Busra and Bostra, Syria
In Syria: Through Writers' Eyes, edited by Marius Kociejowski
I know a woman who offers up her necklace of stories, a string of ancient stones mixed with worn glass trading beads, to her children. I have watched them finger the different colours and feel the shapes that have come warmed from their mother’s neck, before carefully choosing one bead, which then unleashes its own tale. I have also heard of another story-teller who used to carry an old purse filled with beach-pebbles. She would dip into this and feel her way around before deciding which story, out of her great stock of tales, was to be told. The listeners were forbidden to touch the purse and were seldom trusted with the sight of so much as a single stone. The dramatic nature of these two story-tellers, with their tactile, silent introductions, has never failed to awaken my admiration while the symbolism of two different story-telling traditions allows me to keep my memories of both Busra and Bostra together and apart.
It was under the compulsion of a great story that I found myself travelling to Busra. I have imagined Busra for years, for it is an essential and mysterious part of the life of the Prophet. Muhammad worked on the caravans throughout his manhood. Indeed it appears that a good part of his childhood was spent in an apprenticeship on these routes, criss-crossing their way through the awful wildernesses of ancient Arabia. Muhammad was trained in these duties and skills by his paternal uncle Abu Talib who had sole charge of the boy, for by the age of eight Muhammad had been thrice orphaned. His father Abdullah died before he was born, his mother Amina died before his eyes on the ten-day desert journey from Mecca to Medina when he was but six years old, and then his next of kin, his kindly old grandfather Abdul Muttallib, died just two years later.
It was in the company of his uncle Abu Talib that Muhammad travelled with the trading caravans radiating out from Mecca: to the harbours along the Red Sea, south to the highlands of the Yemen and north up the forty-day road that led to the cities of Syria and the ports of Palestine.
It was on one such Syrian-bound journey that the caravan reached Busra. Here dwelled an ancient Christian monk named Bahira, a great scholar and a recluse, who came out of his hermit’s cell and invited the whole caravan of Meccan merchants to dinner. The cell that Bahira occupied had always remained in the possession of monks who had passed down holy books and knowledge to each other from generation to generation. While meditating in his cell Bahira had experienced a vision of this Meccan caravan in which the forces of nature, from the clouds to a passing thorn tree, had bowed down in honour of the presence of a holy man hidden somewhere amongst the veiled camel-riding merchants.
The men of Mecca were not a little surprised, for they had often passed this way and the old monk had never proved himself the slightest bit friendly before. They asked the old monk, what has happened to you today that you should be so friendly? Bahira replied that, “You are right in what you say, but you are now my guests and I wish to honour you and give you food so that you may eat.” With this gnomic reply, the men of Mecca had to be content, though they were delighted to accept his unexpected hospitality. They corralled the pack animals under a tree, hobbled the riding camels and left the youngest of their number to keep watch over the piles of baggage.
Bahira for his part, greeted each and every one of his guests with great attention, but he could not find anything the least bit inspiring or unusual about this collection of Bedouin traders. Without revealing his disappointment, Bahira asked one of the elders if they had not, by chance, left someone behind. This man of Mecca immediately stood up and chastised himself for his rudeness at leaving young Muhammad behind, and went back to the pile of baggage, embraced the lonely boy and led him to join the circle of men who were happily filling themselves on Bahira’s hospitality. Bahira waited until they had all eaten their fill and then began to carefully question the young Muhammad about his dreams, his daily habits and thoughts. Later, when the opportunity presented itself, Bahira looked at the back of this young man from Mecca and saw a mark between his shoulders, which the old monk knew was the seal of prophecy in the very place that he had seen it described in some old books of his.
When the caravan was about to depart, Bahira took Abu Talib aside and told him to keep a special watch over Muhammad, “for if others see and get to know about him what I know, they will do him evil for a great future lies before this nephew of yours.”
I love this tale for many things; for the way it honours the humble apprentice before all others, for the way it hints at secret prophecies known only to cell-dwelling hermit-monks, for the way it hints that Muhammad learned many things on his journeys across ancient Arabia as a young man, but most especially for the way it places the young Muhammad as a happy guest in the company of a Christian sage. In this tale, the monotheistic faiths of the ancient world seem to touch and acknowledge each other, in the same way that the infant Jesus is recognized by a wise old seer of the Jewish temple who greets him with the words of the Magnificat. It is also a tale set in a very intimate landscape, a place where there is a tree beneath which to pile up the baggage, a monk’s cell known to have been occupied for centuries by learned ascetics and a sense of a wide and visible horizon. For years I had pictured Busra as a tiny oasis, a small watering station on the caravan trail, empty apart from a lone desert-dwelling hermit who watched over his secrets and his small, walled garden shaded by a dozen palm trees. This illusion was helped by the many wonderful variants in the westernised spelling of the Arabic language, and so I had never made the connection between Busra, the intimate little oasis of my imagination and the well-known ruins of Bostra.
