The world's oldest city
Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
115Trip End Mar 21, 2008
Map your own trip!
Show trip route
"Okay," says our driver after a while, "you must cross the border in that car." He points towards a taxi.
"That car has Jordan licence plate. My car has Syria licence plate."
It doesn't make much sense but we keep everyone happy and get into the Jordanian car so he can drive us across the border. Inside the immigration office, everything goes okay and we all get our visas with only a minimum of confusion and hassle. The official line is that you can get a visa at the border if your country of residence doesn't have a Syrian Embassy. Canada does have an Embassy and we have both been travelling on our Canadian passports. Accordingly, we pull out our New Zealand and Slovak passports as neither country has Syrian representation. The immigration guy takes a quick look at our documents and says, "Canadian passport, please". We have no idea how he knows we have Canadian citizenship - we hadn't said anything but he doesn't seem to concerned with our dual citizenship and gives us the visa anyway.
We switch back into the Syrian car and continue on to Damascus. In terms of wealth, friendliness, infrastructure and organisation, Syria seems at first look to be somewhere between Egypt and Jordan. The cars are Skodas and Peugots instead of the BMWs and Mercedes of Jordan, the houses are smaller, the stores are less shiny and the roads are bumpier.
The proliferation of photos has, we are sure, no correlation to his actual popularity or the happiness with his rule of the people who display them, any more than the situation would have been with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. We reckon that shopkeepers only hang Bashir's condescending visage in their stores to ward off unwanted attention from government-hired goons who troll the streets looking for insurgents and dissenters. This is not to say that the average Syrian on the street is unhappy with Bashir, we don't know, but there is certainly no space for opposition parties or public anti-government sentiment in the current Syrian set up.
Tired as I am of the President's ugly mug, that doesn't weigh too heavily on my mind as we enter Damascus. A truly historical city, Damascus is generally recognised as the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. People have lived here since 5000 BC, a fact that I find quite amazing. Of course it is very developed now, a crowded, noisy, smoggy city of six million sour-faced Syrians who drive like lunatics. One of them drives us in his taxi to our hotel, a beautifully restored old house with a charming central courtyard and high-ceilinged rooms.
Overall, our first impressions of Damascus are not overly positive. Our landlord back in Canada, Joe, is from Syria and he gave us the address of his brother here in Damascus. We sent Joe an e-mail a few weeks ago asking him to let his brother know we are coming, as we didn't feel comfortable just knocking on his door. Unfortunately, Joe (well, his son actually) didn't write back so we don't end up making the connection.
Old Damascus is actually a rather large area that contains a Christian Quarter and, interestingly, a Jewish Quarter too. The Christian Quarter is very obviously liberal - the women wear western clothing, alcohol is served and there is a much more relaxed vibe to the place. We pause for an expensive and all-too brief beer on the patio of an Italian restaurant, then wind our way back through the atmospheric residential alleys where shadowy figures shuffle to and fro, children scuttle from nook to cranny and crumbling facades give only the tiniest hint of what traditional Syrian family life hides behind them.