As if the Tomb of Saladin wasn’t enough, Damascus also boasts the gravesite of yet another of the greatest Islamic military commanders of all time: Abu Al-Futah, better known as Baybars, who led the beleagured Muslims of Syria and Egypt to tremendous victories against both the Crusaders and the Mongols. Although Baybars did not restore the Islamic Empire of Saladin’s time, he did make the Middle East secure once again, at least for a while. Baybars left behind the legacy of a silver age for Damascus, and put his own architectural stamp on the city, including the Madrassa Ar-Zahiriyya, which became one of the great libraries of the Islamic world and where he was later laid to rest. The Madrassa Ar-Zahiriyya is part of the Old City of Damascus UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Baybars’ meteoric rise to power began as a Mamluk slave-soldier in the bodyguard of the Ayyubid sultan of Egypt. By his late twenties, Baybars was an officer in the army of Egypt. His great moment in history came in 1260 AD, when the Mongol army of Haluga Khan arrived in Palestine, intent on completing its conquest of the Muslim world. The Mongol army, advancing out of Persia, had already destroyed Baghdad and ransacked Damascus in a terrifying campaign. They then called for the surrender of the Mamlukes in Egypt. But the Egyptian Sultan Qutuz defied the Mongols and decided to meet them with force. He called upon Baybars, who had grown up in Palestine, to devise a strategim to defeat the hitherto unstoppable enemy.
The two armies met at the Battle of Ain Jalut, and in one of the greatest upset victories of all time, the Mongols were not only defeated but annihilated. This not only was the first time that the Mongols had ever been stopped, but also marked the furthest point that they ever advanced in the west and the greatest extent of their empire. Baybars became an instant hero. Rallying the military and political leaders of Egypt behind him, Baybars then promptly had his former master, Qutuz, assassinated, and assumed the throne of the Sultanate.
Baybars’ subsequent career was something of a reflection of Saladin’s, though perhaps a bit less chivalrous. Once again he reunited much of the Middle East, including Egypt and Syria; he crushed most of what remained of the Crusader territories in the Middle East, leaving behind only tiny Christian enclaves along the coast; he fought off several other Mongol invasions, and subsequently converted many Mongols to Islam; and he began the rebuilding of Damascus and other ravaged cities.
Baybars was one of the most effective leaders in Islamic history and one of the most ruthless. As well remembered as he was by most Muslims, he was hated and feared by his enemies, Muslims, Christians and Mongols alike. His death was somewhat controversial, and it is quite likely that he was assassinated by one or more of his enemies. Before his death in 1277, Baybars founded the Madrassa Az-Zahiriyah which he intended to house one of the world’s greatest libraries. The library did indeed live up to Baybars’ dream, and was in use until 1983 as the National Library of Syria. Those who completed the work thought it fitting to bury the great sultan in the library. The tomb is there to this day.
The Madrassa Az-Zahiriyah is one of the largest and most famous libraries in the Middle East and one of Syria’s most important educational institutions. Construction was completed in the 13th century, and other than a few expansions, renovations and upkeep, looks more or less like it did seven hundred years ago. The madrassa contains both religious and educational elements, with utilizing typical Mamlku design styles as well as elements inspired by the nearby Masjid Umayyad. The Tomb of Baybars is located in the main prayer hall beneath the dome of the building.
The madrassa’s library is a wonder of itself. In addition to its large, modern library collection, it boasts well over ten thousand books, scrolls and writings dating from over a thousand years of Syrian history. The highlight manuscript, and the oldest in the collection, is a 9th century work by Ahmad ibn Hanbal, an early Abbasid-era scholar. Although the Madrassa Az-Zahiriyah is no longer the acting Syrian national library, its collection is still considered the country’s main literary treasure house.
The Madrassa Az-Zahiriyah is just northwest of the Masjid Umayyad and practically across the street from the Mausoleum of Saladin. It is open daily from 9:00am-5:00pm, though access to some areas may be restricted to non-Muslims. There is no cost of admission. Web: Not currently available due to ongoing problems in the region.
Damascus is absolutely packed with fantastic Islamic sites. There are dozens of major mosques within the city, three of which are worth mentioning. In addition to the Masjid Umayyad, there is the Masjid Sayyidah Zainab and the Masjid Sayyidah Ruqayya, where a granddaughter and great granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad are buried, respectively; the Ottoman-era Masjid Taqiyyeh As-Suleimaniyyeh, the second largest in the city. Damascus also boasts many major historically important tombs, including the Gravesite of Abu Ubaidah ibn Al-Jarrah in the suburb of Jabiyah; and Bilal the first muezzin in the Bab Al-Saghir Cemetery. Other interesting Islamic sites in the city are the Citadel of Damascus and the Azem Palace.