Damascus is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Even the New City has roots over a millenium old. Nothing is replaced; everything is reused and recycled. As I was to find out...
by Liam Hetherington on March 1, 2010
Damascus, you are continually informed, is the oldest continually inhabited city on earth. Even without venturing into the Old City I could believe it – the clapped-out old bangers on the roads, the 1000-year old houses canting crazily alongside the main roads in the New City, the typical Middle Eastern love of concrete architecture. As such I found the Hotel Afamia in perfect keeping with its surroundings. The room furnishings were dated, the Syronics TV – practically a metre cubed in size – could not pick up a single television channel, looking out any window revealed a tangle of several dozen electrical wires knotted like a skein of knitting wool running along the sill. Add in the frequent block-wide blackouts and greyouts and it really was like stepping back into the ‘70s. Though not in a fun afro-and-flares disco party type way. The stern staring visage of the late President Hafez al-Assad staring down from billboards throughout the country like a rather peeved vulture was enough to dispel any Saturday night fever.According to my Lonely Planet the Afamia is "Damascus’ best mid-range hotel… a fine choice whichever room you get". This really isn’t a description I recognise; it is certainly a damning indictment of all the other hotels in Damascus. The breakfast (for which you have to pay extra) is plentiful but tired and lacklustre. They do laundry, but ask how much it will cost first. I was charged an eye-watering amount for one bag of washing (three times what it would have cost me in a launderette back in the UK) – they charge by the sock.There are positives. The staff are generally helpful – they certainly sorted me out with a taxi driver to take me to Bosra. But best of all is probably the location. It is right behind the main post office (which has an internet café). The Hejaz train station is only just around the corner, a five minute walk to the south. The entry to the Old City via Souq al-Hamidiyya is about a kilometre to the east. The Takiyya and National Museum are about a kilometre to the west along the main road from the Saahat ash-Sham flyover. Roughly the same distance to the north is Saahat Yousef al-Azmeh (where I found the only ATM that would accent my Maestro card) and the Cham Palace. Just over a kilometre to the northeast across Martyrs’ Square is Souk Saroujah. So here you really are right in the heart of the city, within walking distance of anywhere you would want to be. And the neighbourhood round about has plenty of falafel takeaways, juice stalls, bottle shops, and camera accessory retailers. So the location is actually a reason to consider the Afamia – if you don’t mind the basic and dated amenities.
Souq Saroujah (literally, the ‘Saddlers’ Bazaar’) is a neighbourhood of intertwining streets and alleys north of the Citadel. It keeps a village-y atmosphere and is (mostly) free of Damascus’ usual high-rise concrete architecture. As such, it is a favourite with travellers – there are cheap eateries and even a couple of backpacker hostels in the souq. It is a good venue for a bit of a mooch as it is less frenetic than either the main roads of the New City or the souqs of the Old. We easily found a café to sit down outside, a lovely old building on a small square overhung with ivy and ancient trees across from an ornately lacquered shopfront. Fresh fruit juice (lemon and mint) cost 100SYP, and they had shishas to hire too. There was a great atmosphere. Even though this was the ‘New City’, the buildings were still hundreds of years old. In the wall of the café itself one stone carried an Arabic inscription, hinting at the provenance of the place. We were sat in a graveyard. For Souq Saroujah stands on the site of the old Umayyad cemetries north of the Old City and the Barada River. As ever with Damascus, the old had been reused, and the ancient tombs provided the foundations for later living quarters.
