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History is everywhere in Damascus
By Kate Mitchell   » A statue of Saluhaddin, the great warrior, marks the site of the old citadel as well as the entrance to Suq al Hamidiye in Damascus. Instead of repelling crusaders, his horse born figure is now drawing me and many other shoppers and visitors into this busy, crowded, covered avenue of shops.

On a short visit to Damascus it is best to focus on the Old City. Crammed together and soaked in a rich historical past are old houses, khans, mosques, coffee shops, restaurants and suqs all having developed from the remains of the past civilizations of Romans, Byzantines, Turks and Arabs. 

Ahlan wa sahlan!  You are welcome! On entering Suq Al Hamidiye, almost immediately two men sidle up to me to offer very good rates of exchange. I am ushered up the stairs to their cousins’ textile shop to sort out the details of the transaction and offered tea. 

Whilst we wait for the cash all the merchandise is brought out. “You must buy beautiful galabiya, or, what else you want?”. Not only did I exchange my pounds for pounds but I also chose to buy locally embroidered tablecloths and could have bought anything else that is generally on sale in the suq. (A boy is dispatched to collect whatever you may want to look at.)

Tourist shops selling carpets, lanterns, wooden boxes inlaid with mother of pearl, backgammon sets, musical instruments and narjilehs (hubbly bubbly pipes) are mixed  with those selling everyday household items, sweets and surprisingly lurid underwear. Ambling along, the crowd suddenly thickens and I notice hands, holding ice creams, victorious above heads – quarry from the famous Bakdach shop that makes its ice cream on the premises. An inexpensive token from the till will buy a huge vanilla cone that has been generously rolled in sliced pistachio nuts. Unbelievably delicious.

Damascus and Aleppo vie for the title of the longest continually inhabited city. History is everywhere. The money-changers have told me to look at the roof of the suq where you can see bullet holes expressing joy at the withdrawl of the occupying French, but also marks of the gunfire that quelled the Druze rebellion. This avenue of shops ends dramatically with bright sunlight as you emerge from its covering, revealing the huge remains of the Roman ornamental arch that would have been the entrance to the Roman temple, and behind this the magnificent Ommayed Mosque. The bustle of shoppers and even worshippers seem to pay scant attention to the importance and beauty of this setting.

Bargaining when buying anything is normal and I found that, generally, prices could be reduced by at least 20 per cent. There are not many European tourists in Syria so whilst being aware that I was financially an easy target, I never felt threatened in any way. Quite the opposite; as I wandered through the various suqs selling fabrics, antiques, perfumes, and spices, everyone wanted me to touch, feel and smell with the hope but not expectation of purchase.

I found the Suq al-Bzouriya (spice suq), immediately to the south of Ommayed Mosque as the light was fading and its chandeliers had been lit. To the left and right of this covered area are shops displaying mountains of foil wrapped chocolates and glace fruits. Standing alone was an enticing shop selling elaborate candles, twisted, highly coloured and decorated, to be used at birthdays, weddings, Christmas and especially as tokens of love. Resisting the temptation to buy because of concerns about breakages, I missed the opportunity altogether as the shop was closed by the time I returned. Lesson learned.

The suqs are open from 7am-7pm apart from Friday. However the shops along Straight Street, which are generally owned by Christians are likely to be closed on a Sunday. Beginning as Madhat Basha Street , Straight Street is a quieter area but it is here, just west of the Roman arch, that I found amazing glassware shops. From simple and pretty through to gawdy, all the decorated drinking glasses are very good value, seductive in metallic pastels, silver and gold. Nudging alongside were the sets of tiny cups and saucers used for tea. In this area there are also good antique brass and copper ware shops.

On both days we ate lunch in restaurants that had been converted from eighteenth century merchants houses. Good examples of these are Beit Jabri and Narcissus Palace, both very close to Ommayed Mosque (just ask for directions). Covered in winter, the central courtyard is crammed full of tables and chairs. Even though we had come for a late lunch at about 2.30pm, we still had to wait to be seated – giving us time to take photographs of men and women, both young and old, sitting in large groups gossiping, playing cards or backgammon, nearly all smoking hubbly bubbly. Both served traditional Arabic food.

