The Bab Al-Saghir Cemetery in Damascus is actually a series of small graveyards located along the street known as the Bab Al-Saghir. Collectivelly they are the third most important cemetery of early Islam after the Maqbarat Al-Baqi in Medina and the Jannatul Mualla in Mecca, and a number of eminent, if lesser, personages are buried here. Although it is third in importance after the two cemeteries in Saudi Arabia, it has the historical advantage of being essentially intact, so that pilgrims to the Bab Al-Saghir can actually visit the ancient and shrines and tombs with less ambiguity. It is also the only major shrine associated with the first generation of Islam that is accessible to non-Muslims, which makes it an extreme rarity for general tourists. The Bab Al-Saghir is part of the Old City of Damascus UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 634 AD, the city of Damascus in Syria was conquered by the armies of Umar and annexed to the Islamic Caliphate, one of the first major cities of the west to fall to Muslim forces. For the next two decades it served primarily as a forward military base for Muslims expeditions against the Byzantine Empire. During this period, several of Muhammad’s closest followers relocated to Damascus, including the former slave Bilal ibn Ribah. Bilal, who is credited as being the first muezzin of Islam, seems to have settled in or near Damascus at this time. According to tradition, after the death of the Prophet, Bilal only recited the call to prayer on one other occasion, in Damascus, a moment cherished by the Sahaba.
Bilal died in 640, and was the first and most important early Muslim to be interred along the Bab Al-Saghir, although an alternative tradition places his tomb in the town of Bader in Jordan. A few years later, during the reign of the Ali, Damascus became a stronghold for the Umayyads, a powerful faction which had supported the previous caliph. After Ali’s death, the Umayyads seized control of the caliphate, establishing a new capital city at Damascus. Almost overnight, the Bab Al-Saghir became a preeminent place for prominent Muslims to be buried, on par with the Maqbarat Al-Baqi in Medina.
Ironically, this popularity seems to have extended to prominent members of Ali’s family. It is uncertain exactly why this is the case. Ali’s control over Damascus was never strong during his own lifetime, and none of the subsequent Imams resided any closer to Syria than the city of Samarra in Iraq. Nevertheless, at least half a dozen members of Ali’s clan are buried in the Bab Al-Saghir, including his daughter Umm Kulthum. Perhaps even stranger that so many of Ali’s descendents are buried here is that the Umayyads, their bitter rivals, permitted it.
Bab Al-Saghir was also used by the Ummayad dynasty, and Muawiyah, the first of the Ummayad caliphs and nominal successor to Ali, was interred here in 680 AD. Many other prominent Ummayads were buried here as well, including several other caliphs. The prominence of the Bab Al-Saghir seems to have waned after the rise of the Abbasids in the 8th century, though it has weathered the millennium since fairly well. It has survived numerous conquests, and enjoyed a renaissance during the late Ottoman period when a number of new shrines were built on the site. The Bab Al-Saghir retains to this day the distinction of being the third most venerated Muslim cemetery in the world and the most intact surviving burial ground of ancient Islam anywhere.
The Bab Al-Saghir is actually a series of small burial grounds that collectively form the largest cemetery in the Old City of Damascus. It consists mostly of simple stone-marked graves, occasionally protected by small fences, and interspersed with several larger shrines and mausoleums, many of which date from the Ottoman period. The largest and most easily recognized of these is the green-domed mosque which stands over the tombs of Umm Kulthum and two other descendents of Ali.
One of the oldest graves and arguably the most important is that of Bilal ibn Ribah, the first muezzin. However, his domed mausoleum dates from a much later period. Other important graves in the cemetery include those of ibn Asaker, a prominent Muslim historian of the Middle Ages; and the Martyrs of Karbala, prominent leaders who died at the battle of the same name.
The Bab Al-Saghir Cemetery is clustered around the Bab Al-Saghir gate near the southwestern wall of the Old City of Damascus. The cemetery is an open site, and both Muslims and non-Muslims are permitted to visit and pay their respects. 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; the Mausoleum of Saladin; and the Tomb of Baybars, located in the library of the Madrassa Ar-Zahiriyya. Other interesting Islamic sites in the city are the Citadel of Damascus and the Azem Palace.