Life, Times and Experiences - Old City and Well Beyond
As always, my aim here is to facilitate the travels of interested tourists.
Syria is clearly not a country whose name conjures travel-fever in the common tourist's ear by the likes of Thailand, Bali, Mallorca, Gran Canaria or Cote D'Azur. This, however, is a BIG mistake. It is the home of Damascus and Aleppo (the two cities which compete for position of world's oldest inhabited cities), The Euphrates River (and the images created by it of bygone civilizations and gives Syria properly its position as the Cradle of Civilization in its Mesopotamian East), The Mediterranean Sea (along which the country's Alawites and most liberal population dwell), a plethora of Roman and other ancient ruins (Palmyra, Dura Europos, Rasafa, Ugarit (world's first alphabet), Apamea, Halabiyye), and even more must-see stops on the Christian or Muslim's pilgrimage to the Holy Land (Dozens of Crusader and Muslim Castles including the world's undisputed greatest - Crac des Chevaliers/Qala'at al-Hosn, Ma'aloula (the only town left which speaks Aramaic, the language of Jesus (PBUH)), dozens of monasteries, the Umayyad Mosque (Islam's first great mosque), Shia Holy Sites, etc etc), signs of a destructive past (Quneitra and the Dead Cities), and odd still-existing living patterns (in the form of the eccentric beehive houses).
Though Bush included the country in his infamous "Axis of Evil", Syria's experience is quite different from what this would connotate. Instead it is one of the safest places to travel in the whole world, with Damascus making top-10 safe cities on the planet according to the UN list. Similarly it is the home of various religious and ethnic minorities that live in apparent co-existence. The country's 10% Christians put on quite the light and tree show every Christmas in and outside their homes, and shrines to Mary and Jesus straddle the streets of Damascus' Old City. The country's Druze population live in the South and the Kurdish population in the Northeast. Along the Mediterranean coast dwell the Alawites, who like the Christians refrain from wearing headscarves. There is also a sizeable Shia-Muslim population from Iran, though the clearest majority is its 70%-strong Sunni-Muslim population. The people are some of the most hospitable anywhere, and sometimes unimaginably so. It is not uncommon for a Syrian to whom you only asked for directions to leave his group of friends and take you personally to wherever you are heading, and if this includes a bus journey, he will pay for it (both his and yours) and no method of persuasion will ever let him accept your payment.
Since the opening of the country about a decade ago, the tourism industry has been of the most booming sectors of the Syrian economy, though due to its prior non-existence, the face of tourist is still more or less a novelty to most Syrians. The phrase Ahlan wa Sahlan fi Souria (Welcome to Syria) quickly becomes the first phrase of Arabic known to any visitor.
But as in any other place, there are things to watch out for. Assuming there are any young women in your group, it is advisable not to dress as one would back in Europe, and not to be too friendly with local men. Their conception of western women is usually formed through television and so it is safe to say you may get a bit too much unwanted attention, especially in the villages. It is better to say that one is Christian than Atheist - believing in God, whichever religion you belong to is considered great, but not believing is even difficult to comprehend. The summer heat can be unbearable, where the period November to March offers the best traveling experience. Also, discussing Syrian politics is a no go...especially if someone asks you about it. The other problems are evident: poverty and pollution is clear. Much of the country, and no less Damascus, is underdeveloped and unclean, so if you are expecting 5-star comfort and clean air in the cities, you won't find it outside your hotel. But what Syria offers in terms of sights and in terms of its people, is not to be missed!
Part I: Damascus
Having now lived here for over half year, Damascus is decidedly a city I have come to know quite well in my time here. Most foreigners do not really make it out of the Old City except on their way to and from a hostel, but the greater city has much more on offer.
City Walls and Citadel
Damascus' Old City (most of it from the Middle Ages) is its most renowned landmark, though it only covers a small section of the city's greater area. The most obvious indication of your arrival here are the imposing walls of the Citadel (Qala'at), right next to Souq al Hamediya. At the time of writing, the citadel is itself closed, and the rest of the city walls cannot be traversed. In many places the houses of the Old City are packed and layered on top of the city wall itself, a bizarre sight.
