Enchanting sights and smells in the world's oldest city
14.02.2010 - 20.02.2010 20 °C
We were a little worried about our trip to Syria. We had heard and read lots about Syrian Immigration - long waits and even longer delays (we'd actually been told to avoid any line that had an American, as Immigration loves to make them wait) and hawk-eyed border guards who would scrutinise your passport for any evidence of Israeli stamps and are even suspicious of travellers having two passports for that reason. So it was with some trepidation that we journeyed onto Damsascus.
We shared a taxi with two other Syrians, and shared sweets and breakfast pita bread with them on the way. One was a young boy called Omar, who made us feel terribly old when he proudly showed us his passport which listed his year of birth as 1993. Hmmmm, who can remember that year like it was just yesterday? Omar spoke very little English and took quite a shining to Chalky, even though it was Jac who conversed with him in pidgin Arabic. Who could blame him," Chalky later said, "it was probably like travelling with Buck Shelford for him". Omar grinned and happily pointed out olive groves, fields of tomato plants and nuclear power plants along the way
The Jordanian border was an easy experience, we got stamped through quickly in the large, metal shed-like office, and the machine gun-toting Customs officer gave our packs a casual search. We then drove onto the Syrian border, firstly driving through a small, open-air carwash-esque contraption, being sprayed with goodness-knows-what liquid, as if the only half-functioning nozzles would kill what the air wouldn’t carry across anyway. We then sat in the car for a while, as the driver, Omar and the other passengers went into a big white Hotel near the Immigration Office (we guess for those who like to sleep on their decision to cross the border first). After waiting and waiting, finally the driver joined us with bags of what looked like Duty Free shopping. We tried to ask him if it was best that we get started on what would be a long Syrian visa process, but he waved it away and instead wanted us to enter the hotel with him. It turned out that he wanted to use us for our maximum Duty Free cigarette allowance, and loaded us up with two cartons each and led us around the shop, pointing at us to the cashiers, as if that would allow us to skip the long lines of men waiting. It worked though and it turned out he even got 16-year old Omar to buy his share too. Later we wondered how many times our driver scored cheap cigarettes per week.
Despite our fears and expectations, the Syrian visa experience was a cinch! All we did was fill out an immigration card, and unlike our guide book detailed, there was no ominous “Have you visited any Palestinian Territories?” question (they really do hate the ‘I’ word). We did however, have to pay a whopping US$184 for our tourist visas. Jac gamely (or dangerously, depending on the outcome) enquired as to why the visa wasn’t free because isn’t the Syrian Government trying to encourage tourism? “Before” was the reply we simply received as the border guard gave our passports a brief flick-through for The Stamp. So after only 10 minutes and hardly any pain (except a financial one) we breezed through with ease. (It was later, when we were planning to travel to Beirut that Jac realised it was the Lebanese Government that offers free visas to build tourist numbers. The hazards of having a two-country Lonely Planet!)
Once arrived in Damascus, our Syrian friends flagged a meter taxi for us. We headed to Al Merjeh (Martyrs Square), dumped our packs in our windowless, teeny-tiny hotel room and set straight out for Souq al-Hamidiyya,
And what an experience it was! To paraphrase Lonely Planet, the Souq was a cross between a Parisian passage and a Middle Eastern bazaar. A vault of corrugated iron roofing blocked all sunlight except a few torch-beam shafts of light, thanks to French aerial machine gun fire in 1925. The main thoroughfare was lined with mainly clothes emporiums and handicraft shops, and crowded with women wearing hajib (headscarfs), shopping in groups, boys selling lit-up spinning toys and bubbleguns, and groups of men huddled around vendors squatting on the ground, demonstrating vegetable-decoration cutters and plastic geometric pattern makers. Old men wheeled their trolleys through the throng, shouting out the buns and pastries they had for sale.
We wandered into the handicraft stores, selling olive and orange wood backgammon sets, richly decorated furniture intricately set with mother of pearl mosaics, gilded jewellery boxes and lavish Oriental carpets. One shop we visited was called “Tony Stephens” and inside was the elderly owner himself, along with his two middle-aged sons. His walls were pinned with photos of Tony and various dignitaries and celebrities like Jimmy Carter and Nicole Kidman, as well as wives of various ambassadors. We browsed the wares on offer - copper pots, tiffin boxes, silks and even antique riding spurs. One of Tony’s sons showed us an array of backgammon sets (‘serious’ boards were extremely heavy and not decorated at all) and also showed us how wooden mosaics are made - skinny, angular slivers of wood are delicately glued together to form the desired pattern, then 150 to 200 pieces are finely cut from a 30cm-long piece. We chose a cedar, walnut and rosewood backgammon set, and Tony’s son gave us some black and white counters, warning us against vendors offering us camel bone counters as there are no such thing.
That night we visited “Al Arabi” for dinner. As our guidebook promised, the menu was offal-heavy, with “cheep tasticles” (mutton or just really good value?) and “sheep brains fried with two eggs”. Were we game enough to try these specialities? What do you think?!
Our time in Damascus was spent walking through the city, gazing at the differing architectures of the Damascene palaces, houses and madrassas (schools). We also explored the different areas of each souq - leather quarter, the stationery quarter, haberdashery quarter and metal work quarters, and watching the locals go about their daily shopping, buying spices, herbs, rice and medicinal goods. We stopped to do the same - good-naturedly haggle over half a kilo of mishmish (dried apricots) or sample some freshly roasted cashew nuts, offered from a smiling vendors outstretched hand.
It was fascinating wandering the narrow, medieval alleys of the world’s oldest continually-inhabited city, and walking past the tiny street-side shops, poorly lit but with an air of industriousness, their owners all hammering and toiling away, or warmly greeting passing friends, and content in their little enterprises.
What was warming were all the men of all ages who we passed and called out to us, “Hello, welcome to Syria!”, whether it be a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of socks and tissue boxes for sale, a young teenager leaning in a shop door or an old man sitting and smoking on the street. All they wanted was to happily greet us and elicit a smile and a “Shukran!” (thank you!) in return from us.
Also charming were the taxi drivers, who upon hearing Jac’s attempts at asking for a ride in Arabic, would then spend the whole journey rattling to us in Arabic, their sentences peppered with the ubiquitous “aywah” (yeah, eh, innit ), despite us protesting that we only spoke “Arabi schway” (i.e. very tiny amounts of the language). We soon learnt that a lot of nodding and repeating of the last word of their sentences made us great conversationalists.
We also paid a visit to Umayyad Mosque, which is Syria’s most significant religious structure and in sanctity is only second to the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Firstly to enter, Jac had to be covered in a beige cloak, which she put on in the “Putting On Special Clothes Room”. Once inside, it was a splendid sight. The walls near the entrance and above the Prayer Hall were decorated in gold and green mosaics, which was meant to depict the Barada Valley and the paradise that the prophet Mohammed saw in Damascus. We looked around the huge, shined courtyard and noted all the fixtures: the square ablutions fountain, the gold-topped columns flanking it, the octagonal-shaped Dome of the Treasury where the riches of the mosque were once kept, then we sat on the steps of the Prayer Hall to take in the scene before us. There appeared to be many Muslims in tour groups of about a dozen, with their leader waving placards of flags. We originally thought there was some sort of demonstration gathering, but the swarm of people seemed to just be flocking to the eastern wall, which housed the Shrine of Hussein. Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet, who was killed in Iraq (in perhaps similar fashion to his contemporary namesake). Many of the visitors were women clad in black cloaks and burkas, Shiite Muslims visiting from Iran.
We decided to poke our heads into the eastern wing The interior was painted turquoise, with ornate mosaics and patterns on the ceilings. We stood back and watched the pilgrims all clamour and crowd around three separate parts: one a small glass and wooden room, which contained a red prayer mat; another a rounded silver alcove, that was the most crowded with visitors all pushing to get in front of it; and the third a small silver tomb or some sort with gold Arabic inscriptions and three arches on one side. All three shrines had men and women praying nearby, pressing themselves against them and touching the shrines and then their foreheads as if to be blessed. It was close to one of the five prayer times of the day, so we left the mosque. We could hear the singing call to prayer of the muezzin as we left, his voice echoing throughout the city from loudspeakers atop the minarets.
As a result of spending some ten days in Damascus (we also returned before we left Syria for Lebanon), we accumulated quite a few souvenirs, such as ceramics, copper lamps, antique silverware and backgammon boards. We learnt pretty quickly that parcels cost pretty much equal to send as it did to buy them. We frequented the Parcel Office often, and each time were helped by a Don-Johnson-look-alike-minus-the-80s-suit, who we weren’t sure whether he was working for the Office, or just free-lanced for the commission he earned from helping customers wade through paperwork send parcels. However he did run around each time for us, explaining for us at the various desks we flashed our passport to, and expertly boxed and fastidiously masking taped our packages for us. What we did have to sort for ourselves however, were our own packaging and boxes.
This is where we felt the genuine hospitality of Syria, and indeed the whole Middle East. We had to scour the souqs ourselves, and Jac would often stop to ask for directions or simply where we could find things. The friendly locals fell over themselves to help us, often gathering in number as they talked and argued amongst themselves as to the best place to find what we were looking for. Most Westerner strangers would shrug and say a polite sorry if they didn’t know, but the Syrians very helpfully wrote the Arabic words for Warat bubble (bubble wrap) and filene carton (polystyrene box), and even led us to areas they thought might have them. You think you could never find those items at the best of times, but with their help, lots of sign language, and new Arabic vocabulary learnt, we finally found them. And what a sense of triumph and achievement it was when we discovered the shop that had been scrawled down for us, that had a foot-tall gigantic roll of bubble wrap or the small warehouse that had sold huge 1.5mx2.5m sheets of polystyrene! That and some big plastic boxes we bought did the trick. However it was truly hilarious, the very next day after the drawn-out polystyrene search, as we went sightseeing we saw several, no dozens of sturdy, pristine polystyrene boxes lying around the streets, stacked tauntingly beside rubbish skips and beside fruit juice stalls. We couldn’t do anything but laugh, and cringe at the huge mess we’d made at the Parcel Office, snapping our huge sheet up into little bits.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Damascus, with its old-world feel and ancient culture. Next stop was Aleppo, in Northern Syria.
Around the Souqs and streets of Damascus
Souq al-Hamidyya - the bullet-holes care of the French
Inside Tony Stephen's
Stationery lane - even Valentine's day hits the Middle East
Salah ad-Din (Saladin, the Crusader's mortal enemy)
Where you pick up your hijab
When you need the direction of Mecca in a hurry
Filming in the souq
Bar Saloon: Shall I learn Arabic fast?
Trying Syrian Arak
Jac cloaked being both a woman and an Jedi
Visitors to a shrine and tomb
The richly gilded mosaics
Damascene and Mamluk architecture
Some of the Middle Eastern food we ate
Tasty felafel wrap
Candied apricot and marzipan in Souq al-Bzouriyya
Pistachio ice cream and ‘mahalabiyye’
Freshly-squeezed Pomegranite juice
Pyramids of Syrian sweets for sale
Some of the sticky treats we sampled