Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Day 13: Touring Damascus

We set off early for what our guide promised would be a wonderful day-long tour of the most important sites in Damascus. We moved fast, let me tell you, mostly on foot. And it was wonderful.

Our first stop was the National Museum. My favorite room was the reconstructed synagogue of Doura Europos, covered with dirt and preserved when the Persians conquered the town in the mid-3rd century AD. We also saw a small tablet of the alphabet of Ugarit in cuneiform from 1400-1300 BC that formed the basis of the Phoenician, Greek and all the Western languages.

We stopped briefly at the handicraft market next to the museum housed in the hospice area of an Ottoman-era complex from the 1550s. We particularly loved the scarf shop and the one where a fellow was blowing glass.

And then on to the Old City. While I had been to Damascus in 2003, my visit had centered around conversations between Muslims and Christians. We didn’t spend much time on tourist activities. So I was thrilled to return to the Old City.

We walked through one of the western gates into the souk or market, dating in its current form from the late 19th century, full of people shopping. Women wearing every imaginable form of head gear, including black scarves completely covering their faces. Little kids in pink and green play suits holding the hands of their covered moms and casually dressed dads. Many eating ice cream cones as they walked along.
We headed toward the Great Umayyad Mosque, dating mostly from the 8th century when Damascus was an Islamic capital. As visitors to the mosque, we had to be properly covered and for those in need, the mosque provides long beige coats with peaked hoods.

We continued walking toward the Jewish and Christian Quarters, amazed by the quiet after the hubbub of the market. While these quarters have been primarily residential, our guide, who lives in the Christian area, is concerned that the quiet won’t last for long. The cost of houses has risen so much that families can no longer afford them and hence many of the old houses are being turned into restaurants and hotels that generate more traffic and noise.

We stopped for lunch at Jabri House. Like most of these old houses, it is built around a central courtyard, with all the rooms facing the courtyard. We had a delicious lunch but the best dish was falafel. I was a little worried when our guide ordered it as I have eaten falafel that landed in my stomach like lead. To my surprise and delight, it could not have been better. They nearly floated off the plate. Dipped in a light and creamy tahini sauce, they were so good.

Finally we visited several art galleries and the home of a collector and gallery owner and saw paintings and sculptures that were just beautiful. The Arts District is a vibrant and growing area of the Old City and brought us right up to the present moment.

Damascus is perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. In a day we have seen the span of Damascene history. Neolithic settlements (8500-4500BC) in the museum. The story of Paul on the road to Damascus from the Christian Bible. The Umayyad Mosque when Damascus was the center for the Islamic world. And more and more… Finally we are here in the present moment walking through an immensely alive and active old and new city. It is quite amazing.

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