Day 1: Damascus
We’re on an organized tour around Syria and I’m depressed already. The group we are with, apart from one delightful couple, have spent all of their time since they landed moaning about everything – queuing, bureaucracy (which is nil, but what would they know?), money. One bloke sharply warned his wife not to stray from his side in the passport hall in case she got lost. Good grief, why are these people allowed passports?
Damascus was eerily quiet. It’s Ramadan and we had arrived at sunset so everyone is at home having their well-earned meal. By the time we had looked at the marvelous view of the city from the top of the highest hill it was 7pm and the city was buzzing with life. Traffic horns, families walking the streets, brightly lit shops, street food stall. It’s all great.
Day 2 Damascus
The obligatory visit to a National Museum is always a good way to get things straight in your head before you start a tour but this one was a slight disappointment, as there was little that was stunning or exceptional. So many countries have looted Syria over the years that they are left with second class exhibits, damaged statues and partial ceramics. I was interested in the reconstructed 2nd century synagogue but the frescos were heavily restored, as were the basic mosaics.
At Saladin’s Tomb all of the women had to put on long robes with hoods so that we could visit the Umayyad Mosque next door. The whole area is fantastic. Roman columns line the central courtyard and the mosque is built on foundations which started as a roman temple and then a Christian church. The mosque is large and busy with people praying. It’s particularly remarkable because the mosque prayer hall also contains a tomb which is supposed to hold the head of John the Baptist, so both Christians and Muslims share the space. Muslims also believe that this will be the place that Christ returns to “at the end of days”, so it’s an exceptionally holy place. And it’s very, very beautiful.
In the afternoon we walked through the Christian quarter and visited the House of Anais where Saint Paul was baptized. It’s a lovely, simple place and no one has added to it or indulged in “improvements”, so it’s also very atmospheric.
Damascus streets are narrow, with Ottoman houses and hundreds of tiny shops selling jewellery, shoes, clothes, food and carpets. This must be what Baghdad looked like before it was bombed. It’s amazing. Everyone is welcoming and friendly and no one was hassled by the shopkeepers. We were the object of a great deal of curiosity from passengers in passing traffic as we waited outside the church built on the spot where St Paul was let down in a basket to escape the Romans ( Chapel of St Paul / Bab Kisan). Lots of people smiled and waved. They are too polite to do this when walking but lose their inhibitions when they are in a vehicle.
We had dinner at an upmarket restored Damascene house that had video screens in the courtyard. It looks as though it doubles as a nightclub at night. We were entertained by local musicians and dancers and the mesmerizing whirling dervishes. There is only one troupe left in Damascus. They train for years and in one of the dances they span for 15 minutes, not wavering or staggering at all when they stopped. Remarkable concentration.