Souq Al-Hamediya (Souq, Bakdash, and Roman Temple Gate)
Most visitors would start their tour of the Old City by entering through Souq Al-Hamediya. Souq means market in Arabic. The main boulevard of this souq is covered and has a maze of alleyways going in all directions. Though there is little as of interesting trinkets to offer the tourist (most of the objects sold here are sparkly and those that are not are relatively expensive), it is a must. Stopping by Bakdash ice-cream, full of hundreds of crowding Syrians, about halfway through the main walkway is a must for any new-comer. But the main attraction is seeing the thousands of bustling Syrians pave their way through the crowds at this Ottoman-era market. At the end of the souq is a large Roman arch which once stood at the entrance of the Roman-era Temple of Jupiter, which looks into a new courtyard which now provides entrance to the famed Umayyad Mosque.
The Umayyad Mosque is the world's greatest relic left by the Umayyad dynasty, who ruled the Muslim world soon after the death of Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). The current building dates from the 7th Century, and is Islam's first great mosque (you could say...its first Cathedral), and so ranks 4th in holiness only after its equivalents in Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem. Nonetheless, this mosque is not only of intrigue to Muslims. Immediately upon entering the mosque and putting on your robes in the "Putting on Special Clothes Room" is the tomb of Saladin, who is the famed (and not least very respected) defeater of the Crusaders. As is Muslim fashion, upon entering the main courtyard, you must remove your shoes and then enter upon Damascus' cleanest spot - the blazing courtyard of the mosque which is cleaned at least 100 times per day. Around the courtyard are the beautiful remains of gold mosaics which once covered the entire courtyard and now just covers one side. The size, age and beauty of these mosaics provide the main attraction of the mosque to non-Muslims. Inside the mosque itself, which is not as intricately decorated as Ottoman or newer mosque, is a shrine wherein lies the supposed head of St John the Baptist (PBUH) and another more difficult to find shrine of Hussain (PBUH).
Though technically not a palace, this Ottoman house turned museum is Damascus' second-most renowned attraction. It chronicles the life of the Al-Azem family (who repeatedly governed Damascus) and by showing the various parts of this gigantic house explains (in English and Arabic) the life of Syria during Ottoman times. Everything from schooling, the situation of women, bathing, weaponry, arts and crafts, music and entertainment, and the Hajj Caravan (pilgrimage to Mecca) are explained - though sometimes through tacky wax-sculptures. Though already a good museum, the real attraction is the house itself - a pearl of Damascene architecture! It is only a one minute walk away from the Umayyad Mosque.
Khans and Old Houses
If Azem Palace is your thing, then the whole city is cramped with Khans (traditional travellers inns) and old houses. Indeed almost all the houses in the old city, despite their plain facades, include gorgeous courtyards abound with plants, vines and usually a fountain or two. The most famous of these are Khan Asa'ad Pasha, which only needs a short visit - a peek into its enormous 9-domed courtyard with various shades and inlays of stonework. Spend some time finding your favourite is my advice - mine is Beit Nizaam, where I was given a private showing by a Syrian friend of mine. It is currently undergoing a three-year restoration phase and upon completion will turn into a 5-star boutique hotel, but knocking on the doors and asking security if you can wander for a few minutes might prove fruitful. You might even be invited to stay for a cup of tea or coffee! It is located at the south-western corner of the Old City, not so far from the covered Souq Medhat Basha.
On the same line, the Old City must have hundreds of restaurants located randomly more or less everywhere. As is the case with the houses, many of these offer renovated and gorgeous courtyards where you can enjoy your meals and a drink or two. Syria's food is very tasty and equally varied. There is the mezze, which is an amalgam of small platters which includes hummous, baba ganoush, fette, fattoush, lebne, mohammara, etc etc. There is of course the region-wide falafel and shawarma dishes, as well as some of the best freshly-squeezed juice around. Polo, a blended ice drink with lemon and mint is an exotic favourite with both locals and foreigners.