Whether by a group of students, a waiter or even the owner we were welcomed everywhere. Over a cup of tea in Ommayed Palace Restaurant we were told the story of the conversion of this palace basement into a restaurant and many of the antiques that decorate it. The owner, who is an antiques dealer, hopes to convert the upper floors into a hotel.

In the evenings we ventured up to the Christian quarter, which has many more restaurants, many of which serve alchohol. Old Town, another well -converted old house, serves both Arabic and Italian food and has a piano player in the evening. Whilst strolling back to the hotel, huge flower arrangements outside Cave Baal lured me in to take a look. Designed to look like a cave, this Greek restaurant and bar was very welcoming.

The coffee shops that are dotted around throughout the old city offer a great opportunity to relax, talk to locals and take photographs. In particular, there is a cluster of them around the eastern gate of the Ommayed Mosque where impassive men smoking narjileh monitor the world going by. “Are you English, American? You are very welcome in Syria,” hailed the professor of English who was also very happy to pose for photographs. Just to be sure of receiving copies, a young boy was dispatched to come and find us in order to give the old man’s postal address.

Hammam Nur Al Din seems to house an equally unmoving group of men of all ages, either resting after their steam bath or preparing to go in. Built in the twelfth century this Turkish bath is the oldest and most impressive in Damascus. As this is a men only environment I could only creep into the domed, tiled entrance hall to look at the Ottoman architecture and take photographs. No one seemed to mind at all.

The photo opportunities in Damascus are wonderful, do remember to take plenty of film. You will need high speed film to take pictures of the Old City because of narrow alleyways, covered suqs, and small windows all designed to keep out the worst of the summer light and heat.

With limited time, there are two must see sites both provided by Khalid Assad Pasha. An Ottoman governor of Damascus in the mid-eighteenth century, he built not only the impressive Azem Palace but also Khan Assad Pasha. Both of these are open to the public, within walking distance of each other and well worth visiting.

Now housing the “Museum of Popular Tradition” Azem Palace was originally the residence of the govenor and gives an excellent insight as to how the wealthy Damascene families of the time must have lived. Most rooms are now given over to displays of the traditional life and culture. Especially popular are the armoury collection and the hammam complex. The jewel in the crown for me were the benches set in the wonderful courtyard filled with fruit trees, jasmine and fountains; a real sanctuary from the bustle of the city.

Khan Assad Pasha also gives you a great idea of the scale of business created by the caravan route and the obvious wealth that resulted. Despite the collapsed central dome, the remaining eight, along with the 23 warehouses and 40 rooms on the upper storey are witness to status and importance of the family and its business activities. This building is under restoration ?

I saved my visit to the Ommayed Mosque till last. Having photographed the great walls and minarets from the outside, and walked around it countless times, the entrance could have been under whelming, it was not. Imagine a building that had to stand as importantly as Al Aqsa in Jerusalem or the great Mosque in Medina and was built in the early eighth century when Damascus was the capital of the Islamic Empire. Originally completely tiled, the mosque has lost none of its majesty and remains an important pilgrimage site.

Western women must wear the galabiya that can be obtained from the store to the left of the Bab Al Barid entrance to the Mosque. Despite the obvious gravitas that comes from the size and status of the white marbled mosque with its three huge minarets, there is an unusual informality. Children are playing, families are picnicking and people are just napping in the prayer hall away from the rush of the city outside.

At the same time there are holy people sitting on the floor prepared to petition to Allah in a series of prayers. Pilgrims to the shrine of St. John the Baptist, which contains his head, join those Shia who have come to visit the Shrine to the martyr Hussein. After he was killed at the battle of Kerbala, his head may have been brought back to Damascus by the Caliph Yazid in order to humiliate Hussein’s followers.

It is a pity that, as yet, none of the old houses or khans has been converted into hotels. However, Damascus does of course have its modern city and this is where I stayed at the XXXXX. Unimpressive from the outside, it was spacious, comfortable inside. reasonably priced and perfectly placed for dipping in and out of the Old City. The international chains of hotels are well represented here and are mainly situated in the up market Salihiye district. Although not within walking distance they are all an easy taxi ride away from the old city.


It has only taken 20 minutes after enquiry, for the hotel to produce a driver for the next 48 hours. “What is your personal speed limit?” he asked. Mutterings about safety answered his question and off we set to the hills north east of the city to escape the heat, noise and dust of the plain on which Damascus is set. Having read William Dalrymple’s  From the Holy Mountain? I was very interested to visit the Christian villages that are cradled in these harsh mountains.

