Tradition has it that when the Prophet Mohammed first set eyes on Damascus, he refused to take another step forward. Gazing upon the gleaming white stone city surrounded by the gardens and orchards of its well-watered plain, he is said to have remarked that a man could only have one paradise and that to enter the paradise of heaven would mean giving up the earthly paradise of Damascus. Even if modern concrete now covers more of this fertile plain, there was a hint of paradise in the scent of jasmine and citrus flower that filled the streets during my recent long weekend in this evocative city.
Arriving in the Syrian capital travel-weary from a one-state-a-day business tour of the Gulf, I eschewed the blandishments of the spa at the Four Seasons hotel and opted for the real deal instead – the 12th-century public bath house, the Hammam Nur ad-Din, in the Old City. Wedged between soap-sellers and spice shops hung with dried crocodiles and turtle shells, the city’s oldest hammam was an oasis of repose. Once steamed and scrubbed with a loofah by a cheerful, singing man, I was ready to face the teeming energy of the souk.
I have visited souks from Istanbul to Marrakech but this was the most hassle-free experience I’d had. The Syrian way is to offer help if you look as if you need it and to withdraw if you say you are fine.
I spent a happy hour exploring Ahmad Kahwaji’s emporium at the souk’s east end, a chaotic treasure-trove of jewellery, furniture, fabrics and ceramics.
Blinking into the light of the square in front of the Great Umayyad Mosque, you are greeted by a watercolourist’s dream of the oriental picturesque: a half-ruined Roman arch and four-column arcade beneath which carpet and silk sellers ply their trade and street vendors squeeze fresh pomegranate juice for passers-by. Across the square rise the massive stone walls of the Roman temple of Jupiter, built in the first century BC, re-consecrated as a Christian Cathedral four centuries later and converted to a mosque by the city’s first Muslim caliph in 708. The mosque’s floor-plan is on the scale of St Paul’s Cathedral. For nearly 100 years Christians and Muslims worshipped in the same building, testimony to Damascus’s history of religious tolerance.
The mosque’s marble courtyard, I decided, was one of the most beautiful places in the world. Its humane and graceful arcades make it seem immensely hospitable, while high up on its west walls gorgeous mosaics in green and gold. To western eyes the inside of the mosque can seem shockingly informal. Inside a roped-off area along the north aisle, children played and chased balloons. Black-robed women prayed or sat chatting in family groups while men prayed at the opposite wall.
Damascus has long been a popular destination for European travellers. In the past few years, however, some have been deterred from visiting by George Bush’s 2002 declaration that the country was a “rogue state”. In 2006, the Danish embassy in Damascus was burnt down during protests that followed publication in a Danish newspaper of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed depicted as a terrorist. But, as I discovered during my stay, the Syrians are among the most welcoming people in the Middle East: I heard the phrase “You are welcome” repeated to visitors many times.
Damascus vies with Aleppo, in northern Syria, for the claim of being the oldest most continuously inhabited city in the world. The National Museum has sections exploring every wave of civilisation that swept across Syria from the third-century BC onwards. From damask textiles and roses to damson plums, many English words owe their origin to the city’s prosperity as a Mediterranean trading hub connecting with the silk route to China. Some colourful examples of embroidered fabrics that survive from Syrian tomb excavations suggest silk was being imported from China as early as the first century.
Leaving the museum, I headed for the “street called straight”, one of the few addresses contained in the Bible (Acts 9:11). It is where Saul, on his way to arrest Christian converts in Damascus, is led after being blinded and where Ananias, a local Christian, gave him shelter. I visited the little church that marks the house of Ananias: you can descend several metres to the Roman street level where the house stood in the time of Christ.
Pre-war Citroën cars and fez-wearing men smoking hubble-bubble pipes lend a Tintinesque air to this part of the city. At the same time, many of the old merchant houses have been converted into boutique hotels and stylish restaurants. I lunched on hummus and thyme salad, lamb kebabs with truffles followed by mulberry ice cream. Syrian wine, a welcome legacy of French rule, is easily as good as its more widely marketed Lebanese neighbour.
It was difficult to take leave of Damascus, a city in which the historic mingling of different peoples and civilisations seems to have left it remarkably hospitable. One of the best evocations of its appeal comes from Mark Twain, who invoked his visit in The Innocents Abroad: “She measures time not by days and months and years but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin ... Damascus has seen all that ever occurred on earth and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”
There is change afoot in Syria under its reformist president Bashar al-Assad and his telegenic wife, who was formerly a hedge fund manager in London. The economy is being overhauled and there are plans to expand its tourist industry. But it’s reassuring to think that the special charm of Damascus should remain unaltered by even the best-intentioned reforms.
Hammam Nur ad-Din
Bzuriah market, near Umayyad Mosque and Straight Street, Damascus
Great Umayyad Mosque
Souq al-Hamidyya, Old City, Damascus
Shoukry al-Qouwatly Street, Damascus, tel: +963 (0) 11 2228566
House of Saint Ananias
Sharia Hanania, Damascus