Bab Touma, Bab Sharqi and Sharia 'Aimariye
The Eastern half of the Old City is the domain of the city's Christian population, though a sizable Muslim population also live here. The general area is referred to as Bab Touma (Thomas' Gate), and comprise the area between Bab Kisan, Bab Sharqi, Bab Touma and Bab As-Salaam. To get here from the Umayyad Mosque, head along the right side of the mosque until you get to the far side. From here you enter the second-most-famous street in the Old City - Shariah 'Aimariye (Qaimariye Street). This street is abound with historic coffeehouses, restaurants, and souvenir shops, including a lively art-scene. On the right immediately after the Umayyad Mosque is Cafe Nawfara, where the last Hakawaati (traditional storyteller) Abu Shady still sits everyday at 5PM. As you walk down this street you enter Bab Touma at some point along its way.
Bab Touma Square (Saahet Bab Touma) itself is not extraordinary, but along the ruined Roman gate run the city walls. Directly to the left outside the gate is a path that takes you along an outer stretch of the city wall along the now heavily depleted and polluted Barada River. The area right outside the gate on the right has recently been renovated and now houses a little park and a nicely restored walkway along the wall for a hundred meters or two. Well worth a look. In fact the houses along the outside wall here are probably the most beautiful in all the Old City...layering and pushing out from every empty space on offer. The park although not too far from the main road, is quite peaceful and a good place to enjoy your lunch.
Walking down Bab Touma Street (inside the Old City) takes you right down to what the Bible refers to as The Street Called Straight. To the right is a Roman arch and a lone minaret and finally Souq Medhat Pasha. On the left is Bab Sharqi. This is most likely the most beautiful street in Damascus, full of expensive boutique hotels, restaurants, Ottoman houses, etc.
Cramped inside the winding streets between 'Aimariye Street and Bab As-Salaam is the Iranian built Mosque in honour of the Shia Martyr Sayyeda (Lady) Roqqaya. Visiting the mosque and its twin Sayyeda Zainab is always an interesting experience. The closer you get to the shrine, the larger the crowd of black ahead of you as flocks of veiled Shia pilgrims converge on the site. Though the mosque is difficult to see from the outside, being so cramped inside many others, the inside is a maze of silver and shining shades of all colours. It is quite a spectacle, though not comparable to the much greater construction of Sayyeda Zainab just outside the city.
Going to the Hammam
One of the Muslim World's most enjoyable activities is to take an hour or two off to enjoy the comforts of a Turkish Bath (aka. Hammam), and watching layers of dirt expunged from recently scrubbed off layers of skin and taking in the massage and steam rooms. Damascus has plenty on offer, none expensive and all enjoyable. They are of course single sex, with some having times for men and times for women, and others being exclusively one gender.
Other Old City Sights - Stations of St. Paul, Orthodox Cathedral
The list above is of course no comprehensive guide to the old city, and here is a list of a few more for those especially keen. If Christian pilgrimage is your type of thing, the Old City offers not only St. John the Baptists head but also several stations associated with the life of St. Paul, who was converted to Christianity here. After falling of his horse right outside the city and becoming blinded, Saul was guided to the house of St. Ananias, who cured his blindness and baptised Saul, who thence became Paul. The house of Ananias is on the end of a little street just on the right as you enter the old city through Bab Sharqi. As Paul was sought by the Jewish authorities and needed to escape, he was lowered down the city walls in a basket through a window which is not housed just over Bab Kisan, on the left as you head down Straight Street towards Souq Medhat Pasha. Neither of the sights are particularly extraordinary, but still offer an interesting twist to the otherwise more obvious attractions. There is also a monastery-like Greek Orthodox Cathedral on the left as you head down Straight Street with natural rock columns and many interesting icons.
Leaving the Old City
As you exit the Old City, there are various squares, quarters, and areas of interest for any variation of traveler. Many hotels are located around Youssef al-Azma Square. Al-Merjeh (Martyr's Square) has a lovely little park and a newly constructed mosque as well as the building of the old Hijaz Railway Station, one of Damascus' finest. The Four Seasons Hotel is the most obvious building on any panorama of the city, and is also clearly the most modern construction in town. The Tekkiye Sulemaniye Souq and Mosque offers the most beautiful handicrafts market and one of the most striking mosques anywhere in the city, though the building itself cannot be entered.
