The Crusaders’ forgotten foe

Syria played centre stage during the Crusades

Pastry-seller Amir does not know much about the man who is buried in the scruffy tomb behind him.

“I know who he is, but I don’t know anything about his history,” the old man confesses with a resigned shrug of his shoulders.

The tomb lies inside a 12th Century madrassa hidden deep within the heart of the old Damascus souk. Visitors might just be able to catch a glimpse of the mausoleum if they peer through the metal grille which separates it from the chaotic, covered bazaar outside.

Yet most of the shoppers weaving past do not seem particularly interested in the identity of the man lying just a few yards away from them.

Maybe Amir would have better luck selling his fruit-filled breads if Damascenes polished up on their history.

The Nur ad-Din Madrassa in Damascus

For the man in the tomb is Nur ad-Din – The Light of Religion – the soldier who united Syria’s nobles and established the platform from which the Crusaders were routed from Jerusalem in 1187.

If any Syrian deserved a lasting memorial worthy of his achievements, it is him. Nur ad-Din became an Arab folk hero after destroying the Crusader army of Antioch in 1149 (he added a final flourish to his achievement by dispatching the head of the defeated Prince of Antioch to the caliph of Baghdad).

After the triumph he set his sights on the total defeat of the Western Crusader forces, who had been present in the Holy Land ever since the capture of Jerusalem in 1099 during the First Crusade.

Nur ad-Din was a passionate advocate of Sunni orthodoxy, and central to his agenda was the creation of a network of madrassas, or religious schools, to advance his ideology and suppress the perceived heresy of Shia Islam.

He was also the first man to unite the two most important cities in Syria, Damascus and Aleppo, since the first Crusader invasion – an important first step in the ultimate defeat of the Christian armies of Europe.

But mention his name to many people and expect to be met with a blank stare or weary shrug.

You would have more luck asking about his nephew, Salah ad-Din, or Saladin- a man whose reputation as the chivalrous nemesis of Richard the Lionheart resonates  as much with Arabs as it does with many misty-eyed Westerners.

It is a reputation which has been immortalised in bronze, as visitors to Damascus can see from the enormous statue of him standing outside the western walls of the Old City.

Salah ad-Din’s mausoleum lies only a five minute walk away from his uncle’s, yet draws countless more visitors desperate to acknowledge the world-famous military commander.

Perhaps it is understandable, given that Salah ad-Din, a man originally of Kurdish stock (though the Syrian authorities, ever hostile to the aspirations of Kurdish autonomy, don’t often like to acknowledge this) was the man who seized Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187.

Yet one can’t help but feel a little sorry for Nur ad-Din, without whom his nephew’s achievements might never have happened.

But perhaps it won’t be too long before he is given a burial place more in-keeping with his legacy.

A shopkeeper near Nur ad-Din’s tomb says his mausoleum is currently being renovated – so maybe the time has come for him to finally emerge from his nephew’s shadow.

Cold snaps

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Flight 5908

The world's largest mosque, Al-Masjid al-Harām, at Mecca

It is 11pm at Damascus International Airport, and any casual observer might think Real Madrid were in town.

The crowds are at least 200 strong as the giddy masses await the return of flight 5908.

Every now and then pockets of people hold their hands aloft and clap, as if applauding the encore at a sweat-drenched rock concert, while rippling whoops echo around the building like an American Indian war cry.

For most of those here this moment is bigger than any football clash at Madrid’s Bernabéu stadiumSyria’s hajjis are coming home.

And given that the hajj – a pilgrimage to Mecca required of all Muslims – marks the completion of one of the Five Pillars of Islam, it is no surprise that they are welcomed back by hundreds of family members like a winning World Cup side.

As the passengers from the Saudi Arabian Airlines flight make their way through the throng, cries of “Hajji! Hajji!” fill the air and ecstatic children shower them with boiled sweets.

An old man in a white jalabiya kisses his family while girls prance around him like Maypole dancers, clapping and chanting in delight.

As he falters his way through the crowds a young man tracks his emotional return with a shoulder-mounted video camera. He could just as well be working for Al Jazeera – and this is definitely his scoop of the year.

Another elderly woman, all dressed in black, receives kisses from family members as she is pushed through the bustling crowd. Again the cameras are on-hand; a female relative weeps with joy.

The moment is rudely interrupted as airport workers barge through the crowds to catch a man frantically fleeing man out of the arrivals hall.

An opportunist thief perhaps? It doesn’t matter. The hajjis of Syria don’t want anything to spoil the party.