19 September. Back in Damascus from Jordan.
It was a manic heart-stopping arrival back to the Sal Al Naum hotel in Damascus from Jordan. In dense traffic the driver continued to bully his way through..narrowly avoiding pedestrians, ignoring road signs and most of the traffic lights whilst every other Syrian driver seemed united in his death wish. I closed my eyes, found religion and prayed we’d make it. The driver didn’t know where the hotel was but Dave managed to direct him straight to Baghdad Street from the centre of Damascus after us only being here once before when we arrived late at night a week ago. By 8.30pm, frayed, stressed but thankfully still in one piece, we were gratefully shovelling down pizza in Sah Al Naum which Khaldouhn ordered in for us. In return I introduced him to Iggy & The Stooges. He went off and downloaded “I Wanna Be Your Dog” – which I heard filtering from his phone a while later.
20 September. Damascus.
We had a lie in, hung out for a while in the courtyard of Sah Al-Naum, chatted with Ahmed the owner, who kindly loaned us a guide book. We stocked up on Syrian pounds and headed out to explore this ancient city. Allegedly the oldest city in the world we dived headfirst into its alleyways and narrow streets, pressing our backs to the walls to allow cars and taxis to squeeze by. The smell of fresh baked flat bread hangs softly over the entire city…Syrians are a nation of bread-makers. The Shi’ah Mosque is close to our hotel but we’re heading to Umayyad mosque, one of the oldest and largest mosques in the world and in the grounds of which stands the mausoleum of Saladin (Salah- ad-Din). We entered through a heavy carved door, removed our shoes and a man in a booth handed us robes to cover up in the tradition of entering a mosque. Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb (c. 1138 – March 4, 1193) widely known in the Western world as Saladin, was a Kurdish Muslim who became the first Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt and Syria. At the height of his power he ruled over Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Hejaz, and Yemen. He led the Muslims against the Crusaders and eventually recaptured Palestine from the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem after his victory in the Battle of Hattin. He is a notable figure in Kurdish, Arab, and Muslim culture.
After the Arab conquest of Damascus, the mosque was built on the Christian basilica dedicated to John the Baptist. The mosque holds a shrine said to contain the Baptist’s head, who was honored as a prophet by both Christians and Muslims alike. Dave had long shorts on but was asked to cover his legs but looked positively stylish compared to me, a lumpish hooded figure appearing to have one arm.Leaving the mosque we spent several hours walking the streets. The Old Town of Damascus is a fascinating place to explore. On Handicraft Lane vendors sold furniture, metal stamped trays, light shades and huge coffee pots. We wandered in to the shaded vine covered lanes of Sharia al-Qaimariyya where a metal sign depicting the Israeli flag was bolted to the cobblestones. We were bemused by this until we noticed it was there for the locals to stamp on in a show of disrespect. I’m not going to venture in to politics and opinions here with no experience of the years of turmoil in this region. Centuries old feuds juxtaposed with a stall selling Pringles. All through the alleyways and in the shops, restaurants, banks, bread-makers and hotels hangs the portrait of Bashar al-Assad, the President of Syria. Looking down from ancient stone walls over brightly coloured bedthrows or over the shoulder of a local baker. Among the acres of gaily patterned nylon a Volkswagon Beetle nearly runs us over. There’s a steady stream of cars, scooters, delivery vans, pick ups and bicycles and my favourites, taxis, careening through these alleyways. They leave just about enough room for you to squeeze up against the wall (barely 2 inches) and pray they won’t crush your feet. Then there’s the guys pushing fully loaded barrows made of heavy iron on hard rubber wheels, who scrape by your ankles and occasionally bump your toes.However shaded they are, wandering the alleyways in over 30 degrees of heat gets sweaty and tiring so a pit-stop for tea at Café Al-Nawfara on the steps of Sharia al-Qaimariyya gives time to relax and people watch. 21 September. Damascus Souqs.
Another day wandering the alleyways and our first venture in to the souqs, the traditional marketplaces of Arabic and Berber culture. Similar to what we’ve experienced in Marrakech but feeling less Westernised here, the tourist numbers to Damascus being much lower in number than to Morocco. In Souq al-Bzouriyya (seed bazaar) sacks of spices and grains are stacked in front of each vendor’s stall. It’s dark in the main souqs, each small shop crammed in to small openings lining the cobblestones and covered overhead. Lightbulbs dangling from frayed wires illuminating everything from spices to hair dye, dried starfish, antlers and prayer beads. In a street outside we look up to see a young man in an open window, busy at a sewing machine, a beautiful dove perched on a piece of metal jutting outwards from his sill. Looking to the other windows we see a blanket covered basket and pulley system, used for conveying items back and forth from street level. In to Souq Al-Abbabiyya where we’re invited in to a shop next door to Leila’s restaurant. Located in a beautiful old building we’re invited to admire the ornate plasterwork and hand painted frescoes decorating the walls whilst finely beaded chandeliers, traditional to Damascus, hover overhead. In the covered Souq Al-Hamidiyya coffee sellers barter for trade with large samovars strapped to their backs, prayer beads hang in their hundreds, wedding sweets and perfumes cram the shelves. Traders without a traditional shop sell on the street, calling out prices. Some areas of the souq are so dark it takes a while for your eyes to adjust. The atmosphere is charged with the daily bustle of commerce. Locals fluent in bartering deftly bargain with traders whilst tourists dip a tentative toe in to the melee. It’s a wonderful jumble of disorder and noise.Occasional shafts of sunlight break through the tattered roof, illuminating a street scene barely unchanged for hundreds of years.Ice cream from Bekdach in Souq Al-Hamidiyya made with sahlab (semolina powder) and smothered with pistachio nuts. Packed with local people as well as tourists and so good we went back twice.
