From a few yards away, a bucket of severed sheep’s heads is nearly indistinguishable from a bucket of pickles: same white plastic tub, same gray metal handle, same slosh of brine spilling over the side. It’s only on closer inspection, peering into the murky juices, that the differences become apparent. To begin with, the contents of a pickle bucket do not stare back. Mouths open, nostrils flared, severed sheep’s heads look up at you as if ready to sing.
I made this discovery a few years back, deep within the sprawling marketplace of the Aleppo souq, the smelly heart of a Syrian city which claims to be the oldest continually inhabited urban area in the world. After a few hours spent wandering its twenty miles of covered streets, I realized I could find almost anything among its thousands of merchant stalls. The souq was the center of the city even in Roman times, and much of what it offers hasn’t changed much since then.
By the end of the day, I was weighed down with woven tablecloths, bags of homemade algae-green olive oil soap, a menagerie of questionably antique elephant and turtle figurines, and enough shwarma to make me wonder what animal or combination of animals could be so easily transformed into a rotating column of meat. The air hung thick with the sweet burned-apple smell of water-pipe smoke and the sharper scents of sweat, spices, and steaming samovars. Lost in this maze of a premodern shopping mall, I found the sheep’s heads a little unsettling, but they seemed right at home.
A man in a bloody apron caught me squinting at his wares.
“Deutsch?” he called. “Francais? Anglais?”
“Hello, America!” he cheered, flashing a grin that showed no hint of hard feelings despite the often uneasy relationship between our countries. Then he waved his hand in the direction of his buckets, fluttering his fingers in a circular motion over the available condiments as if to indicate that I didn’t need to choose between pickles, onions, cabbage, and sheep’s heads. Yes, his smile said. I could have them all.
“You eat something, Mister America?”
Tempting as it was, I thanked him and walked on, in search of a head of another kind.
Nearly every guidebook to Syria explains that the uppermost remains of Zacharius, father of John the Baptist, can be found in Aleppo’s Great Mosque, which has one of its entrances immediately off the souq.
Like the sheep’s heads on sale at the Aleppine equivalent of a fast-food stand, the fact that an obscure character from Christian history should be the object of Islamic veneration is at first surprising, but then makes its own kind of sense.
As a faith that regards itself as last in the succession of monotheist religions, Islam has a long tradition of incorporating the major and minor figures of Judaism and Christianity into its own devotional practices. Islam calls them all prophets, adopting them into a genealogy of gradually unfolding prophecy which, Muslims believe, began with Adam and ended with Muhammad. Down through the centuries, Islam has not only absorbed the memories and the stories of these retroactive prophets, it has also borrowed their bones.
Aleppo’s main mosque, also known as Al Jami al Kabir, is one of a number of sites in Syria which claim to be the final resting place of men and women mentioned in the Bible. The Great Mosque of Damascus, Al Jami al Ulawi, is likewise well known as home to a prominent New Testament head, namely the always popular one which Salome ordered removed from John the Baptist’s body. With just a short drive to the west, near Syria’s border with Lebanon, one can find the enshrined resting place of Adam’s son Abel, who, at least according to accounts in Genesis and the Qur’an, was the first human to die, and so also the first to be buried.
There are tombs of other well-known biblical figures throughout the Muslim world: Job, Cain, Ishmael, Seth, Joshua, Aaron, Hosea—the full list would fill several pages of begats. Prophets who in Judaism and Christianity are remembered with words alone have in Islam been given bodies and gravemarkers.
Several of the most important of these ancient Hebrews are believed without a doubt to be buried with other prophets of Islam in Mecca, a few in the Kaaba itself, the huge black monolith around which Muslims walk at the end of their pilgrimage to their holy city. These tombs of Hebrew prophets are at the symbolic center of Islamic faith.
The final resting places of Adam and Eve meanwhile remain in dispute. One strain of Islamic tradition holds that in addition to the two elephants, two turkeys, two hyenas, etc., that Noah loaded onto his ark there were also the disinterred remains of the parents of humanity, as if they too would have procreation to attend to after the flood. Once the waters had receded, this tradition holds, Noah reburied both Adam and Eve in Jerusalem. Another tradition begs to differ: depending on who you ask, Eve may be buried in Jedda, Saudi Arabia, or due north in the Baaqua Valley. Adam’s head may be at the Mosque of Abraham in Khalil, while his legs may be buried under the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
Islam makes no comment on the Christian claim that Adam’s skull is in fact buried under the site of Jesus’ crucifixion, but there certainly would have been enough of him to go around. A unique element of Islamic remembrance of the holy dead is that its prophets are often described as having been truly larger than life. After his exile from the Garden of Eden, for example, Adam is said to have been sixty cubits tall—just shy of 100 feet. Before the Fall, the story goes, he was even taller than that.
