Getting to Know Old Damascus

Wednesday, June 29, 2005 | Damascus, Syria

The Souq al-Hamidiyeh, one of the most iconic of Damascus's many sites
In every way, Damascus could not be less like home, but despite my anxiety during the trip here and first several hours in the city, I have come to really enjoy it, and am adapting to the new climate, schedule, political atmosphere, and people here.

Damascus's Old City certainly does not want for sights to explore. In fact, I am quickly learning why Ibn Battuta raved for page after page about the city after his travels first brought him here in 1362:
"Damascus surpasses all other cities in beauty, and no description, however full, can do justice to its charms.... All strangers among them are handsomely treated, and care is taken that they are not forced to any action that might injure their self-respect."
Giddy with the joy of wandering the city, he could hardly spit out fast enough his descriptions of the many marvels he encountered: the markets, public fountains, religious sites, the gushing hospitality
of the city's residents, and more. The place seems hardly to have changed.

* * *

Certain aspects of Damascus's Old City are becoming familiar already as I explore. There is a twisting series of streets I can take from the house in Bab Tuma to reach the main souqs that surround the Ummayad Mosque (المسجد الأموي or الجامع الأموي), which is among Islam's finest architectural spectacles. Beside it lies the tomb of the great Muslim general Salah ad-Din al Ayyoubi (صلاح الدين الأيوبي), known in the west as Saladin. Caretakers have bathed the tomb in a fog of tacky green fluorescent lighting intended to lend the tomb a sacred aura (green being a holy color of Islam) but in so doing have managed to achieve the opposite.

Alternatively, I sometimes meander over to Bab Sharqi (باب شرقي), and take the aptly named Straight Street corridor, of Biblical fame. It is near this street where the small Chapel of Ananias (كنيسة حنانيا) rests, shaded by the old medina's walls. One of the oldest Christian places of worship, the chapel also marks the spot where a young man, known until then as Saul of Tarsus, converted to Christianity, gained the name Paul, and was lowered over the walls in a basket to escape an angry horde.

Straight Street leads westward, past ancient Roman columns, and melds into the covered Souq Medhat Pasha (سوق مدحت باشا), named for one of the city’s former Ottoman governors. I am friendly with a date seller at the souq's eastern opening, and a tailor at the western end.

The city is a lively place, with frequent outdoor events. One evening this week I accompanied Julian and the German girls to the Azem Palace (قصر العظم, literally "the Bone Palace") to see a French film screening, and I'm looking forward to a jazz festival, organized by the Swiss Embassy, scheduled to take place in a few weeks in the Old City's citadel.

In search of various goods, I have already perused many of the city's markets and shop areas. One of the most iconic of these is the Souq al-Hamidiyeh (سوق الحميدية). The markets's rusting iron roof still bears the bullet holes of French gunfire—a lasting reminder of the colonists' failed attempts to repress Syria's revolution. Today, the souq is packed with shoppers. Tea sellers in traditional garb stroll the thoroughfare, bending forward to fill petite glasses from an enormous kettle strapped to their backs. One shop on the strip, called Bouza Bakdash (بوظة بكداش), does bustling business selling bouza, a deliciously chilled, pistachio-covered dairy-and-rosewater-and-almond concoction similar to ice cream, and supposedly served on this spot for centuries!

Like Cuba, Syria has spent many decades in relative economic isolation from the western world. Also like Cuba, this isolation has resulted in—along with a lot of negatives—at least one positive in the form of a great car collection. Well-maintained antique cars glitter throughout Damascus's Old City—Chevrolets, Chryslers, Pontiacs, Lincolns, Peugeots and more. Their white wall tires, wide fenders and wings, running boards and silver trim stay well shined.

The city continues to offer me plenty of new places to explore and new experiences to discover.


Anonymous said...

Did you go to "lazy woman" souq ? It was principally a fruit & veg market - I cannot locate which street it used to be in.. My Syrian colleagues used to take me there to get fresh fruit & veg, but never said a street name.. "this is the souq of the lazy women" they used to say, and laugh! I loved my time in Damascus, it was just fabulous & am horrified by events there now. I just cannot believe how such a laid back, cosmopolitan, friendly, tolerant place can have come to such a thing as is now happening. Terrible.

Ibn Ibn Battuta said...

No, I don't remember hearing of that souq. But I definitely share your feelings about events these days in Syria - it's tragic.

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