Saturday, May 31, 2003

the road to Damascus - part II

So, what else was there to do in Damascus in our quick week-end trip? (and like, really, I still can't believe how close to Damascus we live, being in Beirut!)

Souks, souks, souks

Sure, Byblos had a souk. But the Al-Hamidiyah Souq (سوق الحميدية‎‎) in Damascus? Whoa! Now that's the mother of all souks! The biggest in Syria, and I wouldn't be surprised if it were one of the bigger in the world. Avenue upon avenue and alley upon alley of shops and shops and more shops, from everyday items like cleaning supplies to the usual middle-eastern spices. What a fantastic place just to walk aimlessly and do item- and people-watching! Plus eating some interesting desserts, sort of like cool rice-puddings - refreshing in the heat of May!

Of course, if you happen to get yourself anywhere near any of the shops that sell "antiques", get ready to be sized as the foreigner you are and be asked outrageous prices. But, anyhow, just to get my hands on that seemingly original but most probably fake astrolabe? I was more than happy to endure a sales pitch I knew I couldn't afford to accept! LOL

Oh, and it was a nice chance to see people react to my habib. Since not that many Latin-Americans seem to come to this place (hell, not many tourists from anywhere, actually, there were so few of us foreigners!), people were not quite used to my habib's features and had the wildest guesses about his nationality! My favourite? Someone guessing he was Japanese! Whaaaaat? 

And mosques...

Sure, the Umayyad Mosque is obviously the most majestic you could see. But then there are countless other ones, less famous, but peaceful places nevertheless. There is something about entering spaces where the rules are different. You enter barefoot. There is no idle chatter. And Islam's position against idols means these are visually quiet worlds, as patterns and mosaics on the walls and ceilings lead more to contemplation than to disruption. If you have never been to a mosque, at least an old one, I'd absolutely recommend doing it.

Lunch in a train car!

Please, please, forgive the photo. But did you know there is a car from the Hejaz Railway, which was supposed to take you on your Hajj pilgrimage from Damascus To Mecca? In the end, though, it only reached Medina. Currently, the elegant yet run-down Ottoman times car that belonged to Sultan al-Hameed serves as a restaurant, with passable food. But still, nothing beats sitting there, sipping coffee, and picturing yourself travelling in Ottoman times to distant lands... such a feast for your imagination!  

Those Christians sure make a lot of noise

It just so happens that Damascus has a Christian quarter. It also happens that many Christians in Syria are Armenian. Armenians, and Christians, don't mind drinking alcohol, too. Which means that, if you fancy a lively evening atmosphere, you head to where the Christians live! And even if you're not after alcohol, it is very interesting to experience the change in atmosphere. 

Awesome palaces and museum

We didn't go inside the Azm Palace (Palais Azem, قصر العظم), photo below, but its gorgeous Ottoman architecture was one fine sight from outside. 

What we did visit - though photography was not allowed inside, regrettably - was the National Museum of Damascus. And that, that was one amazing visit, especially since so many of the things I saw there - for real! - had been part of my imagination since I was a kid in school! Cuneiform tablets from Babylonia? Check. Seated skirted 4000-50000 thousand year-old statuettes from Iraq, Lebanon and Syria? Check. Reproduction of Umayyad-era gate as entrance to the museum? Check. Murals from the world's oldest preserved synagogue - Dura Europos, 244CE - which influenced Jewish art for the next centuries? Check. And so on and so forth. Basically, how could life be complete without a visit to this museum!?  

Damascus at night

Sure, this is no party capital. But then again, you don't travel to Syria to party, right? But the Roman ruins lit up at night, perfect for a nice stroll near the old city, or going for a dervish dance show at a restaurant? Unforgettable.

'Ahwé and narguilé anyone?

And then Jabri House, a pleasant café-restaurant in an old late 18th century Damascene house. We enjoyed Turkish coffee (it feels so weird calling it Turkish, when it's the default kind of coffee in this area!), smoked narguilé (hookah, shisha, water pipe), and relaxed in the peaceful courtyard. This was on our last day, and it was a perfect moment to just lay back, and realize what a privilege it was that we could see this ancient city and its treasures.

Damascus, we'll be back!

Tuesday, May 27, 2003

the road to Damascus - part I

Not even three months after we moved to Lebanon we decided it was time for at least a short trip to Damascus (دمشق‎‎)! I mean, this most ancient of cities, this crossroads of cultures and civilizations, was a mere 3 hour trip from Beirut! And that's because you had to go across the mountains – and a rather bureaucratic border crossing. Otherwise it could have taken just an hour and a half, especially with the sort of taxi driver we had (yes, you could simply hire a taxi to go from Beirut to Damascus).

Anyhow, this was just a weekend trip. A rather silly decision for such a historic city. But I guess we were blinded by the fact that it was so damn close? But we made very good use of our time there, at least.

Simply admiring the past

Really. You could basically do not much more than just walk around the old city, and that would be such a rich experience in and of itself! Since this site has experienced Roman, Umayyad, Mamluk and Ottoman rules, among others, walking around offers a fantastic amalgam of styles and architectures. 

Once you cross the old – the oh so old – gates into the city core you can see, for example, Roman arches and remains of Roman temples, some of them even from within souk itself...

And houses so old they almost seem like they have stood long enough to melt with the passage of time; rows of streets that make it difficult to place yourself in the 21st century; beautiful towers in different styles and set to release the mesmerizing call of the muezzin to prayer...  (the third photo below is the Minaret of the Bride, the first minaret to be built at the Umayyad Mosque, think early 8th century?)

The one and only Umayyad Mosque

And now that I mentioned the Minaret of the Bride, I have to talk about what I would say is the jewel of the city – the Umayyad Mosque. First of all, as you approach, surprise! more Roman ruins! Don't you love the contrast between that and the architecture surrounding it?

And, of course, there are Roman ruins there for one reason – the Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest and most important mosques in the world, occupies what used to be the Basilica of John the Baptist, turned into a mosque after the Arab conquest of 634. Of course, before that, this was the temple of Jupiter. Which stood where the temple to the Aramean god of thunderstorms Hadad-Ramman used to be. See? You can't step anywhere on this city without standing of multiple layers of signifiers!

But back to the mosque. You have to take off your shoes, as in any mosque. And dress modestly – no shorts for men, no arms or legs showing for women, women need a head covering too. Should anybody find this a bit restrictive (as if mosques were the only sort of religious buildings that demand some sort of dress code), what awaits inside is so well worth whatever silly discomfort. I mean, will you just look at it?

The immense courtyard, fantastic for just sitting down and taking it all in, is also witness to the building's history. The Abassids (who followed the Umayyads) built the two domes you can see at the far right – the Dome of the Clock (rightmost) and the Dome of the Treasury (left of it).

And then there's the Minaret of Qatibay, by the Mamluks (Mongols!). From 1488.

All in all, a gorgeous, imposing, rich, complex building. That, and the sheer deliciousness of ambling amongst Damascus's ancient buildings and life would make for an excellent visit. But of course, we did a lot more. But that's in my next post!