Damascus. Syria.

My friends and I decided to travel to Syria over Easter in 2010. The old walled city of Damascus had been on the top of my travel list, along with Jerusalem since moving to Dubai. The city is lovely and quaint, bursting with history, great people and a very busy night life. I am very fortunate the trip panned out the way it did, when it did, since the civil unrest has made travel even harder now, if not impossible.

Damascus, founded in the 3rd millennium BC is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities and a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is believed to have been populated as early as 8,000 to 10,000 BC according to excavations at Tell Ramad on the outskirts of the city.

Short historical timeline:
3000 BC | Damascus was founded by the initial settlement of Semites in Syria
1500 BC | Capital of an Aramaic kingdom during the 11th-17th centuries
600 BC | Conquered by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the Neo-Babylonian empire
530 BC  | Persian rule
333 BC | Annexed to the empire of Alexander the Great
64 BC | Became a Roman province under the Roman general Pompey
197-212 AD | Continued Roman control during the reigns of Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla
636 AD | Permanent part of the Arab world by becoming the monumental capital of the Umayyad caliph

The city lies on a plateau 680 meters above sea level, sheltered by the Eastern Lebanon Mountain Range (also known as the Anti-Lebanon Mountains) and is about 80 km inland from the Mediterranean.  It is at the northern end of the King’s Highway and is the connection to the Near East.

 

The old walled city of Damascus, lies on the south bank of the river Barada and is surrounded by ramparts on the northern and eastern sides and part of the southern sides. There are 7 city gates still in existence, the oldest of which dates back to the Roman period, clockwise from the north of the Citadel of Damascus, asf:

Bab Touma | ‘Thomas’s Gate’ in the north-east corner, leading into the Christian quarter of the same name
Bab al-Faradis | ‘the gate of the orchards, or ‘of the paradise’
Bab al-Salam | ‘the gate of peace’
Bab al-Jabiya | at the entrance to Souk Midhat Pasha, in the south-west
Bab Sharqi | ‘eastern gate’ in the east wall, the only one to retain its Roman plan
Bab Kisan | in the south-east, from which tradition holds that Saint Paul made his escape from Damascus, lowered from the ramparts in a basket; this gate has been closed and turned into Saint Paul Chapel marking this event
Bab al-Saghir | ‘The Small Gate’

The Citadel of Damascus is a large medieval fortified palace and citadel part of the ancient city and is located in the northwest corner of the city walls, between the Bab al-Faradis and the Bab al-Jabiyah. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

We stayed at the Albal Hotel on Al Bakri Street located in the Christian Quarter of the old city. The hotel, having opened a few days before our arrival was spanking new, quiet and comfortable although experiencing minor teething issues attributed to any new establishment. Having said that, our stay was beyond satisfactory and given the choice I would stay there again. I remember waking up to the stillness of the morning with church bells chiming in the distance and drinking fragrant mint tea in the hotel’s courtyard while enjoying the cool April breeze.

Albal Hotel

We had 4 days in Syria, 3 in Damascus with a day dedicated to visiting Palmyra (refer: Palmyra. Syria). Our initial plan was to split our time between Damascus (2 days) and Aleppo covering Palmyra on the way back, however, the latter seemed a little too manic to manage time-wise. Moreover, we wanted to experience Easter in the Christian Quarters and spend Easter Sunday there.

The old city is a labyrinth of narrow, old lanes and alleyways. Within these old lanes near the steps of the eastern gate of the Umayyad Mosque is Al-Nawfara Cafe. Over 250 years old, it is the oldest cafe in Damascus and at sunset, a storyteller sits upon a chair in the centre of the cafe, enigmatically telling stories, books and sword in hand! The cafe became our designated ‘pit-spot’, spending all our afternoons sitting outside, drinking copious amounts of mint tea and sheesha.

