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26 December 2011

Damascus: House of Ananias

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Bab Touma

Franciscan convent
- Deir el-Kabir
- Bab Touma - Damascus
- Syria

Telephon: +963. 11 544.46.70
- Fax: +963. 11 473.703.91

Chapel of Saint Ananias
- Telephon: +963. 11 544.46.97

Sanctuary Visiting Hours

9.00 am to 7.00 pm

The Christian tradition

The first bishop of Damascus is a biblical figure still venerated as a prominent Christian leader of the apostolic age. The book of the Acts of the Apostles (9, 1-26; 22, 4-16) presents Ananias as a citizen of Damascus, of Jewish stock. Probably Ananias was already exercising the priesthood, or even the episcopacy at the of St. Paul’s conversion, because it was to him that the lord appeared and gave order to go and meet Saul in the house of Judas, in the street called Straight, still known as such. Ananias, as we read in the Acts (9,17) healed Saul’s blindness with a blessing (imposition of hands), baptized him and prophesied his apostolate to all people (Act. 22,41) St. Ananias was therefore the providential instrument of god to return Saul from persecuting the Christians, to receive him into the church and to announce his future mission.

Oriental tradition, according to the Greek menology, confirmed by the bollandists, tells us that Ananias was one of the “seventy-two” disciples chosen by Jesus (Luke 10.1) and that following the stoning to death of the deacon St. Stephan, Ananias returned to his home-city Damascus, where later he became the city’s first bishop. It is also traditionally asserted that Ananias, while on missionary work in Syria, was arrested at the order of governor Licinius and later sentenced to death for being the head of the local Christians. The bollandists say he was stoned to death outside the walls of Damascus, October 1st.

The Site

Has been continuously venerated at the east side of the old city of Damascus, about midway between the two city gates of Bab-Tuma and Bab-Sharqi. From time immemorial it was converted into a church, known through out the ages as the Holy Cross Church. We do not know when the “house” was changed into a church, but from the Byzantine tradition we know it happened before the Moslem conquest A.D. 636.

The scholarly magazine Syria, V (1924), 205, refers that the French count Eustace Delorey, a member of the archaeological mission in Syria, started digging in 1912 at a site called (Hannaniah) not far from the gate esh-Sharqi, next to the underground chapel rebuilt by the Franciscan Holy Land Custody. Count de Lorey claimed he had discovered the remains of a roman –Byzantine apse pertaining to the ancient church of the Holy Cross, called, Musallabah by local people. It was one of the churches that Walid I, the 6th. Omayyad Caliph, gave back to the Christians in exchange for the big Omayyad mosque, which at the same time was St. John’s basilica. De Lorey’s conscientious digging revealed that the roman –Byzantine Holy Cross Church was built over the remnants of a roman temple. In fact one of Lorey’s finding was a marble slab with the inscription: “to the heavenly god of Damascus”. Another was a pagan alter with a “hump-backed bull under an axe”. The same magazine, in VI (1925) 356, claims the alter dates from the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. The fact that a century after Ananias there was a roman place of worship on the site of this house does not invalidate the later Moslem-Christian tradition. From the roman historians we learn that the kind of desecration was often done on purpose to obliterate Christian worship.

Thus the emperor Hadrian (117-138) erected pagan shrines at the Holy Sepulcher, Golgotha and Bethlehem, as he had done at the Jerusalem temple site to prevent any Jewish worship. Particularly in the Middle East a succession of remnants of religious buildings over the same spot points to a strong probability that there is solid material evidence in favour of the traditional site for the early religious event commemorated at the place.

The Arab writer, Ibn Asaker (1105-1176) says that there was a church at Damascus called ‘El-Musallabah’, literally ‘The Church of the Cross’, and that it was located close to the walls between the eastern gates of Bab-Tuma and Bab esh-Sharqi. He tells us also that the church had been destroyed before the year 700, another Arab writer Ibn Shaker around 1363, refers the fact that caliph Walid I (705-712) gave back to the Christians the ruins of the church ‘El-Musallabah’ as quoted above.

The Franciscan tradition has been steady about the site of the ‘House of Ananias’. Fr. Poggibonsi, ofm, writing in the 1347 says that the church had long ago been converted into a mosque. In the 16th century the Franciscan Holy Land Custos, Boniface of Ragusa confirms the same information and tells us about the underground chapel of St. Ananias to which one had access by stone steps, and where both Christians and Moslems gathered to pray. The Franciscan historian Francis Quaresmius, around 1616, describes the underground chapel as above. He adds that there was a mihrab to the south and an apse towards the east; the chapel received light from above through two openings practiced in the vault, and that still during his sojourn at Damascus the Moslems minaret fell to pieces. Never again was it rebuilt. Some years later around 1630, Fr. Antonio Del Castillo, ofm wrote that the ‘House of Ananias’ was held in high reverence by both Turks and Christians. We quote from him: “the Turks who are actually in charge of the House of Ananias keep in it many oil lamps burning day and night”.

In 1820 the Franciscan Holy Land Custody was able to recover and rebuild the ‘House of Ananias’, adapting it into a chapel, When the wave of destruction of 1869 passed away, the Franciscans succeeded to restore the ‘House of Ananias’ in 1867, and had it rebuilt in 1893 and in 1973, giving the underground chapel the present form.

At present the ‘House of Ananias’ is a crypt with two rooms, one of which is a chapel, which is reached by means of a staircase with 23 steps of basaltic rock. The chapel receives light from two openings on the top of the vault. The differences of level between the street and the original pavement of the ‘House of Ananias’ is normal in the Old City on account of the remnants piled up for 2000 years, as can better be noticed at Bas ash-Sharqi.

Both material and written evidence, as well as oral tradition, seem to prove that the so-called House of St. Ananias is on the site of the Roman-Byzantine ‘Holy Cross Church’. of the 5th or 6th Century, if not earlier. It seems therefore probable that this was the place of the house of the first bishop of Damascus the martyr St. Ananias.

Biblical text

Saul’s vocation

Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, that, if he should find any men or women who belonged to the Way, 2 he might bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. On his journey, as he was nearing Damascus, a light from the sky suddenly flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" He said, "Who are you, sir?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city and you will be told what you must do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, for they heard the voice but could see no one. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. For three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank.

There was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight and ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is there praying, and (in a vision) he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay (his) hands on him, that he may regain his sight." But Ananias replied, "Lord, I have heard from many sources about this man, what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to imprison all who call upon your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for this man is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites, and I will show him what he will have to suffer for my name." So Ananias went and entered the house; laying his hands on him, he said, "Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me, Jesus who appeared to you on the way by which you came, that you may regain your sight and be filled with the holy Spirit." Immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.

He stayed some days with the disciples in Damascus, and he began at once to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. All who heard him were astounded and said, "Is not this the man who in Jerusalem ravaged those who call upon this name, and came here expressly to take them back in chains to the chief priests?" But Saul grew all the stronger and confounded (the) Jews who lived in Damascus, proving that this is the Messiah. After a long time had passed, the Jews conspired to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. Now they were keeping watch on the gates day and night so as to kill him, but his disciples took him one night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.When he arrived in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple.

(Acts 9: 1-26)

Prayer

O God, through your risen Son you sent your servant Ananias to Saul of Tarsus, that he might recover his sight, be filled with the Holy Spirit and be baptized. Through the intercession of the holy martyr, Ananias may all peoples be enlightened and baptized for the forgiveness of sins, and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. This we ask through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.