Written by Liam Hetherington on 03 Mar, 2010
From the south west corner of of the Umayyad Mosque Souq as-Silah leads off south. You will not be able to miss the welcoming golden glow of the treasures on display here. This is the heart of the jewellers’ souq, and goldsmiths and silversmiths have…Read More
From the south west corner of of the Umayyad Mosque Souq as-Silah leads off south. You will not be able to miss the welcoming golden glow of the treasures on display here. This is the heart of the jewellers’ souq, and goldsmiths and silversmiths have a keen eye for interested tourists. A jink left and then right comes to probably the most atmospheric and crowded street in the souq: Souq al-Bzouriyya. This is the spice souq, and the press of people is most intense here as both tourists and locals are drawn in to look at the sacks and panniers of multi-hued herbs and powders. It is a place of light and shadow, the scents of walnuts, rosewater and cloves, the noise of hawkers and impractical cars and motorbikes forging through the chattering masses. I did actually find making any sort of headway difficult, feeling like a salmon trying to swim upstream. This was an issue as I had a sudden need for a toilet. I ended up darting down a couple of steps and through an ornate doorway. Haltingly explaining my predicament I was allowed to relieve myself in the toilets of the 16th century Hammam Nureddin, one of the grandest and oldest bathhouses in the country still in use. Just past here another archway led into the zebra-striped Khan As’as pasha, a stately mid-18th century caravanserai centered on a fountain. You have to pay to look around, but you can easily duck through the main doors and get a photo for free like I did.At the southern end of the spice souq you hit Sharia Medhat Pasha. This was the main decumanus of the Roman city, known as the Via Recta or ’Street called Straight’ to give it its Biblical name (Acts 9). The length of this road, from the Bab al-Jabiye in the west to the Bab ash-Sharqi to the east has seen a lot of renovation work done to it, removing some of the atmosphere. Cars chug quite happily down the well-maintained road, the buildings seem plusher and more luxurious, and the pavements are swept clean. A visit down it at night after the shopkeepers have packed up for the evening reveals identical batches of lock-up store fronts. Following it east leads into the less-visited sections of the city, the Christian and Jewish Quarters. Close
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…Read More
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! Close
Written by HobWahid on 04 Nov, 2005
The Druze are the Mormons of the Middle East, or perhaps the Scientologists, members of a sect that most people know nothing about and about whom all sorts of wild stories have come about. The Druze arose out of Ismaili Shia Islam in the 10th…Read More
The Druze are the Mormons of the Middle East, or perhaps the Scientologists, members of a sect that most people know nothing about and about whom all sorts of wild stories have come about. The Druze arose out of Ismaili Shia Islam in the 10th century under the ruler of the Fatimid Caliph Hakim. The Druze believe that Hakim was the incarnation of God and the religion grew out of that, drawing heavily on Christianity and Plato. They maintain all the prophets of Christianity and Islam but have a large streak of Gnosticism. For centuries the Druze community was persecuted for their beliefs that most considered to be heretical. Thus they practiced the Islamic doctrine of taqiyyeh, concealing one’s religion to avoid persecution. Because of this, the Druze religion has always been secretive and among the Druze the people are even divided into two groups, uqqal (knowledgeable) and juhhal (ignorant). Those who are “knowledgeable” have access to all the secrets of the religion and form the religious and political backbone of the community. Today there are large numbers in Syria, Israel, and Lebanon. Most Druze consider themselves Arab, and thus most Israeli Druze, most of whom live in the occupied Golan Heights, stay loyal to Syria. Inside unoccupied Syria, however, most of the Druze live in the area known as the Jebel Arab. They make up one of the wealthiest communities in Syria but are noticeably insular, and thus many people look at them slightly suspiciously.The Jebel Arab lies only an hour and a half to the south of Damascus and is a small hilly land that rises out of the Harran plains. Heading into the Jebel al-Arab reminds me why I love Syria so much. It is such a diverse country, full of so many communities, that each area of the country is like a whole new country with its own traditions and even with their own accents. One of the first things you may notice when entering Druze country is the complete lack of minarets. The Druze do not build traditional mosques, and the call to prayer is not done. Instead you will recognize houses of worship