The road to Damascus
Syria may have been in the headlines for all the wrong reasons recently but don’t be deterred from visiting, for the reality is very different. Tourists have never been targeted and on arrival, you’ll be warmly greeted by locals looking to shed Syria’s international reputation. CD Traveller is seduced by the country’s capital…
Blessed with biblical history (as Mark Twain once said: ‘Go back as far as you will in the vague past, there was always a Damascus’), this medieval UNESCO world heritage listed beauty can’t fail to charm even the most seasoned of travellers. The Syrian capital boasts an embarrassment of riches; citadels, ruins, religious, architectural and archaeological sites and a labyrinth like souk are all present and correct. Damascus is also significantly richer in local colour than its Gulf counterparts, so visitors can expect to share the streets, restaurants and hammans with real, live Syrians. Easily one of the most magical cities in the Middle East (legend has it that when Prophet Mohammed first viewed the city, he refused to pass through the gates because, he said, man could enter paradise only once), be warned that one trip is never enough – or as French archaeologist Andre Parrot put it: ‘Every person has two homelands; his own and Syria.’
Damascus for your delectation
Damascus’ historical heart – the old city – should be top of any sightseeing agenda. Still ringed by its old Arab walls, the cobbled streets reveal an exotic patchwork of sights, flavours, smells and sounds. The best way to get an initial take on the old area is to stroll along Straight Street which cuts through the Islamic, Jewish and Christian quarters. (Contrary to popular perception, Damascus isn’t an Islamic state. The skyline is punctuated not only by domes and pencil slim minarets of mosques, but also by churches and synagogues and the three religions successfully mingle and collide.) Walking offers intimate glimpses into the lives of locals; expect to pass heavy opened shutters, underwear on washing lines and old men sitting on street corners playing chess while grandmothers gossip and chew the fat over endless cups of tea as they have done for centuries.
From Straight Street, most visitors head for the timeless souk which could keep you contented for days. Life happens in the souk and as such it’s busy at all hours; Damascenes love to hang out. The crowded passageways are a cacophony of donkeys, performers, shopkeepers and food sellers peddling sweets, salted nuts and every tongue tingling spice under the sun. Furthermore it’s all for the locals and not tourists – indeed English is most definitely a foreign language and Damascenes will use gestures and smiles to interact with you. When the noise and frenetic activity of the souk gets too much, as it will, catch your breath in a sensational café; behind unmarked doors lie atmospheric restaurants and coffee houses with courtyards and secret roof tops – the perfect place to sip sweet mint tea. Two of the best places to quench thirst are Ash-Shams and An-Nafura.
Refreshed and revitalised, it’s time to visit the cultural treasure that is the Umayyad mosque. Built back in AD705, Umayyad is famed for its golden mosaics and is open to the public. Just don’t forget to dress modestly and to remove your shoes before entering. North of the mosque’s walls, lies the Mausoleum of Saladin, one of the most celebrated heroes of Arab history. Continue your cultural odyssey over at Azem Palace – the layers of limestone and black basalt serve as a wonderful example of Damascene style stonework. Adjacent to the gate of Azem Palace is the antique dealer, Georges Dabdoub. No doubt you’ll want a trinket or two to remind you of your stay in Syria and this classy souvenir shop has the best selection in town – prepare to be wowed by their wares. From silver jewellery to pottery, prints, marquetry mirrors and boxes, and traditional blue tiles; they’re all here and the quality is excellent. Directly opposite Georges Dabdoub, you’ll find Khayat Carpets; we defy you to resist the wily charms of Khayat’s carpet sellers. For a post shopping sugar hit, ditch the diet and follow the crowds to Bekdach, in Souk Al Hamidiyya. This old fashioned ice cream parlour is a Damascene institution owing to its pistachio topped treats.
Next up, it’s time for a Syrian style body job; you really can’t consider yourself clean until you have submitted to the human body’s equivalent of an automatic car wash at a hamman. The capital’s five star hotels all have high-end hammans, but those in the old quarter offer a far more authentic and earthy experience. Cleansing takes place in a chamber and a rough scrub is followed by a bone crunching massage. Women would do well to wander to Hamman Bakir, while men can head to Hamman Nureddin. End day one by sampling some Syrian cuisine; food is undoubtedly one of Damascus’ short break pleasures so be sure to visit with a large appetite. Falafels sizzle in wide pans and freshly baked bread is sold out of wheelbarrows in the main thoroughfare, while cobbled alleyways lead to a warren of restaurants. Our favourite is Leila’s where you can feast on Syrian specialities alongside more familiar mezze morsels like labneh, kibbeh and tabbouleh at Pizza Hut prices. Aim to watch the sun set from Leila’s atmospheric roof top terrace while puffing out clouds of sweet tobacco from a sheesha pipe.
With the old quarter out of the way, spend a not to be missed morning on day two at the Artinasat Bazaar – an excellent handicrafts market that’s still without a single Starbucks or Gap. After the Artisanat, there are many museums to explore, but the best is the National Museum, home to an enticing selection of exhibits. Art enthusiasts will appreciate the Qasr Al Heir galleries, while history buffs will be in their element when confronted with a reconstruction of an underground burial chamber from Palmyra’s Valley of Tombs. If you can drag yourself away from Damascus, the villages of Buqein and Erneh (famous for their mineral springs) are within easy reach, or time permitting push on to Palmyra – the oasis in the desert (often referred to as ‘Venice in the Sands’), that has become Syria’s premier tourist attraction.
Essentially, wherever you go, you’ll be welcomed with open arms. Damascene hospitality is legendary and locals are unfailingly courteous (and unfeasibly good looking). They’re also fiercely proud of their city –put Damascus on your destination list and you’ll soon see why.
Need to know
When to go
Anytime – the year round hospitable climate is another of Damascus’ draws.
Transport in Damascus is a doddle and yellow Dellboy style taxis are cheap and plentiful.
Unlike most cities on travellers’ circuit, you can’t simply fly into Damascus and step out of the airport. Travellers need to secure a single or multiple entry visa (valid for 15 days) in advance from the Syrian Embassy.