The little house on the hill

Trip Start Aug 18, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Syria  ,
Wednesday, December 6, 2006

I finally finished the road to Damascus, unconverted but not without religious experience. The last stretch was mainly downhill, but pretty hairy since the hard shoulder kept disappearing, sometimes literally- becoming a trench a metre deep where roadworks were ongoing. On the steepest descents I once or twice found myself in the middle lane of the motorway, overtaking the slowest lorries.

Damascus itself is an extremely modern city, in the worst sense of the word. Apparently built for the convenience of motor-cars, without any consideration even for the people in them. Huge thoroughfares disect the city, up to 5lanes in each direction, which means up to 7 cars abreast, it is almost unnavigable by any means, but especially by bicycle. Those not on the roads are expected to use pedestrian over-passes, crowded and accessible only up very steep, narrow metal stairways. I didn't see anyone in a wheelchair- I don't imagine they bother leaving the house. All this is not helped, from a selfish tourist point of view, by the fact that if there were roadsigns, and I didn't see many, they are all in arabic (my study of which has, I'm afraid to say, not progressed very far).

Nonetheless, I eventually found a hostel, sharing a dorm with a friendly south-african lady who had heard tell of me from Angie, the liverpudlian in Varna. How special did that make me feel! I only had one night in Damascus, so I wandered out to have a look at the souq. Larger and in places far more tourist-oriented than that in Aleppo, it is nonetheless a fine place, with high vaulted ceilings over the main street like a cavernous 19th century train station. Well lit in the evenings and busy until after 10 o'clock, it was a charming place to spend a few hours. The main street leads to the entrance to the great mosque in Damascus old town, which is another truly grand monument to Allah.

In the morning I toured the old town proper, which is amazingly well preserved, given the highrise, motorised, hurts your eyes development surrounding it on all sides. Within the old-town walls Damascus does not seem to have changed since St. Paul was baptised on the 'street which is called straight' -Luke's gospel (according to Mark Twain this is the 'only facetious remark in the bible' you may have guessed already that the street is, in fact, bent).
There are several churches, including an underground one which is believed to have been the hangout of the guy who did the above-mentioned baptising (I knew more details when I left, why don't I take notes?) Apart from the churches, some of which used to be mosques, and the mosques, some of which used to be churches (the Christians and Muslims literally swapped in a few cases. I think the great mosque was traded for a couple of small but significant chapels...) Damascus old town is a fascinating maze of alleys, some of which are almost enclosed by the protruding second stories of the houses.

I visited the old governers house in Damascus, which as a museum is of dubious value, each room containing mannekins supposedly showing traditional household activities, but not really revealing very much. This is more than compensated, however, by the fact that the place has apparently been maintained in pristine condition and unchanged for hundreds of years, and the governor's mansion was none too shabby to start with.

In the afternoon I jumped in a service taxi to Amman, which, through a quirk of Syrian economics, was the same price as a bus. (The bus, having no competition, charged me double for taking the bike. The taxi, in the middle of a bidding scrum, charged me 150%. )
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