as discreet buildings flying the druze flag.Another thing you will immediately notice is that in general Druze are a lot lighter. Many have red hair, freckles, or blue eyes.The capital of Druze country is Suweida, a town that is worth a visit for three things: its wonderful museum, excellent kebobs, and ubiquitous arak (anis-based spirit). Most people who make it into the Jebel Arab stop here, but the region has much more to offer. One of these is the town of Shahba, a town that contains a plethora of basalt Roman ruins and a wonderful mosaic museum. The main attraction of Shahba is the towering Roman baths, but there is also a nice Roman theater. Perhaps the most interesting thing, though, is how Shahba, a small down in rural Syria can feel more modern that parts of Damascus. Part of it has to do with the wealth of the Druze. The other part is that the Druze, like most minorities in Syria (i.e. Druze, Alawis, Christians, Ismailis), carry a bit of a more liberal air. The women are dressed in the most stylish fashions available in Syria, trotting around on stone streets in high heels. But even with the modern influence, you can still spot many elder Druze women wearing the traditional white scarf and veil that they are known for.Nearby to Shahba is Qanawaat, another small town that contains a magnificent old basilica, as well as a nice Roman temple. Outside the temple there are a few vendors selling goods, but other than that there is no trace of tourism.The Jebel Arab do not contain the most impressive ruins in Syria and are probably not worth a visit unless you have a lot of time, but they do provide an interesting insight into one of Syria’s most interesting minorities, the Druze. And one thing is for sure: you will likely be the only one there and be treated as a welcome guest by curious Druze wondering why you are there. It’s also likely that you’ll get a few stares, just as did when I sitting on the side of the road when of a whole school full of teenage girls came running by giggling, smiling, laughing, and daring each other to come and talk to me. Two finally did, shouting out “Hello” in English, but when I replied in Arabic, they got scared and ran away. Close
In the mountains to northwest of Damascus lie the towns of Sayidnaya and Maaloula, the centerpieces to Syria’s Christian heartland. The first one you come to is Sayidnaya, the larger and more visited (by Syrians) of the two due simply to Notre Dame du Sayidnaya,…Read More
In the mountains to northwest of Damascus lie the towns of Sayidnaya and Maaloula, the centerpieces to Syria’s Christian heartland. The first one you come to is Sayidnaya, the larger and more visited (by Syrians) of the two due simply to Notre Dame du Sayidnaya, a legendary chapel known since before the Crusades for its holy miracles and its painting of Mary allegedly done by St. Luke, but there are plenty of other convents, monasteries and churches to be found as well.Getting to Sayidnaya is an easy minibus ride from Damascus and lakes little over an hour. It’ll drop you in the center of town from where you can climb the hillside to the Convent. The structure of the convent itself is a rather modern one, although a place of worship has existed here since the reign of Justinian in the 6th century. The entrance is through a steep set of stairs (although an elevator is available) that take you through a passageway and into the courtyard of the convent. Depending on what day you arrive, the number of people accompanying you will vary, but you will never be alone. This shrine is one of the largest pilgrimage centers in Syria. It not only constantly draws Christians from all over Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, but it also draws crowds of Muslims who come, mostly on Friday, to venerate Mary. If, however, you happen to be in Syria on September 8th, then you will have the occasion to come to Sayidnaya to celebrate festival of Mary. The town is flooded with Christians and Muslims alike who gather on the hills and celebrate into the night, dotting the countryside with campfires.While the convent itself is nice, the real prize, and the reason everyone comes to Sayidnaya is to see the painting of Mary. It is hidden in a cave in the back of the convent, through a small entranceway. A sign on the outside (only in Arabic) reminds you to remove your shoes. On the way in you pass by various crutches, bandages, and remnants of other answered prayers. Eventually you reach a small room, decorated in paintings, but with the painting of Mary at the center and a small bowl of oil in front of her. Visitors will cross themselves upon entry, kiss the painting, cross themselves some more and then have one of the nuns anoint them with some of the oil. The nun will even dip a piece of cotton in oil for you to take home to someone who couldn’t make it. Once respects are paid, visitors cross themselves and leave.Although the convent is the main focus of pilgrims to