Wednesday, May 28, 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!