Damascus as it was…

It’s so sad to hear what’s happening to Syria. More than a million people driven from their homes.

I visited Damascus in 2010 for Audi Magazine and out of curiosity I dug out the article to see what I had said – were there any clues as to what is happening now, in what I wrote then…

Whether there were clues or not, it’s extremely sad. Damascus is one of the best places I’ve ever visited.

Here’s what I wrote then:

It’s dark when I arrive. Cars and taxis jostle for space, their drivers leaning on their horns and jamming their vehicles along the road into Damascus. Even at night the city is heaving with comings and goings and time is relative – every clock displays something different.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt doesn’t stop. This is my first impression of the world’s longest continuously inhabited city. It’s a place that has been at the heart of kingdoms and empires and has welcomed travellers of all kinds for centuries. The time may not be fixed but there are two things that are: the prospect of perpetual change, and the warmth of the Damascene welcome. Whether you come here for tourism, for business or to command and conquer, Damascus has seen it all many times before and will see it all again. Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans and French have all come here, left their mark woven into the weft of the place, and then gone.

Abraham came here, the apostle Paul was converted here, and Mohammed, when he saw the city from the slopes of Jebel Qassioun, the mountain that guards Damascus, turned back from here, not wishing to spoil Paradise by seeing its equivalent on the earth.

And now I’m here, a substantially less illustrious visitor, but no less curious about the city the New York Times listed in its top ten places to visit. They described it as ‘waiting in the wings’ to take over from Marrakech as the destination of choice for those wanting to explore the Arab world. I thought I’d stick out like a sore thumb – a white British woman travelling alone in a predominantly Muslim, Middle Eastern country – but I’m just another traveller passing through.

The morning after I arrive I duck into a subway under a frantic dual carriageway to get to the old city. At its heart is the best example of the city’s diverse history – the Great Umayyad Mosque. It’s been a place of Islamic worship since 708. Part of its walls are those of a Roman temple to Jupiter, and on one side is a Greek inscription that reads, ‘Your kingdom, O Christ, is an everlasting Kingdom, and your Dominion endures throughout all generations’, marking the building’s one-time use as a church to St John the Baptist. In testament to the city’s relaxed attitude to its multicultural heritage, it is partially covered by an electricity substation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe route towards it takes you along the Hamidiye Souk. It’s a magical place, a long, wide, covered street with spots of light that dance on the floor round my feet streaming through tiny holes that spatter the arched corrugated-iron ceiling above me. The sound of the traffic behind me disappears into a more pedestrian bustle of chatter and idle haggling. Above it all sings the whistling of caged birds that hang outside some of the shops. This is one of the main throroughfares through a souk that is a fully functioning marketplace for everything you could possibly want – spices, flags for the World Cup, children’s books, kitchen equipment, traditional crafts, perfume, even wedding dresses. There are no supermarkets in Damascus – the souk is the city’s own megastore.

It eventually ends with a large Roman colonnade that opens out into a large courtyard and the large outer walls of the mosque. Inside, its walls are covered with intricate mosaics depicting a leafy, shaded paradise in gold and green and blue. They are utterly beautiful.

Despite my floor-length skirt and long sleeves, to enter the mosque I have to don a grey cloak with a hood and take off my shoes. It’s a holy place, so I expect it to be quiet and respectful, filled with cathedral-like whispers. But I’m quickly learning that Damascus does not like to comply with stereotypes and clichés. Instead there’s shouting and giggling. Inside the prayer hall there’s a distinct smell of feet from the devout who bob up and down on their knees in prayer, but around the edges groups chatter and gossip. In the courtyard outside families sit around on the cool polished marble floor, children splash around in the fountain, and in some places it looks like people are having impromptu picnics.

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Back in the narrow alleyways of the souk, stallholders call out in greeting, but no one hassles you to buy and everyone is eager to pass the time of day in conversation.

‘Would you like some tea?’ asks Zahir al Saghir as I browse the displays of Arabic calligraphy and old postcards of the city in his shop. ‘Don’t worry, you don’t have to buy. I was just making some tea for myself.’ He pulls up a seat for me, hands me a glass, and tells me about the Mu’allaqat, a series of seven poems considered to be the greatest ever written in the Arabic language.

A couple of stalls further along, Hesham Alhalabe gives me ‘oriental coffee’ – a shot of black coffee flavoured with cardamom – introduces me to his mother, and tells me about his father and grandfather. I don’t buy anything as I leave, but it doesn’t matter – Damascenes seem to be more eager to extend a welcome, share their culture and swap gossip than to exchange goods. A complete stranger, by the end of one day I already feel completely welcomed and accepted.

Hopping between patches of shade in the 40C heat the next day, in the quieter streets behind the mosque, I walk towards the Christian Quarter in the north-east corner of the old city to meet British photographer John Wreford, who has been living here since 2003.

Houses in this part of Damascus don’t have addresses as such – they’re all ‘Beit something’, the house of someone, near to one of the eight city gates or a main street. I’m looking for Beit Zafran, literally the house of saffron, near Bab Touma – Thomas’ Gate.

Four men sitting in the shade playing backgammon deliberate about which way I should go, and eventually point me to a small, unremarkable door on a tiny alleyway. Behind it are two large shaded courtyards with fountains and trees, surrounded by a two-storey house with balconies and large spacious rooms.