Al-Nawfara Cafe

Al-Nawfara Cafe

Al-Hamidiyah Souq, the largest souq in Damascus, is a cornucopia of colours, sounds and smells. An enormous structure, with a concave iron roof riddled with bullet holes inflicted by machine guns fired by French planes during the nationalist rebellion of 1925. There, we headed to Bakdash, an ice cream parlour famous for its pistachio coated Booza, a popular ice cream in the Middle East made of mastic and sahlab with a very elastic texture and sticky consistency. I’ve had multiple versions of Booza in Dubai but their fare was too sweet and sticky for my liking; the locals might beg to differ as they thronged the shop for more!

Al-Hamidiyah Souq

Al-Hamidiyah Souq

The Grand Mosque of Damascus, the Umayyad Mosque, is one of the largest mosques in the world, and one of the oldest sites of continuous prayer since the rise of Islam. A shrine in the mosque is said to contain the remains of the head of St John the Baptist. The mosque was built on the site of a Christian basilica dedicated to St John the Baptist after the Arab conquest of Damascus in 634 AD. To enter, we ladies had to wear their customary grey abaya over our clothes covering our heads. The courtyard of the mosque is enclosed by 4 exterior walls within which are 3 minarets: the Minaret of the Bride (Madhanat al-Arus), the Minaret of Jesus (Madhanat Isa) and the Minaret of Qaitbay (Madhanat al-Gharbiyya). The Minaret of the Bride, believed to have been built first, is located on the mosque’s northern wall and is used by the muezzin for the call to prayer. The Minaret of Jesus is located on the southeastern corner of the complex. The Minaret of Qaitbay, also known as the Western Minaret is octagonal in shape and displays strong Islamic-era Egyptian architectural influence. The largest dome of the mosque is known as the ‘Dome of the Eagle’ (Qubbat an-Nisr) and is located atop the center of the prayer hall.

Umayyad Mosque

Umayyad Mosque

Shrine of St John the Baptist, Umayyad Mosque

Shrine of St John the Baptist, Umayyad Mosque

Inside, the Umayyed Mosque is still and tranquil. Men and women are separated before entering the mosque and pray in different sections. Although, this did not hold true for tourists like us, we were ushered in warmly and allowed to walk around the different sections and pray together.

the Umayyad Mosque

the Umayyad Mosque

We couldn’t have chosen a better time to visit Damascus than over Easter; the entire city was abuzz with festivities and you could smell it in the air (along with the hot cross buns and chocolate bunnies). We made friends with a local Syrian boy working in our hotel who took us to the Church in our neighbourhood (Bab Touma) for Easter eve celebrations. On Easter day, as a tradition, there were several parades taking place around the old city. One such parade started at the Church in Bab Touma where we were assembled in our Sunday best at 10 am to watch it commence and subsequently followed it through the winding narrow lanes of the city.  I celebrate Easter at home since I am both Christian and Hindu, from my Father and Mother’s side respectively. So, for me, this was a tremendous experience, perhaps one that will be very difficult to top.

Easter parade

Easter parade

Additional places of interest:

The Azem Palace

The Azem Palace, built in 1750 as a residence for the Ottoman governor of Damascus As’ad Pasha al-Azm, subsequently heavily damaged in 1925 by French artillery during the Syrian revolution, has since been restored and is now a Museum of Arts and Traditions.

Azem Palace

Azem Palace

The ruins of the Temple of Jupiter

At the mouth of, and in stark contrast to the Al-Hamidiyah Souq stands what is left of the Temple of Jupiter. The Temple was built by the Romans, beginning during Augustus’s rule and finishing during the rule of Constantius. An ancient Aramaean temple to Hadad once stood on this site. The Romans who associated Hadad with Jupiter, rebuilt the temple in Jupiter’s name, popularising Damascus to be known as the ‘City of Jupiter’. Theodosius I converted the temple to a church dedicated to St John the Baptist. After the Muslims took over Damascus in 635 CE, the church was shared for seventy years, but Al-Walid I, the Umayyad caliph who ruled from 705 to his death in 715 AD converted it to the Umayyad Mosque.

