Most of the souqs (covered markets) of old Damascus lie in the western half (really the north-western quarter) of the walled old city. The eastern sections, while they do still have stores and shops, seem to be more residential in character. Aspects of the daily life of Damascenes can be witnessed here – mustachioed old men sat around backgammon tables in the shade, black-clad women sweeping out doorsteps, people toting plastic bags of shopping, and worshippers on their way to church.
Church? Why yes. Damascus may host some of the holiest sites in Islam, but as a great cosmopolitan centre of learning and trade it has always hosted people of different religious persuasions. The area north of the Bab ash-Sharqi is referred to as the Christian Quarter (or Bab-Touma, after St Thomas), and that to the south as the Jewish Quarter, though in truth the Christians have expanded south of the Street called Straight (Sharia bab-Sharqi) as the Jews have mostly left. Though even before their twentieth century exodus St Paul’s Chapel was set into the southern wall in this area, marking the spot where Paul had to be lowered out of the city to escape the Jewish population he had miffed with his preaching).
In fact an estimated 20,000 people left the old city between 1995 and 2005, and a walk down the side streets will revealed abandoned and decaying buildings, smashed windows and canting roofs, mouldering plaster and rampant vines. This was particularly true in the Jewish Quarter – often I walked for five minutes at a time without seeing a single other person. In general the alleys were jumbled, trackless, dilapidated, and still inhabited, as a flash of a face behind a curtain, the sound of radio from an upstairs window, or a rolling ball identified. Those people I did bump into were either tolerant of my journey or genuinely pleased to see me. There was no nasty atmosphere or ‘side’ to be felt. I did not feel scared or threatened once. Nor did I feel lost. The alleys generally run at right-angles to each other, letting you keep your bearings. Moreover there were frequent wall-mounted signs for suggested walking routes, which meant that if I felt momentarily misplaced (like when I suddenly emerged out of a gap in the southern walls into a combined greengtocers’ market / truck stop) I could simply follow the signs, assured that they would be leading me somewhere (though having some sort of map, even if only the one in a guidebook, will certainly be worth its weight in gold).
The start of these areas is really where Sharia Medhat Pasha and Sharia Bab Sharqi meet. Although this was the main road of the Roman settlement it becomes obvious that its Via Recta / ‘Street called Straight’ name is just early irony. The streets were laid out well before the Romans, and there is a awkward jink in the path there marked by a Roman arch. It was just past here that I found myself walking in tandem with an old chap on his way home. "I am not a guide!" he said out of nowhere, as if affronted that I might have even thought that (I had not uttered a word). From that a conversation grew up. His name was Maurice, he used to work for KLM in Damascus which had granted him a very cosmopolitan and well-travelled background. Now he was on his way home. He may not have been a guide, but he proceeded to give me tips about where I should go to find cheap street eats, and which churches I should visit (his top recommendation was the Greek Orthodox church, though there are also churches of the Greek Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Syrian Orthodox, Armenian and Maronite faiths sprinkled about). He finished off by stating that every evening he went to pray at the Chapel of Ananias, the underground chapel of the disciple who – according to the New Testament – converted Saul to Christianity (the Damascene conversion). I would be more than welcome to join him there at 7 o’clock. And though I am not a religious man I still regret the fact that I had already made plans for that evening so I could not take him up on his offer.
Evidence of faith is hidden everywhere. Several times I rounded corners to find myself face-to-face with shrines to the Virgin Mary. 15% of the population of Damascus is reckoned to be Christian to this day – one notable 20th-century inhabitant was pan-Arabist politician Michel Aflaq, founder of the Ba’ath party.
Without the crowds of the Souqa al-Hamadiyya and al-Bzouriyya there is more time to dawdle here and take an actual interest in shopkeepers’ wares. I ended up buying an embroidered felt bag from Anat by the eastern gate for around £20 and a decorative inlaid wooden trinket box for 500 SYP up in Bab Touma. Wandering is a pleasure, especially if you can find somewhere serving food or drink. I lunched on a chicken shawarma and a freshly-squeezed orange juice from neighbouring stalls (60 SYP each) up in Bab Touma, had a lemon juice whilst nosing in the windows of poky little antique shops just east of the Umayyad Mosque (and the remains of the Romans’ eastern temple gate) for 75 SYP, and paid 100 SYP for a quite incredible iced mulberry juice from a handcart near the Azem Palace.
If you head into the eastern sections of old Damascus, just feel free to wander – and take plenty of photographs!