In Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi's fantasy world, the jihadist movement would eventually bear fruit in an Islamic empire with a Caliph restored at its head, and the place where this fantasy would play out is Damascus - the enchanted oasis that the Prophet Muhammad had likened to paradise.
Muhammad was a merchant traveling the trade route from Syria to Mecca, and had made the journey at least twice, but according to tradition he never entered the city, only glimpsing it from afar, and in one account, he took in the breadth of the city from atop Mount Qassioun that bears over Damascus, and where, again according to tradition, the ascent to heaven would be quickest on judgment day.
Many things perceived from afar would seem wondrous and enchanting, but Damascus - then and now - is anything but heavenly. Garbage has a habit of piling up at street corners, and sewage would have run, before the era of modern plumbing, down gutters. The old city has preserved most of its form for millennia, with its famed iconic Umayyad Mosque resting atop the still visible foundations of a Byzantine church, which borrowed masonry from a Roman temple for the god Jupiter immediately below, which in turn had borrowed the self-same cut stones from older structures of older religions yet.
Damascus carries extra weight for Zarqawi for being a distinctly Sunni Arab symbol, for here, the hereditary empire was set up by the Umayyads - wealthier relatives of Muhammad who fought him for most of his life and who ruled the lands of Islam until their demise at the hands of the Abbassids, other less affluent relatives of the prophet who in turn were allied with the Shias and some aggrieved non-Arab Muslims. Damascus would seem to Zarqawi and his ilk as the throne of Sunni legitimacy, but the picture is slightly fuzzier than that.
Trying to find the tomb of the founder of the Umayyad dynasty, Muawiya the First, is quite an adventure. In the Bab el-Saghir cemetery, where, according to the head gravedigger, the dead have been piled up over each other for thousands of years, the Syrian government claims to have found Muawiya's headstone and lumped him together with four other Islamic "celebrities" under a dome and called it a day. The locals say that the real tomb is nearer to the Umayyad Mosque, the centerpiece of the city, and that its current location is kept hidden so the Shias, who still loathe Muawiya, would not try to desecrate it.
Eventually I did find the mysterious tomb, which still boasts a dome built up over older masonry but which one cannot get under since it is now part of a house, and its residents, miffed that an outsider had figured out their neighborhood secret, would claim that one needs an official permit from the Syrian Ministry of Religious Affairs to get inside, and even then to peek at practically nothing. The grave has no marker, which conforms to the historical record: when the Abbassids came to Damascus, they disinterred all the graves of the Umayyad Caliphs except Muawiyya's namesake, his grandson, who abdicated the throne because he could not bear the injustice done to the Shia patron saints by his family.
Damascus was revived four centuries later by the Saladin, the vanquisher of the Christian Crusaders and a man after whom Zarqawi models his life. For a while, it became the capital of the Ayyubid dynasty, and the shrine-tombs of Saladin's numerous brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles and nephews dot the suburbs that outgrew the old city in his day and where he settled his kinsmen, the Kurds. Saladin's own grave is right outside the Umayyad Mosque, and Zarqawi would be horrified to know that three Turkish aviators from the Ottoman Airforce who were shot down in World War I, as well as two secular statesmen from Iraq and Syria, are the only known graves that can claim the honor of lying beside Saladin at this time. What's more, a descendent of the Crusaders, Kaiser Wilhelm II, is acknowledged for donating a marble sarcophagus for Saladin's grave in 1898. Music wafts in from a government caretaker who also sells postcards to tourists on the site.
As the Ayyubid state dwindled in strength, Ibn Taymiyyah, an ideologue venerated by the jihadists, was born in Damascus, and became known subsequently as the Sheikh of Islam. He laid down most of the laws that governed the concept of jihad, at his time mostly directed at the invading Mongols. But he also gave Zarqawi the judicial foundations for attacking such hated enemies as the Shia and for the eradication of a heterodox offshoot called the Nusayris, or Alawis, a minority that rules Syria today through the Asad family and disproportionately staffs most of its officer ranks.
Ibn Taymiyya also loathed the Sufi Sunnis, another tenet carried by the jihadists today.
Zarqawi hopes to compel his fellow Sunni Syrians into a revolt against the Alawi regime, but at least in Damascus, he is going to be disappointed by the feedback, to the relief of the regime that even at the height of the Islamic fundamentalist challenge in the late 1970s and early 1980s, did not fear losing control over the Damascenes. Although Sufism, paramount only a century ago, has withered today to a faint rendition of its former self, Damascus is too intricately overlaid for Zarqawi to sway its Sunni populace.
Whereas the old town alleyways of other Syrian cities were hotbeds of Muslim fundamentalism, the exquisite and unique oriental charm of Damascus is a tourist trap poised to snap, and its Christians, Shias, and Sunnis seem eager for the mercantile windfall. Sunnis may hide the tomb of Muawiya from inquisitive outsiders, but they certainly don't mind learning a little Farsi to haggle with Iranian Shia pilgrims on a weeping tour of their saintly shrines.
Jihadism seems to thrive and find recruits among dislocated individuals, but a place as ancient as Damascus can claim too much continuity and hand-me-down memory for that to happen. The spiritual hole that Zarqawi hopes to fill with his particular brand of nihilism is amply taken up with local traditions, gossip, and inbred contentment.
However, the picture changes where old Damascus ends and the new cinder block tenements begin; there everything takes on the grim color of concrete. This is the urban sprawl of a 6 million strong metropolis that daily gobbles up the age-old agricultural villages in its orbit. The locals there are overrun with outsiders and poverty, and there one would find harsher glares of resentment. This "New Damascus" is more likely a hospitable environment for the jihadists rather than the ancient mosques and tombs that carry such loaded symbolism for their cause.