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?
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.
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.
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!