Bostra is a brooding, magnificent site. Not beautiful, for the landscape is too flat and the building stone too dark, harsh and volcanic to fit into any of our patterns of antique elegance. It is vast and still partially inhabited by villagers who use its historic mosques while excavations continue to unearth an extraordinary heritage of impressive domestic buildings. The place that summons it all up, in scale and power, is the superbly preserved Roman theatre, wrapped up in a further layer of dense stone – to become a forbidding medieval fortress.
It very soon becomes clear that Bostra was no way-station of the caravan trail but the great central urban metropolis of late-Roman and Byzantine Syria. It was protected by a great circuit of black city walls which abutted a barracks known to have housed an entire legion. Well policed Roman roads run off in every direction from Bostra, towards the other great cities of the region: Damascus, Palmyra, Petra, Gaza, Aqaba and Antioch, for Bostra was the administrative spider in control of a rich and varied province. By the time the young Muhammad passed through the city in the 570s or 580s, Bostra had been ruling the region for five hundred years, the lineal heir to both the Nabatean and Palmyrene cultures of Arabia.
The archbishop of Bostra ruled over a diocese with thirty three junior bishops, not to mention the schismatic representatives of the vigorous Jacobite and Nestorian churches whose missionaries were working amongst nations that had never been ruled by Rome. The domed cathedral of Bostra is one of the lost masterpieces of antiquity, and although it only survives at foundation level, there is enough on the ground with which to build castles in the air. It must have been one of the most impressive and revolutionary buildings of the ancient world, the inspiration for both Justinian’s St Sergius and St Bacchus and the Ayia Sophia in Constantinople, not to mention the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It was raised in 512 and dedicated by Julianos, Archbishop of Bostra, in honour of the Christian martyrs of Arabia: Sergius, Bacchus and Leontius. Its vast high dome was punctured by fifty windows and yet a bigger, older cathedral has just been discovered nearby that connects with a vast administrative courtyard-palace. The longer you stay looking at Bostra the bigger and more architecturally impressive it grows.
The church that the local guides (all equipped with impressive but bogus bunches of keys which they jangle like a curator) like to point out as the Basilica of Bahira is empty of any sign of devotion. I don’t quite know what I was expecting, but I suppose I was at least half hoping for a small domed chamber thrown over a blackened cave dense with the smoke of centuries of devotion – like Saydnaya with its hidden icon of the Virgin - but with a lively inter-faith conference hall attached. The Basilica of Bahira does not flatter any belief system. It is impossible to place a lone scholar hermit in this massive stone barn. If anything this sturdily built hall from the 4th century with its gallery of high windows, is filled with the spirit of centuries of hard fact-finding labours by Bostra’s civic clerks and taxation officials. I looked elsewhere of course, and found places of genuine spirit and delight: archways, underground shaded-shopping vaults, baths complexes, lovely street markets and vast irrigation tanks, austere minarets not to mention the august, columned interior of Omar’s mosque – a noble hall whose doors open both into the world of antiquity and medieval Islam. At dusk, filled with shadows and the call to prayer, the small ancient mosques of al Naka and al Khidr came closest to my hidden expectations for Bostra. But I have to confess that the impressive ruins of Bostra were impossible to square with my understanding of the story of Muhammad and Bahira.
Thinking about my disappointment, I promised to come back later and look again for Bahira’s cave on the far edges of this impressive power-house city of late antiquity. I realised that the dusty caravans from Mecca would never have penetrated the walls of the metropolis. They would have stayed out amongst the stables, orchards and vegetable gardens that were scattered like so many suburbs around the edge of greater Bostra. However I also realised the attraction of the cumulative evidence of the beauty of the city, the well-ordered magnificence of its great avenues and entrance arches, not to mention its skyline of domed cathedrals, its court of clerks to the governor, its staff officers humming around the commander of the legion and the junior bishops bobbing around the archbishop. A simple spiritual tale had been overshadowed by my instinctive delight for the physical evidence of the gorgeousness of late-imperial architecture and my pleasure in the smooth running of a sophisticated Byzantine city.
There are two sorts of history. One history analyses power, and the endless story of its rewards and how it is lost and won. The other story tells the history of human spirituality. They can occupy the same time but will record completely different landscapes. While one records a brilliant city on the edge of the desert, glittering with domed buildings and triumphal arches, the other focuses on the memory of an evening meal, a gift of hospitality and the generosity of an old man blessing a neglected apprentice.
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by Barnaby Rogerson