on March 3, 2010
Your first introduction to the Old City of Damascus will probably be via the underpass crossing Sharia ash-Thawra. This brings to the very western end of the Souq al-Hamidiyya. This is a fitting introduction to the souqs of Damascus – and quite different from the other souks you will find crammed higgledy-piggledy into the wall-girt old city. This route is wide and well-paved, the sedate store fronts of long-standing mercantile concerns to either side, spruced up in the 19th century, stand an orderly two stories tall. A further sense of height and airiness is provided by the lofty arching ceiling overhead, the girders resembling those of a belle epoque French train station. Narrow pencils of light spear down upon the crowds below. The holes through which they come date from 1925 courtesy of the machineguns of the French air force. The French were struggling to suppress a local uprising, in shock that the politically-savvy, well-educated Damascene power-brokers were so reluctant to welcome Paris’s civilising mission. The grand stores along here are geared more towards tourists and visitors than the local Damascenes – some marvellous antique stores guaranteed to make you drool sit cheek-by-jowl with souvenir stalls. More life is provided by the street hawkers who occupy the central of the path with their cheap plastic toys. No matter how tacky the merchandise they always seem to attract a crowd of excited Syrians. Men crouched on the floor demonstrating spirographs; garish balloon helicopters wedged themselves in the rafters overhead; one man sauntered off looking well-pleased with his newly purchased stuffed hawk. One storefront to your right will bepermanently surrounded by a thick knot of people however – this is Bakdash, purveyor of Syria’s most famous ice creams.Side streets squirm away to the south in a confusion of stalls and hanging clothes. These is the start of the local souqs. To the north squats the Citadel, still used by the Syrian military. You wouldn’t know though – it can only really be seen from outside the old city, looming over a traffic intersection. Souq al-Hamidiyya heads roughly east: there are one or two wobbles in the route, testament that this was a major throroughfare well before the Romans came on to the scene. Continue to follow it until you emerge into the sunlight. Here you are right in front of the Umayyad Mosque. You will pass underneath the western temple gate of the Roman-era temple of Jupiter that once stood here. This has always been a holy site, with worship of Hadad supplanted by that of Jupiter, then by that of Christ, and then finally that of Allah. The western gate is now a few towering Corinithian columns supporting a section of lintel. In many places this would be a protected archaeological site; in Damascus the modern sits atop the ancient; youths lounge in the shade of the portico, the handcarts of juice or Qu’ran sellers are pushed up against the columns, signs hang from the masonry. Typically Syrian!
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