Exploring the Heart of Old Damascus
By: Habeeb Salloum/Arab America Contributing Writer
I was not the first person to be enthralled with Damascus – the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city. The Byzantine emperor Justinian called it ‘the light of the Orient’; ‘the writer Maurice Barres is reported to have said ‘Damascus is not a mere area of land, it is the place of the soul’; and the Prophet Muhammad reportedly refused to enter the city which he labeled ‘heaven on earth’. He preferred to wait instead for the heavenly Paradise.
In the past two decades, I had traveled a number of times to this venerable city and visited many of its countless historic sites. However, I had never savored to the utmost at centuries old streets where Aramaeans, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans and Byzantines once trod, nor tested the legendary hospitality of its inhabitants – descendants of the 7th century conquering Arabs who had made Damascus the capital of a world empire. This time I wanted to feel the pulse of the domestic scenes and see for a while the world through their eyes.
Souk al Hamidiyeh, Damascus’s main bazaar was milling with humanity as I walked with my daughter and friend who had recently graduated from the University of Damascus. We made our way slowly examining the endless shops displaying their superb artisan products for which the city is famous. I felt elated and content for I was being guided by a knowledgeable Damascene whose forefathers had lived in this ancient metropolis since time immemorial. He was an ideal companion for my plans to explore the remains of the old section of the city.
Proud of his Arab parentage- a true representative of a modern Syrian nationalist- Ghassan, as we walked, talked of his country’s religious tolerance. “Our people have coexisted peacefully for hundreds of years. Syria is the land of live and let live.” Of course, he was somewhat exaggerating. There had been persecutions, but nothing when one considers how minorities, in the past, had been totally eliminated in many European lands. The country’s countless Christian and Muslim sects are a testimony to his words.
Souk al-Hamadiyah’s high iron vaulted roof enclosed a world which was a kaleidoscope of colours. Handicrafts of all kinds, bright machine-made fabrics, carpets, clothing, gold jewelry, elaborate Damascene tablecloths and everything else needed by the householder were displayed in an attractive fashion. All goods, accept artisan products, were marked with very reasonable government-controlled prices. A shirt, which sells in North America for about $30, retailed for $4 and a fairly good pair of leather shoes for about $8.50. However, craftsmen’s merchandise was another matter. When, at times, we stopped to bargain for a piece of handicraft, the marked prices would come down to less than half. We were always warmly welcomed by the merchants and, even when we did not buy, their parting words would be, “God be with you”. It was not hard to see why the souk was a much sought-after place to shop by European and North American tourists.
Passing by a number of Roman columns from the long-gone Temple of Jupiter we reached the Umayyad mosque- the pride of Damascus. Built in 705 A.D. on the location of a basilica which itself was erected on the ruins of the pagan temple of Jupiter, it is a masterpiece of Arab/Islamic architecture and has a mausoleum which is said to contain the head of John the Baptist. The 4th holiest place in the Muslim world, the mosque is a rich collection of domes, minarets, and gilded mosaics of delicate colours. In the past, travelers described its decorations as the ultimate in Arab art. Today, renovations are in progress, but it will take many years before all its former splendour is totally renewed. In the past, we had visited this renowned Muslim house of worship and gloried in its splendour. This time we just glanced inside before continuing on our trip through old Damascus.
From the Hamadiyah we explored a labyrinth of alleyways, the best known of which were Souk al-Harir (Silk Street) with its perfumes, embroidered cloth, old caravanserais, and an ancient bath called al-Qishani; souk al-Khayatin (Tailors’ Street), incorporating a multitude of shops selling woolen material; Souk al-Bzourieh (Street of Spices), noted for its herbs; And the adjoining Souk al-Dhahab (Gold Marketplace).
All around us we could see the clash of centuries. Bedouin women in colourful traditional costumes rubbed shoulders with their sisters dressed in the latest 20th century fashions. Stately mountain men in flowing white robes elbowed their way past city labourers. No one seemed to be heeding the sellers of drinks shouting, “Refresh your soul!” Amid this movement and colour we were tantalizingly tempted by the smells of barbecuing meat and newly baked bread. It was a world in motion where the past and present intertwined.
In all these streets the vendors and shoppers, contrary to their stereotype in the West, were courteous, friendly, and hospitable. They did not seem to have any resentment against foreigners. The merchants, when told we were visitors from North America, would usually smile and say, “Welcome to our country”, and offer us a cup of coffee. When we asked for directions, a number left their shops and guided us to where we were going.
