Damascus is often referred to as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with origins in the third millennium BC.
Damascus has a wealth of historical sites dating back to many different periods of the city's history, from the Romans to the Ottomans.
The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus, 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 head of John the Baptist.
Map of DamascusLoad map
Damascus is a city of stories and a city of story-tellers. I met the first on the plane, somewhere over Germany. His name, he told me, was Anwar. His little village in Syria was only connected up to the electric grid for the first time on the night of his birth. His father named him Anwar, meaning ‘light’ in celebration. When he found I would be visiting Damascus he insisted I take his phone number. He gave me three recommendations: visit Mirmar Sinan’s Takiyya al-Süleimaniyya near the National Museum, wander around the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, and queue up for ice cream at Bakdash on Souq al-Hamidiyya. The second of note was Maurice, an old chap I met on Sharia Bab Sharqi, the old Biblical ‘Street that is called Straight’. He told me of his life and travels as an agent for KLM and recommended places to feed the body and the soul: “I usually pray in the Ananias Chapel at 7pm. You are welcome to join me.” And the third was Abu Shady, last of the hakawati, the professional story-tellers. Dressed in baggy trousers, waistcoat and tarboush, glasses perched on the end of his nose, he held a crowd of all ages and nationalities at the Al-Nawfara Coffee Shop enthralled with his tales of heroes long gone. In hushed voice he built the suspense and then – SLAM! down came the flat of a sword upon a table. I jumped in shock and a chuckle rattled up from Abu Shady’s throat as he pointed out my surprise to his adoring audience.
There must be more than enough stories in Damascus to last 1,001 nights. I however, only had two nights in what claims to be the oldest continually-inhabited city in the world. In Damascus culture is layered atop culture, each generation making new stories atop those of the generations before. This is precisely what I love most about World Heritage Sites.
The inscribed area corresponds to the Roman walls of the Old City. I entered from the west, down the lofty covered Souq al-Hamidiyya. Pin-pricks of light fell down from holes in the roof (bullet holes, I was told, left by the French air-force as they tried to quell a rebellion in the 1920s) illuminating the store-fronts and street hawkers. This emerges at the western temple gate. The Aramean temple to Hadad-Ramman was converted to the worship of Jupiter by the Romans. The Byzantines built a cathedral atop that temple. And the Umayyads replaced it with a quite exquisite – and elaborate – mosque. Entry is by ticket round the northern side of the mosque by the tomb of Saladin. For those used to austere mosques the Umayyad Mosque is dramatic surprise. The wide marble courtyard is decorated with green and gold frescoes of paradise. Two bejewelled treasuries teeter on pillars. In the Shrine of Hussein I found fevered hysteria as pilgrims prostrated themselves on the floor, stroked the silver reliquary or queued to poke their heads into a niche in the wall. The interior of the mosque itself was something of an anti-climax after all that, with an incongruous green glass tomb housing the head of John the Baptist (or one of them anyway – the head of John the Baptist can also be found in Rome, Amiens and Munich and a portion of it is also held in a monastery on Mount Athos which is pretty good going).
A short distance to the north east is the Saiyada Ruqada Mosque, full of Iranians and glittering multi-faceted mirrors. The sexes are separated here. I was told that the women’s section was much more intense than the men’s, with much wailing and tearing of hair.
Retracing my steps back to the plaza to the west of the Umayyad Mosque (where the UNESCO plaque could be found on a wall to the south facing the Minaret of Qaitbay), I headed south into the atmospheric Souq al-Bzouriyya, the Seed or Spice Souq. It was a place of light and shade, the scents of cloves, walnuts and rosewater fragrancing the air, the noise of hawkers and motorbikes and the press of people. Turning east down the paved Street that is called Straight I entered an area that seemed plusher, wealthier and less ramshackle than the souqs. But stepping away from the main street, whether south into the Jewish Quarter or north into the Christian Quarter revealed trackless alleyways where the houses were dilapidated, decaying, canted crazily – and still being lived in. Houses slumped at disturbing angles, timbers braced one building against the next, shuttered balconies overhung the streets, kissing their neighbour opposite. And small statues of the Virgin Mary could be found down several of these seemingly forgotten passages. It is safe to say that while for long periods of time I didn’t know exactly where I was I was never particularly lost. There were signs for suggested walking tours scattered about, reassuring me that I was in the right general area. Nor did I ever feel in danger. There was no ‘side’ or tension among the people I met. Instead, as outlined earlier, they seemed happy to see me. And there was a real joy in browsing the craft workshops and women’s co-operatives for gifts or for slowing the pace to buy a chicken shawarma or a glass of cool fruit juice (I tried orange, lemon, blackcurrant and mulberry on my walk). And, of course, I took Anwar’s advice and did indeed queue up for an ice cream at Bakdash.
Even outside the Old City the New City is pretty gosh-darn ancient in places too. Several of the works of Sinan the Architect have found their way onto the World Heritage list, either in their own right (like the Selimiye Mosque in Edirne, the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge in Višegrad) or as part of other World Heritage Sites (like the Sülemaniye Complex and many other mosques in Istanbul). His Takiyya al-Süleimaniyya in Damascus doesn’t even make the buffer zone. Near-by is the National Museum, a must-see for all history lovers and a great introduction to the cultures of Palmyra and Dura Europus in particular, as well as a plethora of long-gone civilizations of whom I had never heard but who have left behind not only the world’s earliest alphabet but also the world’s earliest musical score.
World Heritage-iness: 5
My Experience: 5
(Visited Aug 2009)
Just been to the Old City today, looking for genuine Damaschin things to buy for my daughters. Wandered around parts of the Old City without a map, knowing the sun was in South. I was the only foreigner around for obvious reasons, which was kind of nice since everybody said "hello", offered me tea or fresh orange juice (yummie!) and wanted me to see their shop or just have a chat. Towards Bab Sharq, I found a shop with furniture etc. of wood with inlaid Mother of Pearl - really nice things. According to the shop owner, it is hand made, he showed me his workshop, and I will go back and buy some of his things since finishing and design was really nice - and hand made, nor produced by a machine. Furthermore, I saw numerous cafés and restaurants in my way; I cannot wait to try them out, escaping the awfull hotel food! Got to get to know the full story of Dimasq!
There is no city in the Middle East that can offer such a beautiful and authentic old town as Damascus. Do not try to follow the map but dare to let yourself drift through the small, narrow and winding streets of the old town and immerse yourself in the bustling life of the Souq and the Muslim, Christian and Jewish Quarter. Entertain yourself with the stores owners who drink tea and chat with locals. The Old City of Damascus is an oriental dream and the people living there are known from a hospitality and likability.
I went to Syria in 1997. Syria was a wonderful country to visit. Damascus was the first stop. The Damascus museum has great things to see but isn't up to modern standards. The facade of the entrance is fabulous. The main mosque must be seen for the courtyard and its mosaic facade. The interior is bland and rebuilt after a fire 100 years ago. I walked around the souk and the modern suburbs for hours. Don't miss a visit to the nearby hills to see an overview of the city and see how it is an oasis. Besides being a fascinating place, the people I met were so friendly.
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