Syria really was part of the cradle of civilisation. As such, a visit to the National Museum west down the main Sharia Shoukri al-Quwatli is well worth while for history buffs, and will help you contextualise the ancient sites you visit in the country.The ticket office is on the road itself, allowing access to a well-watered statue-dotted garden. Entry to the museum itself is via the castelline main entrance – the main gate of a 7th century desert palace recreated here, looking like a chess piece with its chunky towers. The most famous exhibits are off to the left, with finds from the classical eras – primarily Palmyra and Dura Europus on the Euphrates. Here you will find hefty statuary in dark basalt, a complete contrast to the Jordanian sandstone I had become used to. There are a lot of statues of two gods in particular: winged Victory, and Bacchus, god of wine. There is a fabulous Dura Europus mosaic dating from 75BC. Palmyra is represented by examples of their surviving fabrics – linen, cotton, and silk imported from Chian. They also have a grand sarcophagus, gods and warriors on the front, griffons on the back. A Roman grandee lies atop it (with a slightly mis-matched head). But most Palmyrenes were buried in funerary towers. These eerie towers (the hypogeums) were multi-story tombs atop each other. A reconstruction of the Hypogeum of Yarhai downstairs shows you the layout. A central niche held statues of the family reclining, as if they were at dinner in their triclinium. All the other wall space would be wall space for tombs of the family members, inserted in lengthways (think of a morque in a cop show). Each tomb would be plugged by a square bas relief of those contained within. It is this that really brings the people of Palmyra to vivid life; each image is different and characterful. The staircase down to it was roped off, but when I asked the guard if I could have a look he let be enter for "five minutes" – so if an exhibit is cordoned off it is well worth asking someone in authority for a look anyway.The final room in this wing was another reconstruction: the 2nd century Dura Europus Synagogue. This has walls illustrated with Talmudic inscriptions and Old Testament frescoes, and a painted wooden ceiling. It was really interesting to examine depicitions of Jewish heroes from such an early date. Frankly, they could have been Christian iconography. These were the major draws – but I was wowed by the other (west) wing. Less, I must admit, for the Islamic rooms (some nice woodwork, illuminated manuscripts, and a statuette of a Mongol knight fighting a dragon) than for the pre-classical rooms. These were full of artefacts from cultures of whom I had previously never heard – Ugarit, Ras Shamra, Ebla, Mari, Raqqa. The first room, devoted to the Ugarit culture (after whom Syria’s answer to Coke, Ugarit Cola, is named) was a real eye-opener. On display here I found not only the world’s earliest alphabet, but also its earliest musical scale. Ivory carvings from a bed and a superb table-top are exquisitely fashioned and are still in pristine condition – they date from 1400BC. The people of Ras Shamra were clearly influenced by the cultures of Egypt and Greece in their artistry. A mighty basalt statue stands guard at the end of the corridor. And the Bronze Age Mari rooms I found to be real crowd pleasers, with their loveable carvings. Their priests seemed to uniformly be rather wacky-looking guys clad in feathers with black-outlined cartoonish eyes and pierced nipples. These dated from some three millenia before Christ. These guys were worth the entrance fee alone!For 150 SYP spending 90 minutes at the National Museum is well recommended – particularly if you intend to visit Palmyra. And for real archaeology buffs it is an absolute must-see with their parade of long-forgotten cultures vividly brought to life by the exhibits on display.The National Museum is closed on Tuesdays. On other days it opens at 9am, and shuts at 6pm (April till September) or 4pm (October till March)
Sharia Bur Said is a major north-south route in central Damascus, anchored at its lower end by the Hejaz train station, and heading north under the Victoria Bridge intersection to Saahat Yousef al-Azmeh. We were fortunate to find a pretty decent restaurant on this street, although it was rather hidden away (look for the plastic chef ushering you up a staircase on the western side of the avenue). Upstairs, the restaurant itself is a lovely little hidden nook, all mashrabiyya screens and intricate woodwork, with some customers puffing away on shishas. The customers were a mix, though jean-clad 20-somethings outnumbered their parents generation. The staff were friendly, They didn’t speak much English, and the English menu didn’t particularly explain what each dish was. So it was a struggle to attempt to find out what the differences were between the different kebabs listed on the menu.I started out with grilled kibbeh (50 SYP). This was a croquette the size of a large egg, stuffed with mince. British soldiers in the Second World War jocularly referred to them as ‘Syrian torpedoes’. Still, I was able to sink it with no worries. I must say though that it paled into insignificance compared to the size of the Greek salads, fatooshes and lentil soups others in the party had.I had a kebab for my main – well it seemed like the done thing. Of course, we didn’t really have much idea of what the differences were between the different kebabs. For example, what was the difference between the Aleppo kebab (200 SYP) that Chris ordered and the khushkhash kebab (225 SYP) that I went for? Well, it turned out that the Aleppo kebab comes with lots of tomato sauce; the khushkhash with a grilled half-tomato and more chopped coriander and onion. Still, my entire meal cost the equivalent of £4.00 GBP.We finished off with some sweets as it was Vaiyya’s birthday – sweet cheese parcels with characteristic rosewatewr syrup poured over them – lovely!Considering its location on an otherwise rather unprepossessing main road, I would say that Ez al-Sham is well worth seeking out.