Sayidnaya, as just a traveler you may find Sayidnaya’s other sights more interesting. One of them is the Chapel of St. Peter, a converted Roman temple and the oldest church in town. The other, my personal favorite, is the Convent of the Cherubim, only accessible by a long winding road that climbs high into the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the convent looks more like what a convent should be, isolated, on the top of a mountain and (in winter) covered in snow and cold. When you arrive on the grounds there will likely be nobody about, so what you need to do is just knock on the entrance and one of the monks will open up, likely it will be an affable monk with a long dark beard named Efram. Efram speaks no English, so unless you have some Arabic skills, communicating may be hard, but he’ll still be delighted to show you around the grounds.The convent’s main sight is the Chapel of St. Thomas, another converted Roman temple that still has its columns. The inside is decorated with frescos and icons depicting scenes from the Bible. Outside of the church, Efram, will show you numerous caves that used to be the cells in which monks lived (the now have small apartments) as well as the large cross on the top of the mountain from which you can get spectacular views of the Syrian desert and the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. After the tour (which I shared with two Lebanese guys from Montreal), Efram invited us in for tea and cookies and proceeded to tell me how wonderful my name was. “Nathanael,” he said giving it its beautiful Semitic pronunciation “is such a fantastic name. He was the first man to believe that Jesus was the Son of God without asking for proof. It’s a good name to have.” It was good to hear. Having traveled extensively in the Arab world I was used to Arabs bungling my name… “Nathna? Natooo? Naytnal?” But among Arab Christians it was always a hit. Close
Written by HobWahid on 02 Nov, 2005
If you spend any amount of time around the maHatat Hijaaz (The Hijaz Railway station) and Martyrs Square, as I did, because it is where I lived, you will undoubtedly notice a few things. One is the small number of touts asking you if you…Read More
If you spend any amount of time around the maHatat Hijaaz (The Hijaz Railway station) and Martyrs Square, as I did, because it is where I lived, you will undoubtedly notice a few things. One is the small number of touts asking you if you want a shaghala (lit. “female worker”, fig. “prostitute”), as this is Damascus’ not-so-secret red light district, where brothels disguised as hotels are frequented by Saudi patrons. The second is the insane number of hotels flying Iranian flags and sporting Farsi names like bustaan or faradoos. In front of these hotels, day and night, you will see buses pulling up, spitting out clouds of smoke, and dropping of loads of hunched over old Iranian ladies in chador (the black outfit they wear) and their husbands. “Why all the Tehran-Damascus express buses?” you may ask. For the answer, you have to go to the southern end of Damascus, beyond the towers of concrete apartment buildings towards the airport, where you will find the Sayyida Zeinab Shrine and the surrounding area.Most tourists don’t make it out to Sayyida Zeinab, and it’s not on most tour itineraries, which is unfortunate, as it is one of the most religiously powerful places in Syria and the best insight into the emotion of the Shia sect of Islam without heading into Karbala and Najaf in neighboring Iraq. A visit to Sayyida Zeinab will provide you with an injection of spirituality that will leave you thinking the whole night about the world, religion, and just what it means to believe and put all your hope in a higher power. So take the 100SYP (at most) taxi ride out there and take it in.Likely if you come by taxi, the driver drop you off on the main street that runs through the neighborhood around the mosque, and when you get out, you will be left wondering exactly where the mosque is. The fact is that the mosque is hidden behind layers of shops, markets, and hotels all geared towards Iranian pilgrims. After a bit of looking, you should be able to spy one of the towering blue minarets; if not, just follow the inevitable flood of black sheets flowing towards the entrance. Although, either on the way in or out, you should take some time to explore the surrounding markets, where you will find goods for usually cheaper than in the Old City, as well as some fantastic sweets and Iranian food. If you haven’t had any experience with a Shia mosque before, then be warned--Sayyida Zeinab will be unlike anything you have ever seen before. The raw emotion that flows through each person in the place will throw you off at first, and I won’t blame you if you feel uncomfortable at first and like you are unwelcome or don’t belong. At first it may seem like the sort of place that shouldn’t be a place for “tourists” or “outsiders,” or that you are some