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.
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-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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Damascus photo journey: