x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Holy journeys

Feature In addition to the haj in Mecca, the Middle East offers the growing number of religious tourists a variety of sacred destinations to explore.

Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, Peter Vogel / Photolibrary The small, dark shrine said to contain the remains of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed in Damascus's Umayyad mosque is enclosed by a perforated screen around which many small pieces of string are tied. They are tokens from pilgrims who whisper prayers to Hussein in the hope that he will bring them good health, a safe journey or perhaps the birth of a child. In the main hall, more pilgrims are bent over in devotion near a green-domed shrine, this one said to contain a holy relic: the head of the Prophet Yahya, honoured by Christians as St John the Baptist.

Indeed the Ummayad mosque is among the holiest sites in Islam for Shiites and Sunnis alike. Fragments of rich gold mosaic which once covered the walls outside are a reminder of Khalid ibn al Walid's promise that he would build, a mosque "the equal of which was never designed by anyone before me or anyone after me" over the site of an ancient church. In the white marble courtyard outside, the silence is occasionally broken by the sobs of Shiite women rocking back and forth. It is an act of ritualised sorrow; the mourning of Imam Hussein who was killed in Iraq in 680 AD by the Umayyads, founders of the first great Islamic dynasty.

There are rival claims for Hussein's actual burial spot but it does not matter to the hundreds of pilgrims who grieve for the death of a greatly revered figure. An increasing number of pilgrims are visiting Syria - in 2006 the figure was 172,000 up from 140,000 in 2005 - a pattern repeated across the Middle East as growing numbers of Arabs and Muslims seek spiritual fulfillment and knowledge of their cultural and religious heritage.

For years, tours for Christian or Jewish pilgrims visiting holy sites have been numerous and popular. The Jordan River, for example, where Jesus is said to have been baptised, now has a steady flow of tour buses carrying visitors from the former Soviet states wishing to be baptised, a ritual that was banned for under years of communist rule. Now a small but growing number of tour operators in the Middle East are offering similar services to cater to tourists visiting the region. Their numbers are expected to increase to 55 million by the end of the year.