sort of voyeur, but don’t worry. Likely you will find someone who will help you out, take you in, and explain what they can to you. But do remember that this is a place of extreme holiness to Shiites, and every effort should be made for proper decorum.The mosque is said to hold the remains of Zeinab, the daughter of Ali (the fourth Caliph), who was taken captive by the army of Yazid after the massacre of her brothers Hussein and Hassan at Karbala and Najaf. For Shia, this moment, when the family of Ali was betrayed is the defining and most tragic moment of their history. Thus you will immediately notice that the air around Sayyida Zeinab is not one of quiet veneration, but one of passionate mourning with wailing, singing, crying, and chest beating.The shrine contains a large courtyard with the shrine in the middle. The modern structure dates from the 1990s, but was built on a pre-existing shrine, and it contains all the typical traits of an Iranian mosque, i.e. extremely ornate with lots of blue tile, gold, and mirrors. The mosque itself is beautiful, but the real reason to come is for the spirituality.As you walk around the courtyard of the mosque, you will notice trains of men and women marching in circles, chanting in Farsi or Arabic, and beating their chests. Often someone will be videotaping, and there will be one man leading the chant. As they chant and beat their chests, you will see tears stream down their cheeks and the men will have the most pained look on their face. You can see that inside each of their hearts they feel the painful tragedy that Zeinab endured, losing her brothers and being taken captive. In truth, there is no real way to describe it, the passion that overcomes those who have come to venerate Zeinab. All I can really say is that each and everyone of these people acts as if their own son or daughter had just died and this was their funeral, and that is exactly the way the Shia see it. Zeinab is their daughter, and she is gone.The shrine itself is divided into a section for men and one for women. Check your shoes at the door. The inside space is not very large and always crowded. Having never been inside the women’s section, I can’t tell you what it looks like, but I can tell you what it sounds like, for there is only a thin wooden fence that divides the two sections. The ululating wailing and sobs that pour over the fence from the women’s side are enough evidence of the anguish and mourning that you don’t need to see it. On the men’s side, men young and old sit around in circles beating their chests, crying and chanting. These are grown men, tough men from a patriarchal culture, on their knees in tears over the tragic death of Zeinab. Could you imagine such accepted emotion in Western culture? Some of the men chose to throw themselves against the tomb, clinging on to the bars that surround it, showering it with kisses. Others grab a piece of rock, rock taken from the ground at Karbala, kneel down, and press their head against it to pray. The Shia always pray like this so that during prayer they are always connected to Karbala and to the interred bodies of Hussein and Hassan.The emotion may make you feel out of place, but the likelihood is that everyone else is so caught up in their own mourning that nobody will pay attention to you, but if they do, they will always be welcoming. One man stopped me and asked in Arabic, “Where are you from?”“From the US,” I replied.“Are you Muslim?” He aksed. I told him that I was Christian, to which he smiled, with a slight tear in his eye, and said,“Then you know our pain. Christ was betrayed just as Ali, peace be upon him, and his family were.”I nodded in agreement, but I have been on the Via Della Rosa in Jerusalem for the stations of the cross and never seen emotion like this. Close
About an hour and a half to the south and east of Damascus lies the small city of Bosra. Not to be confused with the headline-grabbing city of the same name farther east in Iraq, this Bosra is an ancient city dating back to Roman…Read More
About an hour and a half to the south and east of Damascus lies the small city of Bosra. Not to be confused with the headline-grabbing city of the same name farther east in Iraq, this Bosra is an ancient city dating back to Roman times, and a city with a rich and complex history. Once an important center for the Nabateans (the guys who built Petra), Bosra was finally conquered by the Romans in 106 AD and was immediately made the capital of the newly established Provincia Arabia. Under the Romans, it flourished as an intellectual, agricultural, cultural, and trade capital, even producing the only Arab Roman emperor in history, Philip The Arab, who took power in 244, and under whose reign and patronage the city gained the ever important title of metropolis (no Supermen in sight, however). During the Byzantine Era, the city remained an important trade center, even attracting the trade of one Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, who