Jabal Qasiyoun with a classmate of ours, a student of Arabic from Norway. He was here fulfilling that ancient European tradition of wandering through the East, his sole intent being to seek out enlightening experiences and interesting characters. He told us about his most recent trip before coming to Syria, of walking through Morocco… literally, walking through Morocco, from one end to the other, with only a backpack, exploring different villages and towns, sleeping on the roadways. You find many students like this here in Syria, Westerners just wanting to absorb something exotic and different, open-minded and reflective.
We began our hike from Shaykh Muhiyudin, the masjid that houses the grave of the famous poet and mystic Ibn ‘Arabi. It’s situated in the heart of Souq Jummah at the bottom of the mountain. We began our trek after Fajr.
Winding through the humble houses built on the mountainside are cement stairs here and there, some a hundred steps, some more, each to help someone make their way up towards homes that are beyond the reach of cars or suzukis. We began our hike up these stairs with a lot of enthusiasm, but after just a short while I was exhausted. Working life in Houston, sitting in front of a computer all day, just hadn’t prepared me for this. Adjusting to life in Syria had been tough so far, in many different ways, including physically.
As I started to lag behind the others and breathe more and more heavily, I began to look at this hike as a metaphor for the struggle that I had just begun in choosing to come here; as a preparation for a new life, of more difficult but more fulfilling and meaningful experiences. I made the resolve in myself to make it to the top. I urged the others to go ahead without me, and kept going at my own pace.
Occasionally we would stop and look back at the city below us, veiled in a mercurial darkness at this time before daylight. Minarets were distinct points of light in the otherwise obscured city; and Jami’ Umawiyy, the large masjid at its center, shone like an ethereal palace in the distance.
Thoughts fluttered through my mind, came and went, as we climbed, and climbed, and climbed. The darkness around us began to melt away as the sky turned a dark gray, then burgundy, and then a dark rosy color.We climbed and climbed some more. We passed through poor neighborhoods built almost vertically on the mountain side, in which many Kurdish and Iraqi families lived. Laundry hung outside window panes and shops were shuttered closed. We passed beyond the houses until it was only the rocks, the steps and us. We kept climbing.
Nearing the top of the mountain, as I reached a point at which I didn’t think I could make it anymore, and stood at the side of the steps gasping like a fish out of water, a small cat strode nonchalantly up to me, sat in front of me, and stared at me pityingly. She climbed a few steps, looked back at me, and then climbed a few more, as if to encourage me to keep going.
I kept going. It was now nearing the time of shuruq and I was still not at the top. I reached the point at which there were no more stairs. I saw my husband and his friend at a point high above me. “The sun is about to rise!” They motioned that I had to go just a bit further. I kept climbing, not caring about my strained legs or the pain in my lungs. I just had to make it.
Finally, I arrived.
These are the types of moments that inspire poets.
My body weary, lungs aching, the air cold and sharp. Reaching a point at which I could stand steadily, turning, and taking in the sight before me: the city of Damascus, spread from horizon to horizon, like a blanket unfolded. The red, red sun making its first appearance, and then slowly ascending the sky.
I just filled my eyes with this vision, trying to soak this moment into my skin, so that I could live it again and again. I could only hang on to one word: it was gorgeous.
Day and night merge and turn, and each and every morning the sun faithfully rises to her accorded place, since the beginning of her creation. How many eyes took in this vision before me, the rising sun and the ancient city of Damascus? I felt connected with a million other souls from history, our blood flowing in the same rhythmic course, our hearts beating in the same cadence. I am a child of a long line of seekers, a successor of those who knew the secret of this world and its Lord.
Subhan’Allah, to the One who teaches us, each moment of our lives a lesson by which to learn; each day the rising sun striking a metaphor for us, of the innumerable opportunities we have to rise from darkness again, and again, no matter how many times we fall.