When I travel to a new city, particularly one that is capital of the country I’m visiting, I tend to park the bike and walk, take mass transit or in the odd case I’m traveling far or on a time schedule I’ll take a taxi. This way I get some exercise and can seamlessly blend in as a ‘traveler’. But Damascus is hardly on the list of potential tourists spots for most Americans. As such, the media, state department and here-say tend to create the image many of us might have of Damascus. So it’s with some ignorance I wander Damascus, save a few paragraphs from a guide book and tips from travelers I’ve met on the road.
Remnants of the Temple of Jupiter, from Roman Times in Damascus.
While Nationalism is certainly prevalent in Syria, I never did find the sentiment communicated in this poster.
The Damascus I discovered is simply stunning. Syria is stunning. But Damascus with its 5,000 + year history is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Walking down one street I learn it’s mentioned in the Bible. And the cast of characters that give color to its history makes my mind spin: Alexander the Great, Lawrence of Arabia, Nebuchadnezzar, Saladin, Hadrian, Tamerlane and Saint Paul. Sitting between the mountains the define the border of Lebanon in the west and a vast desert that stretches to Mesopotamia to the west, Damascus has been a major stop on trading routes since the first settlers planted a stake in the ground. Though I’ve just been in Arabia for a few weeks, my initial impression is that it must be one of Arabia’s most exciting and dramatic cities and has one of the largest and most colorful souks I’d seen to date.
Damascus’ old city is certainly secular, undeniably mostly Muslim, as such its heart is perhaps Damascus’s greatest sight, the Umayyad mosque. The mosque is one of Islam’s most spectacular buildings and its architecture and decorative details as grand as Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. In the world of Islam, it’s and second only in spiritual significance to the mosques of Mecca and Medina — which sadly I won’t see this time around.
Dating from 708 during the Caliph al-Walid’s rule, one of the earliest and greatest Muslim leaders, whose Umayyad dynasty created an empire that spanned from the French Pyrenees to the borders of China. Inside the Mosque a guide directs me to sealed and windowed Shrine in the center of the grand building that purportedly contains the the body of John the Baptist – I’m told I can find his head or his skull in Istanbul. We’ll see.
The entire old city of Damascus is a dedicated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979. Wandering round the ancient a covered Souk al-Hamidiyya, checking out the statue of Saladin, and then getting lost in the Azem Palace all the while trying to keep from bumping into people while gazing at the ancient walls and citadels of the city – many dating to Roman times. In fact, the Umayyad Mosque sits on a former Roman Temple dedicated to Jupiter and during the Byzantine era was Christian Church dedicated to John the Baptist. A minaret towering above the shiny marble courtyard is called the Minaret of Jesus which where Muslims believe that Jesus will appear at the end of the world.
It’s easy to get lost in the maze of cobbled alleys, millennia old streets and even inside the grand mosque and palace. My guide helped me grasp the history and importance of the impressive shrines, taking me into 1,000 year old Baths and into other impressive Mosques during prayer time. After each day I would find a street café and have a glass of tea. One place featured a costumed story teller who’s story, all in Arabic, was incomprehensible to me, but watching him perform with energy and enthusiasm was enough to understand the story. A local fellow smoking from a hookah pipe shared with me the highlights.
Damascus, at least the Old City, certainly captivated me and by the time I was ready to leave, I felt that I understood this city and its grand history, and that of the region and was eager to continue on and enjoy more of Syria.
I set my sights on perhaps the most grand castle of the world, Crac Des Chevaliers, a Crusader-era fortress high on a hill between Damascus and Lebanon.
Courtyard of the magnificent Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, Syria.
Rampart and tower of the old city Damascus, Syria.
Incredible Mosaic work on the Ummayad Mosque, Damascus.
Ummayad Mosque, Damascus.
Mosaic, Ummayad Mosque, Damascus.
Baths Azem Palace, Damscus.
What you can find in the Souks of Old Damascus. Freshly shaved pistachio served over chilled ice cream.
Prayer time in Damascus.
Shop in Old Town Damascus.
Door/Gate to he old city. This door could be more than 1,000 years old!
The Dome inside the Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque is a and grave of the youngest daughter of Husayn ibn Ali — Fatimah.
Inside centuries old Baths in Damascus.
Making stone bread in Damascus.