came to Bosra on numerous trade missions in his pre-prophetic days and was a compatriot of a famous Nestorian monk named Buhira. Many scholars believe that Buhira’s thoughts had much influence on Muhammad, but that’s up for debate.With all this history, Bosra has numerous monuments for the prospective visitor, but there is really one main reason that people come to Bosra, and it’s not to meet with Nestorian monks. It is because of its spectacular theater. Bosra’s theater is often described as one of the most spectacular and well-preserved theaters of the Roman era, and it undoubtedly is. Much of the reason for its near-perfect preservation probably lies in the fact that during the Crusades, the Ayyubid armies fortified the theater and used it as a citadel. Thus, the theater inside was preserved and protected from the ravages of war and time. To get to the theater, you have to cross a bridge over a moat and then wind your way through the citadel tunnels until you find one of the numerous sets of stairs into the theater. It won’t be until you arrive at the top of the stairs that you will finally understand the full scope of the theater. It has a full 32 rows, with room for 9,000 spectators. Unlike many Roman theaters you find around the Mediterranean, the Bosra theater wasn’t built on the slope of a hill, making it unique and more impressive. From the top you can get excellent views of the surrounding ruins as well as a full view of the elegant façade of the stage. Architecturally, the theater is magnificent. Besides the theater, you can also walk along the ramparts of the citadel, where you will find many mosaics and statues, as well as a folklore museum.The theater is by far Bosra’s most impressive site, but by far not the only thing to see. Moving on from the theater, you will find a whole maze of ruins and stone streets, the remnants of the old Roman and Muslim city of Bosra. Oddly enough, many people still live among the ruins, and thus you will find houses scattered among ancient Roman columns. For Roman ruins there is the enormous South Bath complex, with its vaulted ceilings and plumbing, a monumental arch, and nymphaeum (central fountain), at the main crossroads of town. On the far south side of the old city is also the Cathedral of Bosra, one of the more architecturally influential monuments of the early Christian Era.Bosra, however, was also the first city in Syria conquered by the Arabs, and thus it contains some of the oldest Islamic monuments in the country. The most famous of these is the Mosque of Umar, one of the oldest surviving mosques anywhere in the Muslim word, dating to somewhere around 636 AD. Directly across from the mosque is the Hammam Manjak, a set of baths dating from the 12th century. Farther to the north you will find the Mabrak Mosque. Mabrak means “kneeling” in Arabic, and the mosque is named so because it was build on the spot where a camel, carrying a copy of the Qur’an, kneeled down to rest after the conquering of the city. According to legend, you can still see the imprints in the rock where the camel kneeled. Take it for what it’s worth.Many who come to Bosra’s old city may feel underwhelmed by the dark basalt rock used to construct the city. To those used to the sparkling white marble of Roman ruins in Turkey and Greece, the basalt seems cold and dark, but caught in the right light (a sunset for example), it can look positively magical.The old city itself is quite large, and finding (and recognizing) sites can be a bit hard. I have been to Bosra three times, and each time I discover something new. The best thing to do is just wander. Likely some local will gladly help you on your way and show you some things you may have missed. But just wandering the cobblestone streets and enjoying the children playing among the ruins and the quiet solitude that comes with a place not often visited is the real treat. On one of these walks we came along a group of young boys playing. One of them was holding a Palestinian flag on a stick in his hand and running. The others were chasing him with small plastic guns giving onomatopoetic shouts. If this were the US, they’d be playing “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers,” but this was Syria, and this was “Palestinians and Israelis.” One unarmed kid with a Palestinian flag against three kids with Uzis, an early lesson in the realities of politics, perhaps. Close
I consider myself an okay Christian, more spiritual than ritual. I don’t usuall spend my Sundays at church but make my appearances on Christmas, Easter, and various other holidays, but after a week of traveling around Syria during Christmas, I was ready to give up…Read More