22 September. Maalula, Krak des Chevaliers and Hama.
Picked up from our hotel in Damascus at 8am, ready for what turned out to be a 14 hour day trip with Jawad. We headed first to Maalula, in Arabic meaning High Place. Maalula is the only place where the Western branch of the Aramaic languages is still spoken, said to be the original language of Jesus. We visited two monasteries important to Syria; Mar Sarkis named after St. Sarkis (St. Sergius a Roman soldier executed for his Christian beliefs)…and pictured below, St Thecla Monastery. According to legend in the 1st century C.E, St. Thecla was being pursued by her father’s soldiers to capture her because of her Christian faith. She came upon a mountain, and after praying, the mountain split open and let her escape through. The town gets its name from this gap or entrance in the mountain. We walked down through the gap or Siq in to Thecla Gorge.Imagine living in the house at the foot of this mountain and in the path of that flipping great big rock which looks set to roll down it any minute.A 2 hour later driving through more rocky landscape we reached Krak de Chevaliers, a Crusader castle and one of the most important preserved medieval military castles in the world. It dates to 1140 when initial building began. In Arabic the fortress is called Qal’at al-Ḥiṣn, the word Krak coming from the Syriac karak, meaning fortress. It’s located approximately 40 km west of the city of Homs, close to the border of Lebanon. During the First Crusade in 1099 the castle was captured by Raymond IV of Toulouse but abandoned when the Crusaders continued their march towards Jerusalem. Reoccupied by Tancred Prince of Galilee in 1110. In 1142 it was given by Raymond II Count of Tripoli to the Hospitallers, contemporaries of the Knights Templar. From the control of Knights Hospitaller, to a siege in 1271 leading to its capture by Mamluk Sultan Baibars to becoming the centre of the tax district during the Ottoman period, being abandoned in the late 19th century to a settlement who were removed in 1933 and being signed over to the French Alawite State who cleaned and restored it…Syria resumed control of it in 1946 when they attained independence. The castle was made a World Heritage Site in 2006 and is owned by the Syrian government.It is HUGE. The outer wall is three metres thick and 7 guard towers, eight to ten metres thick, create a concentric castle. The fortress may have held approx. 50–60 Hospitaller knights and up to 2,000 other foot soldiers. Included among the buildings are two vaulted stone stables which could hold up to a thousand horses. Other storage facilities were dug into the cliff below the fortress and it’s estimated that the Hospitallers could have withstood a siege for five years.After climbing worn stone steps and exploring for over an hour, Jawad arranged an amazing 15 plate lunch for us at the Panorama restaurant literally a stone’s throw from the castle. We ate til we were fit to burst, the staff were incredibly friendly, and one of the Syrian waiters went outside to pick a pomegranate for me to cut open at the table. This impromptu act of kindness triggered because I was swooning over the deliciousness of the pomegranate molasses gravy. Later we wandered outside where we chatted to an Australian couple, Jawad finished his coffee with other drivers and I found a dead cat in a bush which I was talking to it for at least 5 minutes before realising why it was being so unresponsive. Next stop the Monastery of St Georges, a beautiful place overseen by Father Isaac who looked tired when we turned up. A tall Albino gentleman followed us from room to room and whenever he sat down, promptly fell asleep with his head on his arms. The locals are always very keen to photograph us enjoying our trip…so here’s another shot of us grinning inanely at the camera from inside the thick stone walls of the monastery. Last stop and another hour’s drive further north to a place I insisted on going to, was Hama. The most important visit of the day for me personally to see the Norias; the giant ancient wooden water wheels. Only seventeen Norias (“wheels of pots”) remain along the Orontes River. Mostly unused now, the norias are thought to be 800 years old. The sun was just starting to set as we arrived and I had panicked that we wouldn’t reach Hama in time to see them in daylight. Huge creaking wooden water wheels that bring to mind one of my favourite artists Conrad Shawcross who specialises in massive wooden mechanical sculptures influenced by looms and mill machines. The long drive paid off.
We walked the local park where a group of young children came over to us, shyly, asking me in the little English they knew, to take their photo. After obliging they posed and ask for another. About 30 photos later a passing balloon seller was a suitable excuse for my exit. I bought each of the kids a balloon but I had to persuade them to take them from me. They were confused, thinking they had to pay for them and it took me a good 5 minutes trying to explain that the balloons were a gift. Looking back as we walked out of the park, all of them were running around with the balloons whooping and laughing and showing them off to their mothers sitting on a bench. We had arrived at the end of a very long day but the extended trip to Hama was worth it to see the incredible Norias at sunset and to meet these wonderful kids.
