Wednesday, August 03, 2005


bedouin horse decoration
Originally uploaded by CharlesFred.

Back in Damascus after 40 years (for me, Charles), having been brought here as a toddler by my parents when we were living in Beirut. It hasn't changed a bit (joke - I was in fact too young to remember). In fact, it probably hasn't changed too much in 3,000 years. Supremely exotic. Busy. A melting pot.

Smells, colours, fashions, secret alleyways, mosques, bird and snake sellers, nuts, sweets and ice cream, metal workshops, tailors, shoe makers, handbag makers, sheep's heads, barbers, policemen, traffic wardens, soldiers, water melon salesmen, secret gardens, friendly people, smiling children, quiet inthe Old City, loud in the New with yellow taxis, always hooting, all this and more.
All set in a valley among some barren hills. Hills which glisten at night with the white and orange street lamps, red and blue neon advertising, green minarets. On one of the hills there are TV masts. On this hill, climbed Abraham, Jesus and his wife Mary and Mohammed. Saint Paul was converted on the road to Damascus and spent a long time preaching and converting here, a major stopping point on the St Paul itinerary.
We gave ourselves up to the atmosphere of the. city, after we finally surfaced in the late morning, being drawn from one colourful street scene to the other, with no plan other than at some time in the day to visit the Archeaological Museum. This we did in the mid-afetrnoon and it was, to be honest, a bit of a disappointment. There being SO much history in this country an dso many finds.... but many of the best were carried away by the British, French, Americans and Germans. Anyway, highlights were the first written alphabet in the world, from Ugarit, with the same sequence as all modern alphabets ... a ... b .. and so on... Also, a 3rd century syanagogue, found in 1920 by the British army and transported piece by piece to the museum.
But mainly it has beeen a day for taking in the wonderful atmosphere of the city. Not too hot at all, all day, it even spotted with rain as we found our way to this internet cafe.

We arrived in the early evening, after a Christian interlude with stops at Ma'alula and Sednaye. Ma'alula houses a couple of convents - St Tekla and Saints Sergius and Bacchus (two Roman soldiers, one of whom we had come across earlier at Al-Ressaffeh) - and it is one of only three villages where they speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Fred tells more, in Dutch, about our experiences there.

Arriving in Damascus, after spending the previous days in the desert or the provincial town of Hama, was like coming to the big city. Finally Damascus, about which one had heard so much, from Biblical stories and Islamic history to 20th century Middle East politics. Big motorways, full of those hooting yellow taxis, tall grey buildings, pavements chock full with people and street markets. Our driver found our hotel - the Grand Syria (grand only in name) quite easily and we checked in before setting off into the sweet evening air. You should know that the cool evening air is often filled with the delicate smell of jasmine.

Anyway, we tumbled out of the hotel onto the busy streets and straight into the main Maldeiye souk, a road which will have existed for thousands of years, now a covered shopping precinct. Glitter, glitter, glitter. Tack-o-rama! Gold, flashing lights, more gold. People from all over the Arab world, converging on the Damscene souks, The Gulf Arabs with their fat bellies and white djebella's, Somalis with their colourful clothes, the modern locals and the religious ones. Street hawkers selling stuffed eagles, helicoptering balloons, fruit jellies and nuts.

At the end, we came across the Ommayyed Mosque, a massive beautiful mosque, the heart of Damascus, on the site of the previous Temple of Jupiter, later Church of John the Baptists (his head is said to be buried there). People flocking in and out, children racing each other through the inner courtyard (the mid-point between Istanbul and Mecca), the faithful prostrating themselves on the acres of carpets laid out in the prayer hall, the muezzin calling out into the night air for the last prayers of the day, bats flitting in and out of the light.

Thus were our first impressions of Damascus. We would like ot stay longer, but our visa runs out on Friday and rather than extend, we reckon we will cross the border to Lebanon after a couple of days here.

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