I consider myself an okay Christian, more spiritual than ritual. I don’t usuall spend my Sundays at church but make my appearances on Christmas, Easter, and various other holidays, but after a week of traveling around Syria during Christmas, I was ready to give up my worldly possessions and become a monk. I developed a whole new appreciation for my religion and discovered things in myself that I had never thought possible, and I owe it all to a Syrian Christians and the most magical and spiritual Christmas I had ever had in my life.It was late December, and winter in Syria was in full swing. A biting cold was in the air and the clouds were flirting with the idea of snow (yes, it does snow in Syria). Christmastime was rolling around and my family was an ocean away bunkered down at home with Christmas trees, gingerbread, and streets full of lights. Homesickness was settling in. It was then that I determined to make the most of the my situation and have a Christmas I would never forget. After all I was in Syria. People here have been celebrating Christmas longer than almost anyone else on Earth. This was my chance to see what Christmas could really be like, a Christmas without mall Santas, singing angel ornaments and Jimmy Stewart on TV. Syria is home to around 5 million Christians, some Orthodox, some Catholic, but all Christian. I had spent Christmas in the Arab world before, in Cairo to be exact, another city with a large Christian population, but I didn’t take advantage of it.In the days leading up to Christmas, I slowly started to see various Santa Clauses appear in windows, as well Christmas trees and lights adorning balconies. Lights across the city wished me a “Merry Christmas,” just as they had wished the Muslims a “Happy Eid” only two months before. My landlady, a shriveled old Shia lady, made a special point of wishing me happy holidays and an Iraqi Christian girl I had befriended me invited me to festivities at her church, but I declined because I had other plans. I had rented a car and I was going to drive off into the mountains to the north of Damascus to visit some Syria’s Christian heartland, places where people still speak Aramaic (the language of Jesus) and to see just where it would take me.My first stop was the town of Sayidnaya, and second was Maaloula (see my separate journal on those), but my ultimate destination was the Deir Mar Mousa al-Habashi, a monastery deep in the hills above the Syrian desert that dates back to the 6th century and was founded by St. Moses the Ethiopian. Driving along the main highway that runs down the center of Syria, the surrounding hills were covered with a light dusting of snow from the night before. I took the appropriate turn-off, entering the small town of al-Nebek. Once in al-Nebek I did my best to follow the signs but eventually got lost and ended up asking for directions, twice. Eventually I was on a dirt road, and then another paved road climbing into the hills. Once cresting the hills I was confronted with a sharp drop and overlook towards the Syrian desert. I descended into the desert and proceeded to another small turn off after a good 20 minutes. The turn off led me back into the mountains and then suddenly stopped. There I found a sign in English and Arabic that warned that vehicles were to go no farther, for this was a monastery. From where my car was parked, I could look down the valley to see a small brown structure perched on a cliff, it was the monastery. Unfortunately, like all good monasteries, to reach it I had to lug my pack for 20 minutes up a continuous flight of stairs that spiraled into the mountain. Finally, I arrived.There, a Syrian man greeted me; he was one of the monks and caretakers. He introduced himself and then asked if I would be spending the night. I told him I would, to which he replied, “Well, then you will have to stay for Christmas as well!”Within minutes, I was introduced to another monk who showed, a French Jesuit visiting the monastery who showed me around the grounds and showed me to my room, a small space that consisted of a mattress on the floor, three wool blankets and a small kerosene stove. He then explained the workings of the monastery to me. There was a small number of monks here, all lead by Paolo, an Italian indoctrinated in the rites of the Syriac Church, as well as a few nuns. They grow all their own food, raise livestock, and sell some product to locals to pay for the upkeep of the monastery. I was free to stay as long as I wanted, he said, and all that they asked was that I participated in the daily workings of the monastery, i.e. cooking and cleaning. He also explained that they would be having a large Christmas party that I had to stay for. So I did.Eventually the day of Christmas Eve came. There was much work to do. Numerous people were arriving from nearby villages to celebrate and we had to prepare the feast. The day was spent cooking, cleaning, setting up, as well as meeting guests. Most of the guests were Christians from local towns and Damascus, but there were a few Muslims as well. Two of the men, rather suspicious, but friendly, types were obvious mukhabaraat Syrian secret police. In Syria, the mukhabaraat keep tabs on