I have no idea how tall Zacharius was supposed to be. If he was anything like the other plus-sized prophets of Islam, I guessed that if I walked the souq long enough, I would find him.
But where to look among all this other merchandise? Past the spice dealers, the jewelry hockers, and the carpet salesmen, I wandered searching for either a way into the mosque, or even just a path out of the souq. Finally I spotted a group of four women, covered head to toe in flowing black burkas, moving deliberately through the crowd, though not in such a rush that they didn’t pause here and there to browse the textiles and the children’s clothing. I followed them like a fisherman who spots a dark mass moving beneath the waves. When they turned suddenly and pushed through an unexpected set of carved wooden doors, I did the same.
From the crowd and bustle of the souq, I entered a cooling calm that was an immediate relief. An expanse of green carpet stretched down a few stairs and then to the left and the right, filling a room as large as a football field. Though technically the souq is outdoors and the mosque is in, the former hung with the stale air of commerce, while the latter felt as exposed and open as a mountaintop. I stood in the doorway while a breeze blew from inside to out, a puff of musky mosque-wind that swayed the shirts and dresses in the tailors’ stalls behind me.
The veiled women slipped off their shoes and descended the steps. I followed, so surprised to find myself in silence after the noise of the souq that I nearly tumbled down the stairs. I looked to my left and saw a crowd gathered, men divided from women, all milling about, reaching their hands toward the wall.
I moved only a few steps toward them when I heard a sound like a tire losing air above me. Sssst, sssst, sssst. And then I saw its source: a bearded man in an ankle-length beige robe, descending the steps of the minbar, the pulpit sitting atop a steep stairway. From his robe and officious air, I guessed he was the muezzin, the man charged with making the call to prayer five times each day, who is also responsible for the general upkeep of the mosque. He wagged a finger at me, pointed at my feet, then to the door. Flustered, I spun on my heals and retreated ten quick steps to the souq and the maze from which I had been grateful to emerge. I was back to the goats’ heads before I realized the meuzzin was only pointing at my shoes, which I’d neglected to remove as I took my first step down the stairs.
“Mister America!” the butcher called. “You come back to eat? Or for what do you look?”
I turned to retrace my steps but by then it was too late. Looking ahead to a dozen possible routes through the avenues of merchant stalls, I couldn’t remember which turns had taken me to the mosque entrance.
“Tell me, my friend! What do you look?”
“Zachariah’s head?” I answered.
The butcher squinted at me as if unsure of his English, crinkling his brow with a look that seemed to say, Sheep’s heads? Yes. Prophets’ heads? No. Nevertheless he aimed to please; if he couldn’t help me find me way, he would at least make sure I was well fed.
“Shwarma?” he asked.
Back out in the streets of Aleppo, I remembered that it was June. The heat hanging over the city made even the dirty water in the gutters seem to sizzle, giving empty streets a constant white noise hum. The temperature only felt intensified by the coverings of the women who walked by—not just veils but full, ankle-length burkas leaving no trace of skin exposed. Even their fingers were wrapped—a fact I didn’t realize until a woman with a covered face held out a begging hand in a black nylon glove. I had sweat through my shirt the moment I stepped out of the cool of the souq. Even leaving aside all questions of the fairness of such restrictive religious coverings, I couldn’t figure out how these women managed to survive.
Of course, survival is relative—in life, religion, and politics as well. A few weeks before my arrival in Aleppo, there was what passes for an election in Syria. Though running unopposed, President Bashar al-Assad had papered the city with an impressive array of campaign posters. Now, from every flat surface in sight, the many faces of Assad stared down. Like the model for thespian masks, with a hundred variations instead of the usual two, he was suave in the windows of the posh fashion shops, intense in windows selling Nike sneakers and Adidas soccer jerseys, jolly in windows featuring pint-sized Syrian army uniforms and other children’s clothing. On a few of the posters, he wore an impish grin, which, combined with his mustache, slightly angular nose, and neatly coifed hair, gave him a striking resemblance to a young Walt Disney. On others he looked like NASCAR superstar Dale Earnhardt—particularly on the tricked out sports cars wearing presidential silhouettes over their spoilers and racing stripes.
In all his guises he was unavoidable. To the left, Assad. To the right, Assad. The recently-reelected president-for-life’s face was so ubiquitous that I began to wish his was the head I had come looking for.
I followed the twisting alleys that pass for roads in Aleppo’s old city, and soon not only was I unable to find my way back to the souq, I had no idea in what direction I was walking, or whether I was moving toward familiar territory or away.
Just then a soccer ball bounced into my path. A second later, a young man jogged through an open doorway a few steps ahead on the right. He was wearing sneakers and shorts—unheard of here—and smiled when he saw me. Kicking the ball into the doorway, he ran back inside without a word. It was only when I looked in after him that he said, “Hello, my friend. What do you hope to find?”