For history nerds and armchair Indiana Joneses a trip out of Damascus to Bosra, the nearest major archaeological site, is well recommended. Though you may not have the ruins all to yourselves…Buses run to Bosra from Damascus’ Al-Samariyeh bus station. I did not have the luxury of time however as I was already booked on a bus to Palmyra at 1.30. So instead I hired a taxi for a half-day for 3500 SYP. This seems a lot, but actually it was less than three times the price that return bus tickets would have cost me, it was quicker (75 minutes to get there, 90 to get back), and it guaranteed that I could be there, have a good nosy around, and be back in Damascus in time for my bus to Tadmor. And it really only equated to £46 GBP. The road to Bosra essentially retraced the speed-bumped motorway almost down to the Jordanian border crossing before striking out east for 40km. On these smaller roads I was struck by the beauty of the Syrian countryside. The general perception of the entire area being desert is quite wrong; the terrain was the lushest I saw throughout my travels. Lizard-green trees paced alongside the road, French-fashion, their vivid leaves contrasting with the rich red earth of the fields. The fringe of grass to either side was a dry brittle yellow. The palette of colours reminded me of a Van Gogh landscape. I could quite easily have been in Provence.Bosra, capital of Nabatea (once the Nabateans ventured out from their hide-away at Petra), capital of the Roman province of Arabia Petraea, is a town of black basalt and dust. There is a newer town but – in true Syrian fashion – people still inhabit the old. Houses are built between towering Roman colums. Ancient masonry is incorporated into more modern walls. The sunken decumanus, hemmed by the remains of a colonnade is still a major thoroughfare. Villagers cut through the ruins. A little girl in pink asked if I wanted a photograph. Two boys passed by on their way to school. An old woman in a startling midnight blue velvet robe swayed along with a bin bag balanced on her head. And young men on motorbikes clucked up, asking whether I wanted a guide, or some Roman coins (I must say, I found the pester factor here worse than anywhere outside Egypt). A smartly-dressed man beckoned me forward as he unlocked the gateway to the ruins of a 14th century Mamluk hammam and pointed out its features in halting English; I tipped him 50 SYP for his troubles. There is no entrance fee to wander the dusty streets that comprise the archaeological site of Bosra – how could they enforce it when villagers still live among the ruins? The site covers probably a square kilometre, centred on the main east-west axis of the column-lined decumanus. At the western end is the Bab al-Hawa (Gate of the Wind) with niches for statuary, still connected to remnants of Roman-era wall. It stretches east to a deep and sinisterly dark Nabatean arch; a plainer brick arch, the Bab al-Qandil, stands at the road’s midpoint.North of the decumanus is a confusing jumble of ruins and houses that just look like ruins. There are informative noticeboards scattered throughout the site though to try and help you make sense of the arches, the Roman market, the curtain walls of a Christian cathedral dating from 512AD, and a linked monastery. This Christian monastery played a key part in the development of Islam. It was supposedly whilst travelling through Bosra as a young lad that Muhammad met a Christian monk called Bahira. It was Bahira who prophesied that Muhammad would become a great Prophet (with a capital ‘P’), and who also sold him on the concept of monotheism. To continue the link to early Islam, the town also contains the Mosque of Omar, a small, low affair with a square minaret, that dates from the 7th-8th century. This mosque is still in use, and its bell clanked ricketedly while I was passing. South of the decumanus is a forest of Ionic columns marking the site of a very large public bath complex. But it is the hulking silhouette beyond them that is Bosra’s main attraction and the reason why UNESCO have declared it a World Heritage Site.The Roman theatre at Bosra is one part of the town that you do need to pay to enter (150 SYP). And if you are here it is certainly worth it. Bosra’s USP is that the theatre here retains its stage wall, the backdrop against which the actors would performs. As such it is only one of three theatres in the world that still retains this (the others are at Aspendos in Turkey, and Orange in France). Around the semi-circular orchestra climb three tiers of steeply-raked seating; estimates say that it would have held up to 9000 spectators! The topmost walkway was clearly once colonnaded. From up here you can gain vantage points across the whole town. Because here’s the thing: while most theatres were carved into existing geological features (the seating at Orange for instance climbs up a hillside) this theatre was built free-standing – quite frankly there wasn’t any suitable feature or hill for miles around. As such the theatre dominates the town much more than in other places. This proved its utility in other ways. Again, like Orange, the theatre has seen mixed usage in its time. And here it was converted into a citadel by Arabs. Protective walls and towers were grafted on to its structure, like lagging around a boiler, to make a formiddable stronghold against the Crusaders. However, unlike the ruins around and about, there is no real labelling inside the theatre complex. And the toilets, hidden down in the dark bowels of the building, are quite exceptionally foetid!The spectacular (and almost unique) theatre is the main reason tourists come to Bosra. But I found the most rewarding aspect was just wandering the columned-and-arched streets of this almost deserted metropolis by myself, seeing the life that still goes on amidst the ancient structures in true Syrian fashion. I spent two hours here, but you can easily spend more.