everyone whether they be Muslim, Christian, Alawi or Druze. One of them gave me a brief interview, but after months in Syria, I was used to it and smiled why way through the whole thing.By nightfall, we had a retinue of 30 people, or so. We all ducked into the 10th century church, a lovely chapel carved out of the rock with vibrant frescoes adorning the walls. We had an hour of meditation and then a brief prayer, all in Arabic. After the prayer it was time for the feast. We all marched, through the moonlight, to the dining hall where we were greeted with an amazing spread. There were Syrian dishes (hummus, baba ghanouj, et. al.) as well as roasted chicken, ham, wine, olives, dates, rice, and a whole slew of deserts. We feasted, chatted, and drank. As dinner wound down we all gathered around to sing Christmas carols. Some in Arabic, others in English, French, Latin, and Italian. When midnight came, we marched back to the church for a midnight service.Inside the church the candles were lit and the incense was burning. We took our places on the carpets (no chairs in Syriac churches), grabbed Bibles, candles and settled in. The service started with a lot of chanting and praying, followed by passages from the Bible and discussion about them. Communion was served as well. At one point Father Paolo asked us to give out our own prayers. We prayed for the victims of genocide in the Sudan, for the people of Iraq under occupation as well as those under occupation in Palestine (proof that in the Arab world, it’s not just Muslims who feel for Palestine). Others were more personal, e.g. relatives who have cancer, and a prayer was thrown in for the Assad family (that one was for the mukhabaraat). After the individual prayers we stood up and then proceeded to beg the people of the world for forgiveness for all our sins. This involved bowing to north, south, east and west and repeating the phrase “Forgive me.” After that we all turned to each other to ask forgive each other, giving kisses on the cheek and repeating the phrase, “musalliH” (“forgiven”). At this point, 2 hours into the service, we went outside to sing around a fire.Eventually we returned to the church. The monks grabbed drums and we all danced and sang. Finally, at around 5 am, we filed out of the church and made our way back to our rooms. As we walked back along the rock stairs under an almost full moon, a slight dusting of snow started to fall from the sky, covering our heads in white flakes, the perfect ending to a perfect night. The next day, people started to leave, and I joined them, but I left vowing to come back (which I did) and with memories of the most unforgettable Christmas I have ever had. There was no materialism, no sweating about gifts--the only gift we had to give was our friendship and our forgiveness. Rarely in life do we have one of those life-changing experiences, but this was one of those for me. Close
Written by perrytoo on 25 Nov, 2001
The main areas for buying antique jewellery are in the souqs to the south and east of the Ommayyad Mosque, in the Gold souq on Mouawiyya St, and on Bab Sharqi leading up to the gate. The shops around the Mosque and by Bab…Read More
The main areas for buying antique jewellery are in the souqs to the south and east of the Ommayyad Mosque, in the Gold souq on Mouawiyya St, and on Bab Sharqi leading up to the gate. The shops around the Mosque and by Bab Sharqi sell tourist Beduin jewellery, and the shops in the gold souq sell more expensive second-hand jewellery, including traditional Syrian nineteenth century gold jewellery for townswomen set with rose cut diamonds. This is large and ostentatious, and relatively cheap (compared to London) but expensive in absolute terms.
There is a good choice of Beduin jewellery in Damascus but prices are high. There is a wide range of initial prices, depending on shop, but final prices all end up very close to each other. Shops which quote fixed or low prices to start with are no cheaper (or more expensive) than those with traditionally negotiable prices, although the negotiations tend to be shorter. In general, I got the best prices at smaller shops, with limited stock, and those furthest from the main tourist sites. Non-Syrian jewellery, particularly Russian, is better value than Syrian. Syrian jewellery illustrated in "Arts & Crafts of Syria", or western saleroom catalogues tends to be more expensive.
The good news is that there is now an ATM in Damascus. It's in the heart of the gold souq, next to the little car park on Mouawiyya St. The bad news is that it hasn't yet been turned on. But I…Read More
The good news is that there is now an ATM in Damascus. It's in the heart of the gold souq, next to the little car park on Mouawiyya St. The bad news is that it hasn't yet been turned on. But I can't believe anyone would go to all the trouble of installing an ATM without expecting to use it one day, so I'm posting the address in case you have more luck then I do.