“The mosque,” I answered.
“Ah. It is easy to get lost here, but this is how to find the mosque.” He walked back through the doorway and pointed up a sloping passageway. “Go up this hill until you see the lizard on the wall of the Citadel, then turn right.”
“The lizard?” I asked.
“Yes, he climbed up there some time ago and no one dares take him down. Turn there and walk until you see a wall with no lizards at all.”
When I reached the top of the hill, I saw the Citadel looming above me. Because I was looking for an actual lizard, it took me a moment to see the obvious. There, hanging high above the city, was not a lizard but a poster of Assad as big as a drive-in movie screen.
When I finally found my way back to the Al Jami al Kabir, I discovered there were two ways in, one for the faithful, and one for tourists. As both lead to the same place, the sole purpose of the tourist door seemed to be that it routed those with a few extra lira in their pockets by a desk where a small admission charge could be coaxed out of sight-seers in the form of a shoe-holding fee.
Back inside the prayer hall, the sheer size of it made every word spoken seem a whisper, while other sounds echoed and filled the space like a flood. The near constant breathing of vacuum cleaners—a necessity for the upkeep of acres of carpet, even when all shoes come off at the door—competed with the drone of an elderly qari, a Qur’anic reciter, bleating in a raspy monotone. From time to time, these sounds were pierced by another: the wailing of infants, sometimes four or five at once. I watched one lying unattended for ten minutes or more, left in the care of the mosque while his mother went into the souq to do her shopping.
A crowd had gathered along the wall beside the entrance to the souq. Men and women, divided by a collapsible wooden partition, stood shoulder to shoulder on either side, pushing forward to reach a brass-colored metal grill, behind which was a window of tinted glass. On the women’s side, mothers rubbed handkerchiefs against the bars and then pressed them to their children’s heads. One mother lifted her baby and held it to the metal, higher than anyone else had reached, as if she wanted any blessing the baby received this way to be as free of germs as possible. On the men’s side, the faithful pushed forward as one, each gripping the grill as if it was a ladder to be climbed.
I loitered at the edge of all this for a few minutes before moving toward the wall, not so much pushing my way in as simply getting close enough to the forward movement of the others that I began to be pulled as if by a current going out to sea. Shoulder to shoulder with them, I floated through the crowd until I stood with my chest pressed against the grill, looking down into a small glass-enclosed space dominated by what seems to be a sarcophagus draped in green cloth.
This, I realized, was the tomb of Zacharius. All around me, men prayed and pressed their faces against the grill. Some reached through a hole at eye level and dropped coins and small photographs into the tomb, believing that the former would be multiplied in thanks for this sacrifice, and that the lives of those depicted in the photographs would be blessed by their new proximity to the holy dead.
At the rear of the mosque, a door opened and a handful of pilgrims, men dressed from head to toe in white, entered the prayer hall. A few seconds later, several others followed, each group moving toward the other to undo what seemed a momentary separation. Then both sets of doors opened again, allowing in splashes of light that preceded and then followed each cluster of pilgrims. They made their way toward the center of the mosque and piled there like a snow drift, filling a space that had seemed unfillable.
They pressed in against the grill and quickly engulfed me. The tide of pilgrims was so endless and insistent that the qari even looked up for a moment, pausing his Qur’anic recital with a finger in the book to hold his place.
The pilgrims sat cross legged, mostly in silence, some rocking and praying quietly. Soon the individual prayers gave way to a collective humming, and a moment later the humming had transformed itself into a song. It began as a chorus and then dropped out to allow a single voice to rise above the others.
As they sang, I saw one of them pause before a sign in English. He was a tall man, with a long beard the orange-red of a campfire. It had been dyed with henna, a tradition that is said to go back to Muhammad himself. I asked how large a group they are, where they were from, why they had come.
“We are ninety-eight,” he said. “We come on pilgrimage from Pakistan.”
As the singing continued around us, I asked him about the song. He told me it is very popular in Pakistan. I made a recording of it and later learned its meaning: part poem, part prayer, it is a hymn that speaks of the prophets of Islam as being as far away and yet as everywhere-present as objects floating in the night sky.
“The moon has returned to us,” the pilgrims sang. “Even when its face is hidden, its trace can be seen.”
“So you’ve come to be close to the prophet?” I asked.
“Close? I cannot be close,” he told me. “I come to remind me how far it is I must go.”
Peter Manseau is the author of Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, Vows: The Story of a Priest, a Nun, and Their Son and, most recently, Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World's Holy Dead. He founded Killing the Buddha with Jeff Sharlet, and the two wrote Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible. Follow him on Twitter @petermanseau.