His name, he told me, was Anwar. His name meant ‘light’ – the day of his birth saw his little Syrian village connected up to electricity for the first time and he was born that night beneath the glow of an electric lightbulb. He told me this as we flew over Germany en route to Istanbul. I was travelling on to Cairo. Anwar knew Cairo – he had studied medicine at the university there in the days of Nasser and Sadat, back before he had moved to England to practice as a doctor. Today he was travelling back to Damascus to see his family. When he heard that my journey overland from Cairo to Istanbul would take me through Damascus he all but insisted that I take his mobile phone number so that he could show me around his home town. It was only by saying that I was travelling with a group that I managed to dissuade him. Still, he gave me advice on what to do with my time in Damascus – check out the Takiyya near the National Museum, wander around the old Jewish quarter ("the Jews were the handymen, the artisans; their neighbourhood is very ornate"), queue up for ice cream with the presidents and dignitaries at Bakdash on Souq al-Hamidiyya, take a trip out to Bosra and see how villagers still lived among the Roman ruins."I am not a tour guide" the old man said. We had fallen into step together as we walked down the old Biblical ‘Street called Straight’ in Damascus’ old city. He may not have been a tour guide, but Maurice proceded to direct me to some of the local churches and hand out advice on where to get cheap eats in the Christian Quarter he called home. As we parted company he extended one final offer. Every evening at 7pm I would be able to find him worshipping at the old Chapel of Ananias; he would be pleased if I could join him. Aleppo, the first day of Ramadan. Leaving my hotel room as the sun sank two of the staff called me over. They had set up a table with food and drink. They would be honoured if I would join them for dinner as they broke their fast.I was to experience this time and time again during my stay in Syria: simple unforced hospitality. It happened too many times to be a coincidence. People were pleased to see tourists. In a night club the DJ ordered shots for our table and joined us to down them. Breaking a journey at a roadside reststop we entered to find it overflowing with about 200 adolescent members of the Syrian army on national service. Their reaction as they saw us enter was like that of over-excited puppies. A chorus of happy "Hello!"s and "You are welcome!"s filled the air. There were negatives too, particularly for females. At that same rest-stop one girl’s thigh did get ‘accidentally’ groped. At Palmyra a restaurant owner plied a female friend with free drinks before inviting her back to see his ‘Bedouin tent’. Filling up for petrol, a group of lounging men paused from smoking their cigarettes for just long enough to start taking photographs of the girls climbing in and out of our van on their mobile phones. Most shocking of all one girl was goosed in the Shrine of Hussain at the Umayyad Mosque itself. All around was the wailing and crying of fevered religion and one guy thought it appropriate to pinch the backside of a visitor, despite her all-concealing grey robe.These negatives can be experienced in any Arab country – stereotypes of western women are gained from watching our films and TV shows, and unfortunately the behaviour of some tourists confirms it in their eyes. But on the whole I found the people of Syria the friendliest and most open of probably anywhere I have travelled. Here we experienced Arab hospitality writ large – we were guests of the nation as a whole. Maybe they are aware of the reputation their government has abroad, but their welcome certainly showed that it is wrong to make judgements about a people and a nation just because of the actions of a regime that they did not vote for. Syria deserves to be known for the warmth and hospitality of the Syrian people, the friendliest in the world.
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