The House of St. Ananias
by Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land
In his description of the Conversion of Saul, St. Luke discloses the existence of a Christian community in Damascus. It is the first community of Christians outside Palestine and, on the evidence of the Acts of the Apostles, it could even have been in existence before the community at Antioch. Only 5 or 6 years after the Ascension of our Lord, we find a Judaeo-Christian group in Damascus, organized around a charismatic leader called Ananias and identifying themselves by a number of different names: the Followers of the Way, the Disciples, those who invoke the Name of the Lord, the Saints, the Brothers...
Another detail revealed by the holy Hagiographer is the name of Ananias: outside Jerusalem and its surroundings, he is the first spiritual leader of a community to be mentioned by his personal name. Who was this character? The only thing we know about him is that he was a disciple who was merciful, of good repute, pious and fearful of the Lord, and perhaps even a recipient of visitations and visions from God. The lack in his biography has been filled up by legend. It is said that he was one of the 72 disciples, that he was a native of Damascus and that the Apostles recommended him to return there. It is also said that he preached the gospel in central Syria as well as in Damascus, and that because he was well versed in Latin he was present when St. Paul testified before the Proconsul Felix. It is reported that he was arrested and condemned to death by the Roman Governor, Licianus Mucianus, and was stoned to death outside the city. Over his tomb a memorial was constructed, and later a monastery. The monastery was frequently mentioned by Arabic writers of the mediaeval period.
The great distinction of Ananias and his Christian community was the baptizing of St. Paul, the Apostle to the gentiles. Not only did they welcome him into the bosom of the Church but they treated him like a true brother, helping and defending him. Even through the changing circumstances of the times, the Christian community of Damascus kept the memory of their founder alive. His house was converted into a Sanctuary and has always been a place of religious devotion. As long as can be remembered, it has been located in the eastern part of the city, at a point which is midway between the gates of Bab Tuma and Bab Charqui. In this house, the small group of faithful used to gather around their spiritual leader to reflect on the Faith and celebrate it with the breaking of the bread. It is certain that, as a new convert, Saul used to attend the Sunday vigils with great interest. After the martyrdom of St. Ananias, the community continued with devotion to meet in the house of their patron. It was probably because of these meetings that the Roman authorities in the times of the Emperor Hadrian decided to convert the house into a pagan temple. In 1921, the archaeologist C. Eustache de Lorey conducted excavations in the place called Hanania, and found a piece of a pagan altar dated to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D. and dedicated to the celestial God of Damascus, which was probably the Aramaic Baal Shamayim. It is known that the Emperor Hadrian ordered pagan temples to be built over the places most venerated by Christians (as in Bethlehem, at the Holy Sepulchre and Calvary, and at St. John the Baptist in Ein Kerem), with the purpose of erasing these places from memory and keeping the followers of Jesus away from them.
As soon as the Christians obtained their status as citizens and were permitted to build their own places of worship, they built a huge church over the pagan edifice that had replaced the house of Ananias. The learned archaeologist found an apse, several columns and many other objects associated with Christian worship, on the basis of which he estimated that the church was built between the 5th and 6th centuries. Muslim Arab writers frequently refer to this church, calling it 'al-Mussalabeh' (the Holy Cross). Ibn Assaker (1105) writes that this church was situated beside the walls, in between the two eastern gates, Bab Tuma and Bab Charqui, and that it was destroyed around the year 700 A.D. A few years later, another Muslim writer states that the Caliph Walid gave away the Church of the Cross in exchange for the Cathedral, where he built a great mosque. In order to clarify the slight difference between these two reports, the following explanation has been proposed: a part of the church was destroyed by Walid himself and the other part was turned into a place for Muslim worship. However, in order to placate the Christians after seizing their Cathedral, the same Caliph gave them back the entire church, which was then rebuilt and used until the end of the 12th century, when Salah ed-Din converted it again into a mosque.
The Franciscan Niccolo di Poggibonsi (1345) reports that the ancient church had been converted into a mosque. Bonifacio di Ragusa, who visited Damascus in the 16th century, says that one goes down to this chapel by means of several steps. Writing about the house of Ananias in 1628, Villamont notes the presence of a church, and reports that part of it belongs to the Christians and the rest to the Turks, and that both these communities go there to pray, each according to its own customs and usages. Castillo (1630) states that the place was greatly venerated by both Christians and Muslims; with the lighting of many lamps they prayed with much devotion, bringing along the sick so that they could be healed. At the beginning of the 17th century, Fr. Quaresimo describes the chapel, adjacent to the mosque, as a place measuring 20 feet long by 10 feet wide, and entered by going down a flight of steps. He notes that it is illuminated by two little round windows in the upper part. He adds that the Muslims wanted to build a minaret, but it fell down as soon as it was finished. These details help us to understand that, little by little, the Christians were able to reoccupy this chapel, which had previously been a part of the mosque. With the passage of time, both the chapel and the mosque deteriorated so much that by the year 1814, they were a pile of ruins. In the same year the Franciscans of Bab Tuma purchased the site, rebuilt the chapel and reopened it for religious worship. The building was destroyed in the persecution of 1860, rebuilt in 1867 and finally restored in 1973.
In the East, the succession of religious buildings of different confessions in the same place is a sure sign of the authenticity of the tradition associated with that place. The excavations of C. E. de Lorey have given archaeological confirmation to this tradition, and have proved that the most authentic trace of the steps of St. Paul in Damascus, is the house of Ananias.
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Created / Updated Saturday, April 28, 2001 at 23:57:20 by John Abela ofm
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