Trip Start Mar 21, 2009
14Trip End Apr 29, 2009
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Where I stayed
Damascus has an old city that used to be surrounded by walls, many of which are still intact. Lots of little alleys to explore and get lost in. The souks (bazaars) are world famous and go on and on, selling everything from perfume to spices to household goods. Lots of fun and very easily to spend an entire day browsing.
Culturally Syria is very differnent from Iran. There is a mix of religions here, approx. 70% Muslim, 20% Christian and 10% Jewish, and it's very noticeable in the way the city is laid out. In the Muslim quarter, which is Sunni (vs. Shia in Iran, two very different branches of Islam), the women cover their heads very tightly and don't allow any hair or the front/back of their necks to peek out, unlike many of the Iranian women who wore very loose-fitting scarves. They don't wear chadors here but still wear long sleeves and long pants. On the other hand, the most conservative women cover themselves completely and wear a black veil over their faces. I guess they must be able to see through it in order to know where they're going, but good grief, that's a rough way to navigate the streets.
However, in the Christian and Jewish quarters you see women dressed much as you would in non-Muslim countries. Many of the sites of interest are in the Muslim quarter, but most of the restaurants, etc. are in the Christian and Jewish quarters because they can serve alcohol. All three groups seem to co-exist and mingle between each other without any issues and have been for centuries. Very impressive. There are also quite a few tourists from Saudi Arabia so it makes for good people-watching.
At my hotel I met a mother and daughter traveling together from Ireland and London, respectively, and the daughter was my age, the mom was retired. We ended up having dinner together on a few nights and at one of the restaurants they had "whilring dervishes" perform for entertainment. A dervish is from the Sufi mystic religious group, and they spin in hopes of going into a trance. Pretty cool to see the white long dress that they wear spin around and around and I was dizzy just watching.
I also took a day trip yesterday to see the "Crac des Chevaliers", one of the best preserved Crusader castles. In the afternoon we went to see Palmyra, a sprawling set of ruins that was just beautiful at sunset. It made for a very long day since we didn't get back to the hotel at midnight but it was well worth it.
Today I'm taking the train up to Aleppo, Syria's other main city, and will park myself there for a few days. More later!