It isn't impossible to get money in Damascus, even without any working ATMs. Shops who accept credit cards may be willing to advance you currency on the strength of your visa card. I was offered this service twice. They give a lower rate than the banks (I was offered SP46 to the $US instead of the banks SP51), but then you're lucky to get a full SP51 when you're using a credit card anyway. I also saw two exchange bureaux around Martyr's Square offering to advance money on a credit card, although I didn't try it myself.
When using a credit card be prepard for odd requests. You will usually have to pay in $US, rather than Syrian pounds, and they will try to negotiate a low rate of exchange (if not, then whatever you're paying for was probably over-priced anyway). This is because the transaction goes through the Lebanon, and there are additional costs for the seller. I was also asked to provide a photocopy of the credit card (both sides) and my passport. The shopkeeper accompanied me half-way across town to get these (which he paid for). I was extremely dubious, but the transaction came through cleanly on my card, with no evidence of misuse of the info.
The exchange rate at banks (for SP51 for $US, and SP72 for £UK) is currently slightly better than the standard rates used in the shops (SP50 and SP70 respectively). If you have a choice, change your western money into Syrian pounds at a bank, rather than pay directly in hard currency.
If paying in hard currency, you can ask for (and get) the change in the same currency, at least for $US and £UK. I didn't try with any others.
Written by boosh on 22 Oct, 2002
This is definitely off-the-beaten-track-stuff. Originally we ventured into Old Damascus with little more than a hand drawn map from a man we met at the hotel. The challenge in finding these places is that there are no addresses and they typically have plain-jane entrances which…Read More
This is definitely off-the-beaten-track-stuff. Originally we ventured into Old Damascus with little more than a hand drawn map from a man we met at the hotel. The challenge in finding these places is that there are no addresses and they typically have plain-jane entrances which reveal nothing about the inner grandeur; just midget-sized doors right off the street. Luckily we met a young man, Beshr, an architect working on the committee to preserve Old Damascus who took us to each of the places below. With these names, a decent map, and some help along the way you should be able to find these exquisite examples of Damascene architecture and design (and probably more like them).
Beshr first explained to us how each mansion is really 3 homes in one. They all have 3 courtyards each with a fountain in the centre and marble floor. The decoration, of course, varies. Around each courtyard are the doors to all the rooms (living room, bedrooms etc). On the south end (north-facing to keep it coolest) is a covered alcove. The first courtyard is where guests are received. Guests can’t even bring up the topic of leaving until 3 days have passed (illustrating the long history of Syrian hospitality). The second courtyard, the most elaborate one, is where the family lives. And finally, the least decorated courtyard is where the servants live.
AZEM PALACE: is actually well on the beaten track and relatively easy to find; it’s a state-run museum with entrance fee etc. This is where we started. The rest of the heritage houses are in this same area.
ANBAR HOUSE: centre courtyard is an interesting mixture Indian, Syrian, Rococo, and Baroque style. The builder was a merchant who ultimately ran out of money after completing the first floor. The Ottomans added the second later.
JABRI HOUSE (1737): main courtyard is a restaurant at night. It has beautiful detail but will need some restoring at some point. Interestingly, in a typically Syrian room, the marble side had been painted in bright blue with little Rococo vignettes of boats and planes completely clashing with the deep reds and natural browns of the other, more traditional side. Beshr noted it was someone’s grandma who had the work done "when it was fashionable to do so" and thinks it should likewise be preserved.
SIBAI HOUSE (18th C): Again, very impressive albeit in a state of transition. Not sure if it should be a museum, what kind of museum, and of course concerns of where the money will come from. It would be such a shame to let these potentially gorgeous places fall to complete ruin.
NIZAM HOUSE: the German ambassador and his wife had lived in this house. She was a specialist in Mid-East art. Gorgeous!
ASSAD PASHA CARAVANSERAI (camel caravan pit stops along the silk road)
The most impressive of the 3 caravanserai Beshr showed us. Tucked away somewhere in the maze of the souq is a huge ‘room’ where caravans stayed to rest, eat, trade etc. It has 9 domes (8 of which are still in tact); the centre one over the fountain is missing. Beshr thinks it may have been wood at one time.