The road to Damascus

Trip Start Apr 27, 2010
Trip End Apr 13, 2011

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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

I've been in Syria for 2 says now and have already had a run in with its President! I'll discuss that later after I waffle on about Damascus for a while though.

We entered Syria via a land border on the road from Jordan. As the road leads north, the dramatic desert scenery and blue skies of southern Jordan give way to a flat, dusty plain and grey skies - and road signs for Iraq begin the appear. A huge sign of King Abdullah in his sheikh outfit waved us a tearful farewell from Jordan. Across the border, the ubiqitous face on every establishment and on the posters lining the roads is now that of President Assad, with his aviator shades and 'Man from Del Monte' suit.

It is soon evident that we are back in a land of traffic chaos as the cacophony of car horns grows louder on the approach to Damascus. Damascus is home to over 6 million people, and is the oldest continually inhabited city on Earth - although this is not evident, as there is nothing much from before about 200 years ago left standing. Instead there are miles and miles of the usual unfinished one storey breeze block structures with rusty wires sticking out of the roof, which have been a constant presence in every country on this trip so far.

My impression of Damascus is that it is a poor relation to Cairo - it seems to have all Cairo's cons and only a few of its pros. Cars cram every available space, and those that arent parked somewhere ludicrous are in a state of gridlock, blaring their horms every few seconds. Yet again, crossing the road is a potential suicide mission, it is even hotter than Cairo, and more crowded, just as polluted, less friendly, and only really has two main attractions.

The first of these, the main mosque is home to the remains of both John the Baptist and the muslim hero of the Crusades, Saladdin. It is a very impressive building, with polished marble floor and towering spires and minarets. I would have liked to spend more time there but was shat upon by a pigeon so had to leave to wash it off.

The main attraction is Damascus old town, a sprawling maze of winding backstreets and covered markets. There must be over a thousand tiny stalls, each staffed by a solitary man sat in the middle of his wares, which range from pyramids of multicoloured spices and handmade metal ornaments to gaudy lingerie. The latter stalls seemed to be very popular with older women in full Islamic burqas. Unlike the equivalent market in Cairo, the clientele are all locals, and the shopkeepers arent trying to drag you into their stalls. It is bustling with activity - there are hordes of tiny, black clad old ladies, bikes tearing around, cars and vans squeezing down the ridiculously narrow alleys. The decrepit buildings look like they would be levelled by a slight breeze and the walls lie at disturbing angles.

It was whilst wandering around the old town that I had a close encounter with two world leaders. I was on my way to an old church, and the only tourist in sight, when I noticed that the street I was on was full of sinister looking people in suits, one of whom told me the church was closed and I had to turn back. On my way back down the stret, I could feel eyes burning into the back of my head, and as I got to the end, there was President Assad walking towards me, accompanied by some heavies. I managed to get a few photos before being told rather impolitely to put my camera away. 

A car then pulled up and a small man emerged whom the president seemed very pleased to see. This was the Russian President Dmitri Medvedev! I was bustled into a nearby carpet shop to make way for them as they passed smiling and waving. I'm sure they were very pleased to see me waving back.

So my overall impression of Damascus is not that great, I'll be glad to get out of it later today as we head off to the ruined Roman city of Palmyra. I'm expecting most of it will be in a better state of repair than Damascus.   

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amy leah on


I love your writing style - British wit and all. Very unique expereince running in to the two world leaders...
As for the houses with metal bars...i was told (in Egypt anyway), that the owner only has to pay taxes if the house is completed - therefore all the homes give the impression that there is another floor being added on - therefore they are not completed and tax free. It rarely rains and so roofs are not neccessary. When I did a balloon ride over the Valley of the Kings, my favourite part was floating over all the homes and watching everyone in their homes with no roofs. Not sure if the rationale is the same in Jordon or Syria...

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