Perched high, fortress like, on a hill above the town of Seidnaya, the Convent of Our Lady is worth a visit. It is here that the Greek orthodox nuns guard, rather jealously, an icon of the Virgin Mary, supposedly painted by St. Luke. I found the building itself, as well as the panoramic view, very attractive.  Within the calmness of the interior, the heart of the complex is a very small, dark, warm chapel that houses not only the special relic but numerous other icons. Huddled in around the icons are  silver votive pieces that are offered in exchange for healing.  The legendary powers of fertility lent to these icons has attracted not only Christian but also Muslim pilgrims who want to conceive.

It was in search of honey that we made our way up a tarmac road to Deir  Shirobeem, a Greek Orthodox monastery.  Warmly welcomed by the monks into their sitting room, they explained over a glass of coffee their very solitary life- “For us there are no distractions”.  We were shown the caves where the monks had originally lived and the beautiful old chapel, lovingly cared for by a layman from the village below.  It is possible to spend the night at the monastery in exchange for help with the chores in the morning.

Clutching the kilo jars of honey we drove on to Ma’alula. Honey is highly prized in the Middle East and quality is appreciated. It is used a lot in cookery but is also purported to give special strength to men “You must buy this for your husband…it will make you happy”.

In sharp contrast to many of the unremarkable villages we had driven through, Ma’alula, built into a cliff, is a pretty, quaint place. Painted all shades of blue, the houses mix well with all the churches and mosques creating a picturesque scene. The Convent of St. Thekla (a now discredited saint) rises high. To the left of the convent, as you face it, is a narrow gorge path, not unlike a scaled down version of the famous Siq in Petra. A ten-minute walk will lead you to the top of the cliff, which will give you great views, and photo opportunities.

An added attraction to this pretty village is the fact that Arammaic, the language of Christ, is still spoken here. George, a shop owner close to the convent of St. Thekla spoke of the village and its history. After having offered a very welcome cup of Turkish coffee, he then introduced me to the local wine “You HAVE to try it”, which although a little too sugary for my taste has proved invaluable as an ingredient for sweet dishes.

Whilst devouring the pistachios, cashews and almonds purchased in Damascus we drove on to Zabadani. Situated in the anti-Lebanon mountains at 1200m, this hill resort is a cool and therefore popular retreat from the heat and noise of the city. An old narrow-gauge railway wheezes up and down through the Barada Gorge in the summer months – a journey of four hours.

Above the town are a number of the holiday homes that have been built by the wealthy Syrians, as well as hotels and guesthouses. We chose to stay at the Ashtar Tourist Hotel, which is an impressive brand new building cut high into the hills. We were very warmly welcomed although the hotel was not officially open. The view over the town and the surrounding area is outstanding.

Although there are plenty of cafes and restaurants in Zabadani itself, we decided to snake our way up the extra 7km to Bloudan for dinner. With views of both the Barada and Bekaa valleys, Bloudan is a much smaller, more exclusive resort. From a wide choice we picked on L’Olivier for dinner. Resembling a ski lodge with its pine clad interior it is cosy, warm and welcoming. Tables of others laughing, eating and drinking seemed testament to a good dinner and we gorged on a feast of traditional Arabic food, at a very reasonable price.

“Shway, schway……”  Slow down! This was the first time that we had had to ask Haitham to watch his speed as the long, straight road towards Tadmor (modern name for Palmyra) proved irresistible for speeding. This 200 km drive across the rocky, scrubby Syrian desert is broken only by roads every 50km or so leading to Baghdad. Vans laden with plastic picnic chairs were heaving their way back to Iraq. (They can be bought for about $2.50 each in Syria and resold for $7-8.)

Warmed by the winter sun, our al fresco breakfast, served on the table of an upturned oil drum, of mint tea and hot, crisp falafel was delicious. We had stopped at about the half way point to refill ourselves and the car -a rudimentary but perfect stopping point.