Ruins of the Jupiter Temple at the entrance of Al-Hamidiyah Souq

Ruins of the Jupiter Temple at the entrance of Al-Hamidiyah Souq

 

Damascus photo journey:

 

37 thoughts on “Damascus. Syria.

  1. Pingback: Palmyra. Syria. | why is a raven like a writing desk?

  2. Pingback: On the King’s Highway to find my pot of gold. Jordan. | why is a raven like a writing desk?

  3. Liked this post. Especially the photo journey part. Your description made the place more enticing. It’s pity the current conditions in Aleppo.

  4. I so much would love to see Syria! Lets hope for everyone there will be peace soon. Thanks for taking me there with your post. Love the pics. And thanks for following my blog 🙂

    • Pleasure 🙂 Once everything settles down, I would go back in a heartbeat. There is so much we did not get to see; and of course Damascus is one of my favourite cities.

    • Me too, I’ve been dying to go back and perhaps spend a little more time traveling around and in the old city of Damascus but sadly it seems unlikely in the near future 😦 I hope not too long though, beautiful country with such nice people.

      • You visited it just before the war broke out? Many of my friends were there around 2005 and loved it!

      • I am curious, any place similar to Damascus you have been to? In that ‘old world” category I mean…

      • Jordan. I absolutely loved it as well. Especially the north – Madaba and Jerash. Israel is on the list, maybe later this year (fingers crossed).

      • I don’t know Jordan either, but I am sure it is amazing, too.

        The region I love (worked extensive periods there) is Central Asia. You would maybe like Uzbekistan… at the cross roads of old trade routes.

      • It is, I’ve blogged about Jordan (including Jerash, Madaba, the King’s Highway and Petra), you can read it if you like.
        Central Asia including Russia and Mongolia is something I’ve wanted to do for a while now. I had planned the Trans Siberian journey with a friend 2 summers ago but it didn’t work out and we landed up in Japan instead. I’m sure I’d like Uzbekistan, I used to work with a girl from Tashkent and her stories were interesting! You are lucky to have had the opportunity to live bad work in Central Asia.

      • Central Asia is quite isolated, culturally very distinctive. Of course it has been a trade hub (and still is to certain extent), which has made it a real melting pot, but still, there is something very special and unique about it. I was in Uzbekistan in 2000-2001 for one year and Kyrgyzstan just after the 9-11. Super super interesting. I even visited the Aral Sea 🙂 Everyone thought I was crazy (and maybe I was hehe). Well, technically I visited the town that used to be on the shore (the shore is now far away).

        All this was before digital photos, so I really need to hire someone to scan my millions of photos from all over one day!!

        Where is your next trip heading to? I am off to Finland on Monday and then hopefully some Mediterranean sun toward the end of the summer.

      • Oh, I would love to see all the photographs you have, once they are scanned ofc! What a treat! Well, hopefully Paro, Bhutan if all goes well! August, tying up with a friend so let’s see how far we get. I haven’t been to Finland but have a close friend in Norway whom I visit often. Ah the Mediterranean will be so nice, I’m jealous :). Enjoy your summer!

      • You too –nice plans you have! Bhutan according to that Indian film (The Lunchbox maybe, did you see it?) is the happiest country in the world 😉

      • Another great Indian film (thriller, quite disturbing) is Ugly. Have you heard about it?

        Btw are you Indian origin?

      • Yes, I am. Nope, haven’t heard of Ugly but I’m going to check it out on google and see if I can download it later. Tx! You’ve seen more Indian films than me!

      • Hahaha, for some parts of my life (just moved back to India late last year for a year). I was born in India (Delhi) and have spent equal parts of my life outside India as in.

        Really? Good to know! If you visit again, please let me know. I can’t say I’d show you around, you might know more than me! 😉 Thanks for the link, will check it out shortly.

