SYRIA – Notes from Damascus

Reasons for visiting Syria: viewing elaborate mosques; shopping in a souk; checking out the dribs and drabs left behind by the Assyrians and the Romans – fascinating folk, both of them. Picking up some authentic, antique goodies would be nice – there’s nothing like an artefact or two in the drawing room to impress one’s friends. I’m starting My Syria tour in Damascus. I’ll be staying in the Old City, right in the middle of town. I know in a few weeks I’ll be staying in a bedouin tent and milking goats – probably smelling and looking like one…so I’m pleased to be staying at the Beit Al Mamlouka – a very cool 17th century “palace” in Old Damascus which is now a boutique hotel. At $150 + for luxurious digs, it’s very reasonable. I’m so pleased that I took French at school after visiting the impressive National Museum over in the New City: it seems that most of the instruction and plaques are in Arabic and French, guided tours are available in several different languages, but they are very crowded today. This museum is unlike any I’ve seen before: a castle gate from Ancient Palmyra; an entire 2nd-century synagogue with figurative paintings; Islamic jewels and armour and the over-the-top tombs of Roman nouveux riche from Palmyra and Aleppo who came to lord it over the Assyrians. I like their style.

Afternoon at the Souk El-Hamidiyeh

Afternoon at the Souk El-Hamidiyeh

The holiest site in the Damascus’ Old City The unique and opulent Umayyed Mosque, and what a history it has: The original site was an Assyrian (Aramaean) temple, then the Romans converted it to a temple of Jupiter, the Byzantines thought they had it for keeps when they dedicated it to John the Baptist and made it a church…then, strangely, they started sharing the building with Muslim worshippers after the Islamic conquest of Damascus in 636. Finally, the Muslims purchased the site in the early 8th century and, in a peaceful takeover, rebuilt it, keeping the Shrine of John the Baptist which is visited by Christians to this day. It’s very tourist-friendly here: the courtyard is a meeting place for families and we are allowed to take pictures throughout the mosque. Ladies, be prepared for the erotic grey sack you will be loaned at the door – I thought that my modest attire and my headscarf would be enough, but no…ah well, rules are rules and I did my best to make it work.

My hunger soon drives me away from the mosque and towards Beit Jabri. This lavishly decorated restaurant is in yet another old restored house dating from 1737, and I was just stunned by the prices – mezze plates, manakish (syrian pizza) and salads are all about $7 or $8 per person, and this place is very luxe! Everything is fresh and delicious, and I was especially impressed by the falafel and the homemade saaj bread. The service is great and the staff are happy for you to relax, play backgammon and smoke a sheesha pipe in the beautiful courtyard by the fountain. It’s good for a lunch-time place  but not a night on the town as no alcohol is served: it’s too close to the mosque. Next, I take a trip to the Old Souk El-Hamidiyeh, which is an enormous market, open daily, and built among the ruins of a Roman fortress. Rose jam is sold here and I think it’s such an underrated preserve, rarely sold in my country and can usually only be found if someone’s Granny makes a batch. I got several pots, which won’t last long as I’m eating it out of the jar as I write… The souq is mostly covered and is a most welcome refuge from the heat…are they bullet holes in the iron roof?I believe so….I make a beeline for the famous Bakdash ice cream parlour – a dollar for the creamiest homemade ice cream rolled in pistachio nuts is, well – nuts! It’s made my day. Now to find the antique guy who’s going to make my whole trip – I know he’s here somewhere. The fancy boutiques in the Christian quarter are stunning but I’m not interested in paying $2000 for a Byzantine icon, no matter how stunning it is we have our limited backpack space to consider as the freight of such items can be very expensive – so the souk is the best option for me. I did manage to find this beautiful jug from the 30’s in the Christian quarter. I have my first encounter with Kashani Pottery (a Persian style that is very popular in Syria) and am very impressed by their whimsical designs-I buy a tile of a smiling fish with big eyes. To avoid being hassled by touts to buy their goods and to visit their uncle’s shop, I just keep my ipod on, smile and move fast. It’s a pain in the arse, actually – an hour or 2 is more than enough if you pretend to have no knowledge of English or Arabic.Or French.Or Japanese, German, Italian, Spanish… these guys are serious traders, keen to communicate in any language. There is a beautiful shop by the name of Tony Stephan which sells authentic damask silk, so I grab some stuff for Mum. The prices are considerably higher than the other textiles shops, but this is the real deal, and you do get what you pay for in these markets.

A beautiful jug from the Christian Quarter

Some of these “antique” shops are rubbish and seem to have piles of “genuine” Roman (plastic) beads and oil lamps. Indeed! Just as I’m about to give up, I find George Dabdoub’s shop in front of the Azem Palace. Nice staff, not too pushy, full of genuine items at a reasonable price. I look at the shops around the square outside the palace, which are very touristy, but there are treasures to be found if you hunt for them. There are similar shops around this area and in one of them I pick up a 10th-century Arabic jug, slightly damaged, hence very low $200 price tag, but the fine cracks give it a rustic look that I love… also it’s filthy. It’ll need a clean before it makes the drawing room. The Arab jug is a find, but I’m asking too much to find an Assyrian piece in reasonable condition, although Roman artefacts are ubiquitous in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

You too can get this amazing look – only at the Umayyad Mosque.

Even if I had the energy for a night out, what I saw of it last night looked seedy, overpriced and a bit tacky – most of the nightclubs are in the big hotels like the Cham Palace and the Sheraton. Maybe I didn’t look at the right places but having just come from hip and happening Lebanon, Damascus nightlife seems a bit quieter. I am tempted to check out the glamourous and oh-so-posh Club d’Orient on Sharia Mrewed for dinner and drinks, but I’m wiped out – time to go back to my lovely room and study the my Arabic phrase book and eat my jam. Travel tips for Syria:

  • Girls: bring your own headscarf to wear if you plan to visit the mosques so you don’t have to borrow one of their grubby ones. You may also like to wear one around town in the middle of the day for a bit of shade – so much better than a hat!
  • It’s not a good idea for anyone to wear shorts away from the pool/beachside
  • Sounds basic, but bring your own water (and maybe a cool bag ) if you’re having a day out – I had trouble getting cold water from a shop in some places, It seems that the locals prefer to drink in a cafe or restaurant than have a water in the street.
  • Make SURE that none of your photos contain anything that is remotely military: people,buildings,signs…make sure they aren’t in the background.
  • Don’t be alarmed if the guy at immigration hassles on the way out- I got an hour-long lecture about how my passport  (which is well used)”looks fake” and it’s “too old”, “you can’t use it anymore” and “you must get a new one now!” …all this was translated from Arabic for me by the nice guy behind me in the line. I just apologised and politely explained that I can’t get one until my current one expires in 3 years.The idiot was reading it upside down…He probably can’t read at all. I got this twice, my friend was held up for hours. It all works out it the end, usually. They are often looking for bribes but I never offer any unless things get ugly.

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