Thursday, February 10, 2011

DAMASCUS, Queen of the Desert

The border post with Lebanon  
I visited Syria in October 2010. It was truly a voyage of discovery especially due to the fact very little is commonly known about Syria besides being categorized as unsafe and hostile country to Western visitors, especially Americans for the overwhelming one sided support to Israel America continues to lavish for its very own interests.

Entering Damascus

Like a mirage, straight out of a story of 1001 nights, sheltered by Jabal Qasioun, a mountain facing the West-North West, and opened to the Arabian desert to the East, Damascus is like a graceful belly dancer on the Middle East performing stage. A city with a very ancient history (settlements of this area was started some 9000BC), vibrant culture, endless souks (the original shopping mall), colorful fabrics and scintillating mirrored mosques, Ancient Damascus (a World heritage city) seems to cruise the waves of time without taking in much water. Just like Old Delhi as I remember it. Fascinating, busy with life, commerce and exchanges of all sorts, timeless and unwavering. 

The quiet Christian quarter of Old Damascus

My visit started in a very unconventional manner. The taxi I had trusted to take me to my hotel just had no idea where it was and decided to drop me randomly at the nearest gate of the Old City. Sort of a lottery really. He promptly asked for his money and told me he couldn't drive inside the Old city since it was prohibited but that my hotel was within walking distance. Boy was I naive. After all the International travel I had done so far I should have known better. But what do you know. New country, new set of rules and as a visitor who wants to make waves the first time. Thank God many Syrians are very hospitable and most helpful. I recounted my story to a well spoken and well dressed gentleman on the street in the picture above who promptly got on his mobile and helped me getting a new taxi with a fixed price to my destination. I was abut 5 miles where I should have been. I got to the hotel feeling a little uneasy and weary of anything that could turn into trouble.

quiet street in Damascus

Once at the reception I found out I needed to talk to the manager, a soft spoken gentleman who promptly greeted me and explained he had his own business on the side and that he would take me to the location of my room.  A few blocks away, on a quiet street (the one above in the picture) we stopped in front of a colonial style apartment building. He opened the door to an under street level unit (like in NYC). As we walked in I discovered a small room and a bathroom which was just fine for my purpose. He gave me instructions about internet connection, telephone use and access. Before leaving he gave me a map and directions to the old walled city, the historical center of Damascus. As he returned to the hotel, I positioned myself and freshened up before going out to explore.

Ath Thaurah st

Al Hamidiyah Souq
I walk a good 15 minutes towards the Old Citadel. The streets are crowded with life, yellow taxis are running their course and street vendors hustle some impromptu customer. I reach the entrance of a famous covered market, the Al Hamidiyah Souq leading to the Umayyad mosque, one of the largest and oldest mosque in the world, considered the fourth holiest place in Islam. The market gallery is about 400 feet long and is filled with stores selling from hookas, sweets, clothes, souvenirs to elegant attire and woodworks. Inside the gallery is also one of Damascus landmark ice cream parlour: Badkash. If you are ever in Damascus, you must try this ice cream delight. It is famous for its pistachio-covered Booza, a pounded ice cream with an elastic texture made of mastic and sahlab. It is famous around the Arab World and has become a popular tourist attraction.

Umayyad Mosque and Damascus Treasury Dome

St John the Baptist Shrine inside the Mosque

Umayyad Mosque interior (men section)

Detail of the Dome of the Treasury
The Umayyad mosque is breathtaking in grandeur and beauty. After the Arab conquest of Damascus, the mosque was built on the Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist since the time of the Roman emperor Constantine I. The mosque holds a shrine which still today may contain the head of John the Baptist (Yahya), honored as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims alike. There are also many important landmarks within the mosque for the Shī‘ah, among them is the place where the head of Husayn (the grandson of Muhammad) was kept on display by Yazīd I. The outside facades of the mosque are adorned with a multitude of richly decorated mosaics depicting Damascene life. A short distance from the mosque is the spice market, one of my favorite places to buy genuine spices for a fraction of what we pay at home. If you wish to buy spices i would recommend you go visit an Indian or middle eastern store near you. They will have a lot of spices available which will be a lot cheaper than your local grocery store.  This said, I feasted my eyes on the beautiful displays and ended up buying some to bring home.


Religious Store in the Christian District

My lunch fresh out of the oven in the Old City

A Tamarind juice seller
The markets are numerous inside the old city. They are supplying all sort of goods in a specific order. One browses an alley filled for jewelry, the next one filled with ready made clothes, another one with nuts and spices and so on. So you just need to know what you want and go to that area. It's easy if you know where everything is. I just had fun browsing and wandering the alleys, sometimes just as wide as a house door ! Some streets have hanging balconies dating back to the middle ages. Some lead to some amazingly beautifully decorated shrines like the one of the daughters of Iman Al Husain, Sayyeda Roqayya (photo below).

Old City, Muslim Quarter
The Shrine of Sayyeda Roqayya 
Sand work inside bottles reminds of Brasil ! 

The oldest tea house in Old Damascus

Tea and hooka with internet ! 
Some lanes lead to very old houses converted into cafes and restaurant. Within their indoor large patios, once planted with citrus trees around a courtyard with a fountain center, tables and chairs are arranged to welcome visitors and locals alike. The charm and atmosphere are certainly here for relaxation after the tumult of the crowds. In the middle of this medina like city appears the entrance to the Azem Palace, originally built in 1750 as a residence for the Ottoman governor of Damascus As'ad Pasha al-Azm. The palace now houses the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions. The architecture is an excellent example of Damascene traditional houses.

Azam Palace

Azam Palace gardens
The following photos will also give you an idea of what the streets are like in the various quarters of the old city. I spent a few hours strolling the lanes and gazing at the store fronts. 

Bab Sharki, One of the Gates to the Old City

Christian Quarter

Boutique fronts

shopping for snacks

Admiring a craftsman inlaying silver and copper threads

This gentleman's father wove the fabric used to make
 Queen Elizabeth II 's wedding dress. He still use the same
machine today ! 

Spice market
I really look forward to see a lot more of Syria next time I visit. This experience has opened my eyes to an area I would have passed by without looking twice before. It goes to show we should form our own opinion instead of overly relying on some TV anchor who has an agenda which might stray him/her from reality. So let's stay open minded and discover what the World truly has to offer everywhere ! 


  1. Very nice article ,Thank you for sharing it with us.Love from Syria !

  2. Very nice article ,Thank you for sharing it with us.Love from Syria !

  3. Thank you for your nice comment ! My pleasure