If you only do one thing in Damascus apart from seeing the Old City, visiting Iranian-built Sayyeda Zainab Mosque should be the thing. Though it lacks the Umayyad Mosque's historical roots, this shrine to the Shia Martyr Sayyeda Zainab makes up plenty for this in splendour. And unlike the Umayyad Mosque this includes the inner decoration as well as the outer, as one step inside more or less blinds you if you are not too careful. For the women, watching the bizarre spectacle of crying veiled Iranian women throwing Barbie dolls and other trinkets atop the tomb martyr whilst trying to make it to the tomb itself before being carried away by the tidal wave of women trying to touch it gives a new definition to religious fervour not witnessed in Europe or America for quite some time.
Jebel Qassioun is Damascus' greatest natural landmark - the mountain seen more or less from any point within the city. It is from this mountain that Mohammed (PBUH) passed by Damascus, saying he would not enter as he only wanted to enter paradise/heaven once...upon his death. Now Damascus might not provide quite the image of paradise and fertility that Mohammed once saw all those centuries ago, but the vista of this gargantuan city stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. During the day the mountain might offer a good medium for getting your bearings, but the main attraction of this city is at night, when the yellow lights of houses and green lights of Mosques continue to the end of the horizon and beyond.
The National Museum is just a short walk from Merjeh, right past the Tekkiye Sulemaniye Souq and Mosque Complex. Entering the museum grounds brings you into a lovely little park with statue remains from ages past dispersed around small walkways and benches. At the entrance to the museum itself is the reconstructed facade of another giant of Umayyad architecture - Qasr Al Heyr al-Gharbi (on the road to Palmyra/Tadmor). The exhibitions inside have newly been restored with Italian help and take you through various eras of Syrian history and various important archaeological finds - including Ugarit (where the world's first-ever alphabet was found), Mari (the Sumerian/Mesopotamian city which now offers the world the greatest insight into the world's first civilization), Dura Europos (the reconstructed Synagogue is the museum's most popular exhibit), Palmyra, and many more. People are generally either indifferent or in love with this museum, depending on their historical tastes. It offers great insight into various cultures that are not often exhibited back in Europe or America, but does not display many artifacts of large size or striking beauty (though that of course is absolutely relative/subjective).
Tishreen War Memorial
The Tishreen War Memorial/Panorama is one of Damascus' most bizarre spectacles. Constructed entirely with the help of North Korea, it is mostly a museum dedicated to Syrian victories in the 1973 war against Israel, in most part to Syrian forces' successful capture of an Israeli watchtower, and also operates as a kind of celebration of the life of the current President's father. Outside the building itself are two collections of war vehicles - one of Syrian origin and one of captured Israeli origin. The Panorama is located about 2km north of the Old City. (more information forthcoming)
Dar Al-Assad Opera
The Damascus Opera House (Dar Al-Assad Opera House) offers one of the cities finest examples of architecture and a great variety of music. It is always worth checking the programme if you spend a couple of days in Damascus, which offers everything from full-scale opera productions to locally-composed blends of Oriental and Occidental music-styles, with first-class tickets costing only 5 euros (300SP). The building itself is located in one of the city's most famous squares, Saahet al-Umawiyeen (Umayyad Square) and is itself a blend of modern and more traditional Islamic style. URL: http://www.opera-syria.org/en_next/main.asp.
After having lived in Damascus for nearly half a year is the first time I made to the trip to the Tishreen Gardens, which grows out of Umawiyeen Square (opposite the Opera House) like a funnel. To all of our surprises, it was an actual park, even by Western standards, and at least several hundred Damascene families were picnicking underneath the shadow of the trees as we walked around.
Cain and Abel
Links to other entries
If you are interested in knowing more about other places to visit in Syria, I have several other blog entries covering other regions.
All of Syria: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/
Part I - Damascus and Introduction to the Country: http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/3/
Part II - The South (Bosra, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/4/
Part III - Damascus Countryside (Ma'aloula, Seydnayya, Deir Mar Musa, Bloudan, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/5/
Part IV - The Road to Palmyra (Tadmor): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/6/
Part V - Central Syria (Crac des Chevaliers, Homs, Hama, ...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/7/
Part VI - Aleppo Governorate (Syria's Second Capital): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/8/
Part VII - Euphrates Pt. 1 (Deir Ez-Zor Governorate): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/9/
Part VIII - Meditarranean Coast (Latakia, Tartous,...): http://espen-lutken.travellerspoint.com/10/