As someone brings out a huge plate of fruit – plums, oranges, strawberries, apples, bananas – for us to eat in the shade of the larger courtyard, John explains, ‘Every door looks the same but could open onto a tiny house or a palace – you never know what you are going to get.’

Courtyard houses like these are being converted into hotels at an astonishing rate to cater for the growing numbers of new visitors. The first opened in this part of the city in 2005 – now there are over 70 – all keeping their original character with the addition of en-suite bathrooms and air conditioning. Beit Zafran is one of many houses in the process of being renovated and readied to become a boutique hotel.

The owner, Adnan Habbab, arrives as we’re talking. Another plate of fruit is brought out, and while his children climb – fully clothed – into the fountain, splashing and squealing, he gives me a tour of the house, showing me the renovation work, pointing out all the original features. On the ceiling of one of the rooms is painted lines of Arabic verse – ‘Jasmin has the right to fall wherever it likes, and the house cat can take his siesta wherever he wants.’ He explains, ‘We want to save the big houses, and to make the old houses beautiful again.’

The weight of a thousand years of history is not stopping Damascus from looking forwards. And the weight of all the fruit I’ve eaten is not stopping me from exploring further. This is one city that will never stand still, so I don’t see why I should stop either.

A little way out of the city is the Tishreen Panorama, a modern monument to part of Syria’s more recent history – the 1973 Yom Kippur war with Israel.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEvidence of Syria’s politics and foreign policy is perhaps the only thing that doesn’t come as a surprise. Pictures of President Bashar al-Assad hang all over the city; from buildings and shop fronts he smiles benevolently down on the bustling Damascenes going about their daily business below him. He became President after his father in 2000, standing unopposed for election that year and again in 2007.

Along with his wife Asma – who can sometimes be spotted shopping in  the gold souk for jewellery – he could be considered to be a moderniser. One example, just along from the stained-glass Umawiyeen Sword in the front of the modern opera house, is a large building site being prepared for the Massar Rose, a spiral-shaped children’s discovery centre.

This is the future. Back in the old city, later that night, this time along the Biblical Via Recta, or Straight Street, I head to the highly recommended Al Khawali, another renovated courtyard house. I eat lovely lemony tabouleh, hummus, baba ghanouj – an aubergine and garlic dip – and chicken shish taouk all served with tanoor – Syrian flatbread, kneaded and squeezed one-handed into round bubbles of dough, then spun into flat rounds and baked in a steel drum oven at the courtyard’s edge.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJust when I think that I can eat no more, the waiter brings over a complimentary plate piled high with fruit, plus another of sticky pistachio nut-filled pastries.

The air is filled with the sweet smell of the water pipe. Syria has a smoking culture which means, since the government introduced a very controversial smoking ban in April, the insides of cafés and bars are largely empty, but the courtyards and streets outside them thrum with evening chatter and slowly curling trails of shisha smoke, a centuries-old habit that time, tide and legislation won’t change.

Swallows circle the skies at the sunset call to prayer and slowly the city skyline becomes punctuated with the green apostrophes of minaret lights.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s yet another side of Damascus to be seen, so on the last day I leave the old city and head over to Damascus Boulevard, a new shopping mall filled with luxury boutiques and American-style coffee houses. Moka and More, in the middle of the mall, is where the city’s upwardly mobile gather to see and be seen, spending the same on a cup of coffee as you would in London (a ludicrous price in Syria), the women wearing skinny jeans, Chanel watches and designer sunglasses.

‘People keep asking, “What is happening in Damascus? All these shops!”’ says Naram Omran, who works at the Four Seasons Hotel, which opened just behind Damascus Boulevard in 2006. ‘There are rumours that Louis Vuitton will open a shop here. It might happen or it might not, but when you hear things like that you know things could be and are changing. It’s a good sign. It means Syria is a point of interest.’

I’m eating again, this time in the hotel’s Aleppian restaurant, Al Halabi. Naram has met me for lunch, spreading an array of Syrian food for me to try. She urges me to try everything, and I want to. It’s all completely delicious: lamb kebab in sour cherry sauce, stuffed vine leaves, beetroot moutabel and kebbeh sajieh (ground lamb fried flat with pistachio and onion). As we eat, she talks about Syria. ‘It’s such an old civilisation, there has always been interaction between different cultures. This makes Syrian people very open, genuine, welcoming and very happy to share their culture.’

The table is cleared and, just when I think we’re finished, out comes a large plate of fruit. And another filled with small, sticky pastries. I can’t resist.

Damascus is lunching ladies as much as it is the Shia women in full black robes and the discreet white-headscarved Sunni ladies. On my way to meet John for a pint of Barada – the local beer – in the Christian Quarter that evening, I see the familiar robed-and-swathed, devout Sunni women at an impromptu pavement stand, bartering over piles of skimpy lingerie. John explains this is one of the city’s latest trends. ‘Just because Muslim women dress conservatively outside the house, doesn’t mean they are conservative.’

Yet again, Damascus defies expectations and preconceptions.

The city seems to absorb the new, blend it with the ancient and continue moving forwards. When you’re a thoroughfare for history, you have a clear choice: resist change, or embrace it. Experience has taught Damascenes to welcome it, along with all its entourage of travellers and visitors, businessmen and tourists, and greet it with a wide smile, a story, and a large plate of fruit.

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