        And you’re in Paris! I was there in February this year (my sister and her husband were living in the city for 3 months but are back in India now), lovely city!

      • Oh so you live in India now (not in Singapore?)?

        I have been to India 4 times now, one month each time. Amazing trips, amazing food, amazing culture/history, amazing ppl etc.

        What did you do in Paris apart from the most touristic things? Did you like the restos? Ppl ok…?

      • Yep, moved back temporarily late last year.

        Wow! Good to know 🙂 Which part(s) do you like the best?

        This year in Paris was more like a family vacation as my parents visited at the same time as well. I’ve been coming to Paris once every year for the last 5. Although I find Paris immensely beautiful (my sister and I love walking, just walking endlessly at night admiring the city in all its glory), I or rather we, fell in love with Provence and the south. We spent two summers in the south skipping spending time in Paris.

        This time we stayed in Marais, we ate at Blend (really good) and the fusion Japanese bento place – Nanashi. We also tried the farmers market (?) there – Enfants Rouge, and the cutest little bar called Sherry Butt!

      • Have to run to do groceries, but just wanted to say that we live very near Sherry Butt in the 4th 🙂

      • Back 🙂

        Well, India is so rich that it is difficult to say and compare. To start with big cities, I like different cities of Delhi, I think they are amazing (some remind me of Uzbekistan). I love Bombay bc we have good friends there. Hyderabad is SO FASCINATING but so polluted. Varanasi is very disturbing but very beautiful at the same time.

        I love Hampi (prefer this to Angkor temples, if you can compare), and Karnataka in general. Nice ppl, but then again, you have nice ppl everywhere in India. Kochi is cool. Tamil Nadu is extremely religious but temples are attractive, you miss them when you leave TN for another state. I spent a fantastic Xmas in Mamallapuram. Andra Pradesh: delicious thalis. Tirupati was interesting. Rajasthan: amazing heritage hotels. Oh, there is so much in India. I think I have loved every place maybe except Pondicherri but it is bc I don’t go to India to find France 😉

        Well, I have to return to kitchen so more another time 🙂

      • Oh wow! You’ve traveled in India more than me! I live in Delhi and while I can’t say that I love it, it’s home and I can’t see myself living anywhere else in India (besides Bombay although for only a few years). I want to visit Hampi, I’ve heard Varanasi is frightfully dirty but sadly I haven’t been :(. I agree with you, the food is yummy in AP and the old restored Havelis of Rajasthan are stunning. I’m off to Agra tomorrow and will hopefully blog about it soon.

      • Hey, I did not find Varanasi that dirty… (not more than many other places). The old town is extremely charming.

        I forgot yesterday, there are two very distinctive areas in India that are architecturally interesting: Shekhawati in Rajasthan and Chettinad in Tamil Nadu. Beautiful havelis, built by rich businessmen.

        Where are you staying in Agra? I was there 2008 and stayed in a nice guesthouse right next to Taj Mahal but I hear that the guesthouse has gone down a lot while prices have at least tripled. Then this year I stayed with my parents at Nivas something, a quite bad hotel and overpriced. Actually Agra is not my favorite place in India. It is not where you eat and sleep best 😉 But I am curious to find out about your trip, and have a great time!! And do not miss the fort, it is very interesting and I think very different from the Red Fort. Oh, and try and see Fatehpur Sikri. I love that place.

      • Interesting, I love Chettinad food! 🙂
        Agra, was just for the day (I’m back in Delhi now).. we visited the Wildlife SOS grounds where they take in dancing abused bears and elephants and rehabilitate them. Spent a few hours feeding and bathing the elephants, which was delightful!
        The last time we were in Agra (to see the Taj), which was oh about over 12 years ago we stayed at the Jaypee Greens Resort and went to the Amarvillas for sundowners (fantastic views of the Taj from this property). I haven’t been to Fatehpur Sikri, I miss it every single time, but I do want to go.

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