This harsh environment is still home to many Bedouin. Hattab Hameed Braij and his two daughters had been living in their camp close to Palmyra for 20 days. “ When all the green has gone from here we will move on by car to the next place” he explained. On approaching the camp we had immediately been ushered into the main living area of the tent where, sitting cross-legged around the fire we were offered coffee. Normally this would be an area exclusively for men and female family members, but as a European woman, I was treated as an honoury male.

A screened off area to the back of the tent is the kitchen where the women joked about offering cappuccino and showed me the bedding that is used at night. Wearing several long gold necklaces and a lot of bangles, Jawaher (jewelry in Arabic) was true to her namesake. She explained how she longs to get married “if it is true that the benefit of eating a lot of cardamon is that I have a husband, I will eat all the cardamon that my uncle has stored”.

An hour later, with kohl lined eyes and oil slicked hair, I was dressed as a Bedu bride.  Lots of photographs later we politely turned down the invitation of staying overnight with the family, in order to be able to get to Palmyra before sunset. 

The spectacular view of the ruins of Palmyra are best viewed in the evening (5-7pm) or in the early morning (5.30-8.30) when the light is best and the tourists have either left or not yet arrived. The smooth golden stone of the colonnades will contrast beautifully against the surrounding scrubland and the blue sky.

“Palmyra is a Bedouin girl laughing because she is dressed up as a Roman Lady” describes Vita Sackville-West.

Also known as Tadmor, the importance of this oasis town grew very quickly as a result of the caravan routes, reaching its peak/zenith in the mid-3rd century under Queen Zenobia. As an independent state within the Roman Empire, Palmyra had no reason to return revenues to Rome and as a result grew very wealthy. City walls (now being restored) guaranteed that the taxes due on goods sold in or passing through the city, were paid by passing traders.

The majesty of Palmyra is best appreciated by taking a camel tour through the site. It gives you an appropriate vantage point to see how the people had lived and worked. There is so much on show, the main colonnaded avenue, the amphitheatre, the agora (old market place), the Roman camp, the Bel Temple: it is quite fantastic to imagine what must still be buried under the sand. As well as plenty of gory stories of torture and killing in the amphitheatre the guides had a sound knowledge of the architecture and workings of the town. (Expect to pay about L250 per person.)

The museum is set up to take groups around the Valley of the tombs which stretches for 1km or so behind  Diocletian’s camp. You will need a driver to take you and the guide out to the necropolis. The funerary Tower of Elahbel, built high as the rich liked the idea of continuing to be above ground after their death, could accommodate up to 300 bodies stacked 8 high. On the other hand The Hypogeum (underground tomb) of the Three Brothers, with its frescoes and portraits, is also an outstanding example of the respect with which the Palmyrenes held their dead.

Qalat Ibn Maan ( 17th century Arab castle), perched on a hillside overlooking the ruins, gives a fabulous panoramic view of not only of Palmyra but also the oasis itself. Although they are now irrigated, there are 1,000,000 date palms and 1,000,000 olive trees in this settlement.

A different view of the site at sunset can be seen from the terrace of the Hotel Zenobia. Although this would at the top end of hotels available there are plenty of other cheaper alternatives. In Tadmor’s main street there are also plenty of restaurants all the supplying the tourist trade. I found Mansaf, the traditional dish of the desert comprising rice, chicken, pistachios, almonds and spices, was deliciously prepared in the Traditional Palmyra Restaurant.

For those that may have missed visiting the Bedouin on the drive to Palmyra, there is ‘Bedouin Corner’- a camp set about 5km outside the Tadmor. Lit by candlelight, guests are welcomed by traditional rababa music, singing and dancing whilst being  led to the tent. Here dinner consists of a choice of regional specialities. As well as being able to watch bread being made over the fire, you can sample the narjileh or just join in with the dancing.

Even a short visit to Syria can offer so much to the visitor. Because of its rich history of occupation, there is no uniformity in any of its sites, cities, towns or villages.  But what makes it all the more alluring is the infancy of its tourist industry combined with the fact that so much must still be uncovered, buried beneath the sand.

Only recently a Royal Tomb dated at approximately 1400 BC has been discovered within a village in the desert. It was virtually untouched surrounded by pottery and gold. Just think how sophisticated and stratified society was at that time in this region compared to the societies in Europe that were in the Stone Age.

The present day warmth of the people combined with the exoticness of the history and culture provide an exciting and compelling reason to visit this fascinating country.


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