On our long drive back to Damascus Jawad stopped at a shop in Hama and bought us Halawa Bil-Jibn, a very sweet cake roll filled with whipped cheese topped with pistachio nuts, made with orange water and rose water syrup, served straight from a fridge, deliciously cooled.23 September. Back in Damascus.
Each morning that we’ve left Sal Al Naum, walked along Baghdad Street and turned the corner under the stone arch we’ve been welcomed by the family of bread-makers who run their business a 5 minute walk from the hotel. Calling out hello to us, huge smiles, waving hands ushering us in. Invited to join them among the antique looking clanking bread-making machinery where they churn out hundreds of the ubiquitous flat breads seen all over Syria. This isn’t a cafe or a restaurant, it’s a family business that supplies hotels, restaurants and cafes with bread. They simply want to sit with us, share piping hot mint tea in small hand painted glasses and break in half a flatbread, hot straight from the ovens. With no common language we show each other photos on our phones, gesticulate wildly in an attempt to describe where we are from and where we’re going, we all laugh a lot… We attempt to convey how much we appreciate the Syrian people.
And we’ve made new friends, Lyes and Katrina, also London based and staying at Sal Al Naum but moving to another hotel today. We arranged to meet for dinner later before Dave and went to visit the nearby Shi’ah mosque at prayer time. Dave admitted to the men’s side and me to the women’s. This is a well visited mosque and comparatively inclusive. People travel from other countries in the Middle East to visit. They didn’t seem to mind us entering, we just had to wear the black robes, remove our shoes and I had to cover my head. It’s quite an emotional and daunting experience; very moving watching them pray with the sound of the mosque calling. I felt a bit bold going in but I really wanted to witness their call to prayer, to be in the middle of it, to experience being surrounded by women, kneeling together on their prayer mats. It was surprisingly chaotic inside, noisy with women greeting each other and children running around or lying across the marble floors, plastic shopping bags piled against pillars, fresh oranges tumbling out of one. A sociable lively atmosphere unlike my experience of visiting sombre British churches. An Iranian woman came over and photographed me, then proceeded to film me, walking away without saying a word. It felt rather odd. I know now what it feels like to be the novelty. Meeting Dave outside he said he had accidentally stepped backwards on to someone’s hand but it had been met with good humour and as the adult men prayed a little boy in the mosque had shouted out “Tourist!” and pointed at him with a huge smile on his face. The people we’ve met in Syria really are incredibly friendly. We’ve been able to walk around freely everywhere, never feeling threatened or that someone will steal from us, no-one harasses us. The overall feeling is that the local people want to communicate in whatever way they can and whenever we greet them in Arabic as we’ve been taught how to, they touch their hearts and smile broadly. Leaving the mosque we went to an old cafe nearby for another shy naana (mint tea). Watching women as well as men fill their hubbly pipes as the world passed by the open frontage and traders called out to get in some late business before closing for the day. Back at the hotel we chatted with Khaldoun who planned to come out with us the following evening for our last night. We met with Lyes and Katrina and went out for something to eat.24 September. Final day in Damascus.
The old souqs and alleyways are the ancient heart of Damascus but surrounding them is the modern city. Concrete tower blocks and low level residential buildings pockmarked with air conditioning units, hanging with electricity cables, often masked by palm trees.
Back in the old city we wandered in to a hotel courtyard, relaxed in ornately carved chairs at a beautiful wooden table inlaid with mother of pearl whilst we sipped on freshly squeezed lime and mint drinks. We don’t feel ready to leave Syria. Dinner on the roof terrace of Al-Kawahli with Lyes and Katrina before meeting Khaldoun after his shift ended at Sah Al-Naum. Then on to one of the highlights of our trip …to a cafe to see a storyteller.The infamous storyteller Aby Shady in café Al-Nawfara. Locals pack the place out and the atmosphere buzzes with chatter and greetings between friends and families. A fabulously memorable way to spend out last night with Lyes, Katrina and Khaldoun. We couldn’t tell if the storyteller was speaking in Arabic or Syriac. Lyes is Algerian, but didn’t understand him and Khaldoun is Syrian but also couldn’t understand the words. Either way Mr Shady was pretty amusing and told me (translated by a neighbouring table) that when I laughed I had a mouth full of diamonds. I wish my dentist was so enthusiastic about my teeth. As the only group of tourists we were constant targets and the room was filled with laughter as heads turned towards our table. Most of which we had no comprehension of but made it even funnier. Back in London I had two prints of this photograph framed and gave one to Lyes and Katrina. Despite the language barrier that night we laughed til we had tears in our eyes and felt truly embraced by these fantastic people. So it’s with a heavy heart that we leave Syria. We would love to return and explore more of the country, eat more of their incredible food, reunite with the people we’ve met, drink tea with the bread-making family again. The friendliest country we have ever spent time in. Syria we love you.
Syria September 2010. @thetraveldiarist