The chapels of Italy are famed for the stunning frescoes that line their ceilings and walls. The murals, which were painted during the Italian Renaissance, are revered for their vivid depiction of biblical events, and are considered to be unparalleled iconography of Christian art.
Of course, you wouldn’t have to explain any of this to Mohammed al-Hamadi. The 74-year-old Syrian is a tour guide at the St Maurice Chapel in Milan, where he regularly talks visitors through the masterful craft and religious history behind the frescoes above them.
As a Muslim, Hamadi may not be the first person you’d expect to be leading a tour in this location. However, he’s keen to note the overlaps between his faith and the one that inspired the art lining St Maurice.
In a recent interview with the New Arab, he highlighted a fresco depicting the story of Abraham. The patriarch was preparing to sacrifice his son to prove his faith in God, but an angel intervened and invited him to slaughter a lamb instead.
‘The same story is told in the Qu’ran, where Abraham’s son is not called Isaac, but Ismael,’ Hamadi explained.
Born in Homs, Hamadi left Syria in his twenties. As a young Syrian, he was part of a generation who supported the pan-Arabist vision of the United Arab Republic, a political union between Syria and Egypt formed in 1958.
This alliance disintegrated following the Ba’ath party coup of 1966, which saw all other political parties outlawed across Syria. By the time Hamadi fled Syria, he had already been in jail twice due to his political activity.
After stints in Beirut, Kuwait and Spain, he eventually settled in Italy, where he married an Italian woman and had a son, Shadi Hamadi. Despite appearing to find his way in this new land, Hamadi never spoke about his difficult past. This changed following a trip Shadi took to Syria in 2009.
‘One day the phone rang. It was Shadi from Syria. He said his mother had discovered that I had been in prison, so I had to admit that I had been a political dissident,’ Hamadi told the New Arab.
Shadi, an author and activist, soon committed himself to telling his father’s story: ‘At that time I found out from my family that my father was tortured in jail by the Syrian secret services. In 2011, when the revolution started, I decided to write his story. I thought the people in Italy had to know more about Syria.’
Shadi’s desire to learn, not to mention inform and inspire others, is clearly drawn from his father’s own approach to life: ‘Since I was a child, he used to tell me about the importance of the dialogue between all the different faiths. He still thinks that you can’t be a good Muslim if you don’t accept the other religious backgrounds.’
It therefore came as no surprise to Shadi when Mohammed first started volunteering – even if some visitors are slightly taken aback: ‘a couple from Saudi Arabia. They immediately understood that I was a Muslim,’ Hamadi remembers. ‘I started my explanation about the connections between the chapel frescoes and the Quran suras. They were shocked.’
Hamadi’s desire to illuminate the ties between different faiths may stem from the discord he experienced as a young adult. Even so, his approach is one we’d all do well to replicate, as it shows how an eagerness to acquire knowledge – and offer it to others – strengthens and reveals the values we all share.
As Nadia Pellacani, who organises the St Maurice Chapel’s volunteers, said about Hamadi: ‘his work is a lesson of integration for our whole country.’