Leaving the maze of markets, we turned on the Street Called Straight, now named Madhat Pasha, toward Bab Sharqi (East Gate) – a 3rd century Roman gate. Known as Via Recta in the days of Rome, the thoroughfare is the axis of old Damascus and the street made famous in the conversion of Saint Paul to Christianity.
We moved along this famous biblical route, now edged with small shops catering mostly to Bedouin and peasants. At one of the stores we stopped to buy some of the colourful traditional Syrian clothing. During our haggling, we talked about Syria and life in Damascus. The merchant never ceased to complain about the poor business in the city. “All we have for visitors these days are Iranians. They have no money. Imagine! They bring with them a few rugs and bags of pistachios to sell or trade for domestic goods. When the Americans used to come, business boomed. They did not care what a product cost.” Of course, he was sending us a message that being rich North Americans we should not be trying to bring his prices down.
From our unhappy merchant, we made our way to the old Christian quarter whose heart is Bab Touma (Saint Thomas’s Gate). In the medieval ages all the followers of Christ lived in this part of Damascus. Today, it is still the home to most of Damascus 200,000 Christians, but many others are scattered throughout the city.
Leisurely strolling on past a restored Roman arch, we reached Bab Sharqi at the end of the Street Called Straight. From this restored imposing structure through which the Muslims first entered Damascus in 636 A.D., we followed, to the left, a narrow street hugging the ancient walls. The workshops on both sides, where most of Syria’s exquisite inlaid products are handmade were full of mosaic products- from tiny boxes to dining room sets. The choice is the best in Damascus, but a visitor must bargain. Commerce in this part of Damascus has a long tradition. It is said that here people were selling, buying, and trading, 2,000 years before the Christian era.
In a few minutes, we reached the underground Chapel of Saint Ananias, called by the Arabs Kanissat Hananiyah. About 5 m (16 ft) below ground, the church-crypt according to tradition was the cellar of the House of Ananias of biblical flame. Restored many times, it is the only early Christian house of worship to survive in Damascus. It represents the simplicity of the initial Christians and has one of the earliest histories of any still standing church.
After resting a while in its cool atmosphere, we took a taxi from outside the city walls. Traveling on wide avenues and circling the old city, in about 15 minutes we reached the main post office in the heart of town. The cost was less than $1, but we had to listen to the driver’s complaints of how hard it was to make a living while visitors had so much money to spend.
To the west of the post office are a series of tiny streets filled with shops and people’s eating places. Here, like many budget travelers we came to enjoy a full course meal at a rock bottom price. Our favorite was the Sultan Restaurant where almost, daily, we would dine on pureed chickpeas topped with fried pieces of meat accompanied by bread, pickles, two vegetarian side dishes and tea or coffee for around $2 , and that would include a tip.
Of course, for the affluent, top-class restaurants abound in all parts of Damascus, mostly along the Barada River and in the major hotels. The cost of a meal in these elegant dining places ranges from $5 to $10. However, a sumptuous meal in the finest restaurant in Syria, Nadi al-Sharq located near the Meridian Hotel, runs between $15 and $25. In the night spots along the Barada River, for an evening of live entertainment and all the food one can consume the cost is from $7 to $25 a person. However, the stars do not appear until midnight and the meal is usually eaten at that time – conducive to indigestion.
For us, more appealing than the eating places were the food and juice stalls about a 5 minute walk west of the post office along the Salhiya, al-Hamra and Sha’lan Streets. Here, a refreshing glass of carrot juice costs about 25 cents, and ovens diffusing the enticing aromas of thyme and cheese, sell their pies for less than 6 cents each.
In the ensuing days, when we tired of city life and its pleasures, we travelled to the nearby mountain resorts of Madaya, Zabadani, Bloudan, and the historic Christian towns of Maloula and Saydnaya. All had excellent bus connections with Damascus and the cost was ridiculously low. For about 50 cents, we often took air conditioned buses to one or the other of these holiday spots.
More than on any previous visit, this time our holiday in Damascus was a satisfying and enjoyable vacation. We found that there is everything under the sun for sale. Even more satisfying, the city was peaceful and safe. The police have made sure that a man or woman can walk down the street at any time of day or night, and no one will come near them. Syria’s image as a state full of terrorists has always been – even more so today – a false picture. Travelling around the city and its outskirts, I never felt unsafe. The saying that ‘Eternal Damascus guards its guests and makes them feel at home is even more true today than in the past.