Conquerors, traders, tourists - Damascus has seen them all over the years. Today, visitors to the city will be impressed by their legacy and surprised by the warm welcome from everyone they meet
Have you ever had a ‘Damascene experience’? A moment when suddenly all is revealed and made clear? It happened to me when I stepped out of my delightful hotel, the Beit Zaman in Damascus, on to the ‘Street called Straight’ and saw roughly the same sort of scene that would have greeted St Paul after his conversion to Christianity all those many years ago.
The Old City of Damascus has adapted to the 21st century without losing any of the character or atmosphere that has attracted visitors to it for over 2,000 years. Damascenes are well used to visitors, as they have been coming to this city as conquerors, traders or simple travellers since long before St Paul made his life-changing journey. Consequently, any visitor is made to feel really welcome by all, no matter where they may come from.
Old City atmosphere
The Syrian Arab Republic, to give it its formal title, is a secular country with a significant non-Muslim population, mostly Orthodox Christians, and with many ex-pats from many parts of the world living within its borders. This is reflected very much within the bounds of the Old City, where there is a substantial Christian Quarter, which of late has become the centre for some very good hotels and restaurants as well as home for many Christian Syrians. Yet apart from the odd shop selling alcohol, and, of course, the churches and cathedrals that are centred here, there is little to tell it apart from the Muslim Quarter, with its many mosques and minarets.
It must be almost unique in an Arab country to hear simultaneously church bells ringing out and the call of the muezzin. On top of this are the many sounds that ring out throughout the day – car horns from tiny little vans that can just squeeze through the lanes; bicyclists’ piercing whistles (so much more effective than bells for clearing pedestrians out of the way); the rattle of dice from men playing backgammon outside their shops; the whistles and tweets from caged birds hanging outside shops in the souk; and, of course, the 21st-century sound of mobiles (but given a Syrian touch with their wide choice of Arabic music).
The souk (marketplace) is vast, and because it is the main shopping area for all Damascenes, I found myself able to wander aimlessly without being pressured to buy, as there are precious few shops aimed at tourists. Those few that exist are fascinating and I much enjoyed sitting with Farouk, whose nickname amongst the local ex-pats was Ali Baba, drinking cups of tea and being shown some of the most wonderful linen, exquisite inlaid woodwork and fascinating carpets from around the Middle East.
However, despite all the commerce of the modern day, there is an ever-present sense of history. Throughout the souk there are khans or caravanserai. These ornate and lavishly built courtyards with surrounding galleried buildings were owned by the rich merchants of old and used by all the traders plying their business on the ancient trade routes between east and west. Some are beautifully restored to something of their former glory; others are used as car parks for traders and storerooms for all sorts of goods. They symbolise much of the historic geographical importance of the city.
There are numerous mosques scattered throughout the Muslim Quarter but none so vast or so beautiful as the Great Umayyad Mosque, which is regarded as the fourth most important mosque in the Islamic world. It also rather summarises the string of historic events in which the city has played a part. The mosque sits on the site of a 9th-century BC temple built by the Semitic Arameans; then it was converted by the Romans into their temple of Jupiter, before the Byzantines brought Christianity to the region and built a cathedral here. Eventually, the Arabs arrived and in 708AD it was amicably agreed that the cathedral would become the mosque that it is today.
Non-Muslim visitors need not be tentative about entering; the welcome could not be warmer. All western women are asked to go to an office next to the main entrance, rather strangely labelled ‘Putting on Special Clothes Room’, where they can borrow suitable clothing that will make them feel comfortable in the mosque – if not anywhere else on the planet.
Under the dome
Inside, anyone expecting the hush and reverence of a European cathedral is going to be shocked. There are kids rushing around playing games, a few people leaning against the pillars fast asleep, Arab tourists pointing their mobile phone cameras at all and sundry, others having a cup of tea out of a thermos... it is all very relaxed. But the surroundings are magnificent. The marble floor shines so brightly that it looks as if it is permanently wet. The surrounding walls are covered in green and gold mosaics that look even more impressive when the lights are turned on in the evening.
Inside the huge red-carpeted prayer hall there are many pilgrims praying, while others are there to make their abeyance at the very ornate tomb of St John the Baptist. Here there is an element of segregation, with women and men being directed to either sides of a rope divide; but still there are people relaxing and children playing.
Damascus also has so much of interest outside the Old City, including a museum with exhibits that easily compete with those in major museums of the world. But for me it is the Old City, inside its 2,000-year-old walls, that holds the real charm. I have rarely, if ever, been made to feel so welcome by everyone to whom I spoke.