We cross the border patrol, wend our way through the Lebanese mountains and fly across the desert plateau in a vintage 1960’s mercedes as the clear sky goes from burnt orange to violet. As the sun sets completely, the twinkling green lights atop hundreds of minarets begin to cast an eerie glow on the approaching city and the first calls to prayer, carried by the hot wind, reverberate from crackling PA systems in mosques across the desert basin. At first, solitary and haunting, the cries become more melodic as each minaret, one by one, calls the faithful to worship. Driving into the city as the song rang out from every corner was alien, somehow frightening. As the cries form a beautiful harmony, my own revelation on “the road to Damascus” begins. If Beirut was once the Paris of the East, then Damascus, with its patina of the ages, remains the region’s exotic Rome.
The best travel experiences are those which broaden horizons, sharpen the senses and deepen understanding of humanity. In the last couple of decades, the machinations of politics and religion has seen Damascus, a center of civilisation for millennia, deemed dangerous and consequently wiped from itineraries. But the citadel has always been a destination, whether for Iranian and Iraqi Shiite pilgrims visiting religious monuments, roguish archaeologists and anthropologists eager to solve its riddles, antique traders and shoppers mesmerised by its mythic souks or solitary travellers in search of the ever more esoteric.
Mark Twain once said, “Go back as far as you will into the vague past; there was always a Damascus.” Entering the UNESCO World Heritage-listed old city, it is clear to what he is referring. The Roman walls hem in a contest of Roman, Byzantine, Mamaluk and Ottoman architecture, an extraordinarily rich concentration and diversity of treasures. It is the characteristic Mamaluk stone stripes in charcoal and white that distinguish it from any other city in the Levant and provide a restrained backdrop to the most intact notion of the old Orient. Damascene houses, revolving around a collection of fountain courtyards, are particularly famed for their intricacy of detail. Designed with etiquette and a hint of superstition, the Damascene house is full of quirks, like the addition of live turtles that lumber around the ‘reception courtyard’ as a totem of ugliness in a paradise.
The most majestic monument in the city is the Umayyad Mosque, a major spiritual destination for the Islamic faith. Far from being a rarely glimpsed world, hidden from the outsider, it is open to all and so frequently visited that the sans-shoe policy of the religion has seen its stone courtyard polished to a shine by sock-covered feet. Sitting in tranquil contemplation as the afternoon sun causes the gilded mosaics to gleam and the reflection on the stones to soften is a serene viewpoint for observing the rhythms and rituals of Islamic life. The picture is profoundly human: coquettish girls flirt with boys, children spill and slide across the floor, grandmothers chide and the men chat.
The souks of Damascus are legendary, not solely because of the craftsmen who sell their wares there, but because the structure of the seemingly endless covered maze is itself a work of splendid design. From legendary silk brocade, silver lanterns, perfumes and mother-of-pearl inlay furniture to spices and soap, Damascus has gifted the world an extraordinary legacy of fine goods. While the souk has become the grand market of the Middle East, it is still possible to find authentic Damascene goods.
The Souk Al Hamidyeh is the grandest in scale, with its imposing 13th-century iron ribcage roof and dramatic entrance at the ruins of the Roman temple of Jupiter. It is not, however, at Al Hamidyeh that the best shopping can be found; each souk has a specific purpose, from the general goods (read: souvenirs) of Al Hamiyed to the obscurity of Souk el-Tanabel (meaning ‘of the lazy people’), where the bourgeois purchase chopped parsley to order. It is the silk and cotton souk(s?) that keep the Persian Silk Road alive. Amongst the mass-produced are reams and rolls of the finest textiles the world has to offer: Damask cotton nestled next to Uzbeki embroidery. Just off the ‘Straight St’, where most the certifiably authentic (and expensive) shopping in Damascus can be found, a modern curated space for traditional Syrian craftsmanship has been created at The Khan. The son of the man who handwove the silk brocade of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation gown remains at the loom and he continues to create intricate, luminescent silks in vibrant hues. From the haute to the humble, during summer it is possible to experience one of the gloriously unexpected by-products of the region’s devotion to silk: Persian mulberries. Throughout the souk, boys set up makeshift stalls, shaving ice and crushing it together with the inky juice of the fragile fruit as a refreshing pause from the shopping.
While the furniture and fabrics of the Levant available in the souk can paralyse the even the savviest shopper, it is the soaps, spices and perfume of Souk Midhat Pasha that truly overtake the faculties. The heat-amplified perfume of piles of cinnamon bark, tiny rosebuds, branches of wild fennel and tiny Iranian limes compete with the gloriously ubiquitous rosewater in a race from your nostrils to your cerebrum.
The street is also the best place to eat in Damascus. While restaurants erroneously struggle to cater for visitors by placing dishes like Chicken Cordon Bleu on the menu, the street food remains the domain of the locals and is where every smart traveller should eat. Little boltholes selling fuhl (ital), the dried fava bean thick soup garnished with tomatoes and served with pita and crunchy, fresh pickles, or traditional bakeries that uphold the long-held Arabic claim to be the true inventors of pizza are the spots to find. These Arabic-style pizzas come topped with eggplant, slow-cooked lamb and fresh herbs and are perfect taken hot from the oven before smoking an apple and mint sheesha water pipe.
Like almost everything truly delightful in Damascus, it is the unexpected that offers the greatest rewards. In one of the city’s ancient hammam, I was greeted, stripped, scrubbed down, flung into the rosewater-infused steam and made to rest on the ancient stones. The Syrians value cleanliness and self-care above almost all else and this led me to the hamman and then onto the barber. I sat timidly waiting my turn as the knives were sharpened, until the grizzly looking barber beckoned me to the chair. I was plucked and pruned with a wire, the knives diligently tracing up and down my neck in an ultimate act of humble and democratic luxury as dusk came again and the minaret’s song began anew.
Photography Credit: Pablo Zamora