The Oldest City in the World

Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
Trip End Dec 12, 2005

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Saturday, November 12, 2005

We arrived in Damascus on a Friday, the start of the weekend in Syria. In most Muslim countries, Friday is the holy day (equivalent to a Christian Sunday), followed by a day of rest, Saturday.

Our taxi driver, Mohammed (a common name here!), insisted on showing us around a few of the sights on our way to the hotel. From each venue I nervously watched our packs that were sitting in the backseat of his unlocked cab until Martin finally told him that we needed to get to our hotel. Mohammed, like other Syrians we have met (Abdul in Aleppo and Ahmed in Palmyra), is very concerned that the US may try to enter Syria; he described them as "a shark eating all the little fish". All three men were quite indignant about the current situation. (Note: I had eliminated this paragraph because it appears that one reader had problems with the "political" nature of the preceding statements, but have since decided to add them back in, though they may not appear exactly as they did previously. It was not my intention to offend anyone and in no way am I capable of making any judgments on what is happening in the Middle East. I am simply relaying the feelings of three ordinary Syrian citizens whom we met.)

Most everything was closed, except for a few shops and the streets were relatively quiet, but for families out for a stroll. Like Aleppo, Damascus has a large souq in the old city; many of the locals had gathered at the mosque there to enjoy the day. There were vendors with handcarts selling treats - everything from corn-on-the-cob to candy to slushies. Obviously, they were selling illegally because every time the police would come near there would be a big kerfuffle and they would run off with their carts to another location. I think it was mostly a big game.

Damascus (population 6 million), the capital of Syria, is purportedly the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, dating back to 5,000 BC. Much of what there is to see is in the old city surrounded by a high wall. We visited the Umayyad Mosque renowned for its golden mosaics. In order to enter, all Western women had to don long grey robes with hoods that reminded me of Darth Vader and Star Wars. Inside the mosque, the men were praying and women and children were gathered together sitting together in groups - there were thousands of area rugs covering the floors. The colour green is representative of Islam. Many of the mosques have green domes and green lights often highlight tombs and various religious artifacts.

Another building worth seeing in the old city is the Azem Palace, built in the striped Damascene style with the alternating layers of black basalt and limestone. The palace has very ornate interiors: embossed and painted woodwork, inlaid tile furnishings and marble floors in a myriad of designs. Mannequins depicted Syrian life in the 18th century in many of the rooms; unfortunately I found it rather disconcerting because so many of the women looked like men in drag!

Many Syrian women wear the traditional Muslim headscarves and long coats or wear the head to toe black, some with only their eyes showing and others cover their heads completely with black veils. I think it would be very hard to navigate with a black veil obscuring your vision! Traditional clothing for men includes a head covering called a "kufeyya" and a "jalabiyya", a long gown.

You find mostly the traditional Syrian food in Damascus, including falafel, hummus, kebabs and shwarma (chicken wrapped in a pita). A bottle of water is always provided for each table, as well as pita bread and sometimes some sort of appetizer like slices of green pepper, olives, pickles and fresh herbs (mint, fennel, etc.) We are usually provided with only one menu which is given to Martin. (It drives me nuts. I don't think I would last long living here.) The menu, like books, are all written so that you read them back to front.

It's a smoker's world here - and you can smoke pretty well anywhere. Most of the men smoke; I have only seen a couple of women smoking and they were wearing the more modern clothing. Cooks even smoke in the kitchen as they are preparing food - that wouldn't go over well with the Department of Health at home!

We met a couple from Adelaide, Australia who had been travelling through Europe and the Middle East. In just six weeks they had been to Russia, the Ukraine, Turkey and Syria and they had a whole eight days to get through Jordan to Cairo, Eyypt. They looked exhausted and no wonder! It's important when you travel to set out an itinerary that's not too ambitious - you also can't see everything in any one country. You always have to tell yourself you'll come back some day, otherwise you'd drive yourself crazy!

You can get in big trouble here for taking photos of the police or military, whether or not you do it on purpose. Martin has caught me a couple of times getting out my camera to take a shot when I haven't realized that there's police around, etc, so I've had to try to be a bit more wary.

Unfortunately, we both feel like we've spent too much time in cities in Syria (Aleppo, Hama and Damascus). The traffic is hard on the nerves. There's a fair amount of honking on city streets as well as on highways and roads; drivers use their horns to send messages such as "Here I come - get out of my way", "I'm passing you, get over", or "the light is going to turn green, get ready". Although it's nothing like Vietnam, it can be a challenge to cross the street in a Syrian city. No where in the world do pedestrians get respect (i.e., have the right-of way) like they do in North America. Even in New Zealand and Australia you're only safe in the crosswalk and look out if someone is turning! Often, I've wanted to punt the back tires of a passing vehicle here, but have restrained myself and sufficed with a couple of expletives. Cars and trucks drive everywhere here and even when you think you're in an area where no vehicles are allowed and you can relax, a bicycle or motorcycle will come barreling out at you.

Like Aleppo, Damascus is famous for its souqs. You can buy anything here from gold and silver jewellry, clothing, shoes, perfume, fancy women's caftans with beadwork and embroidery to spices, nuts, candy, candles and brass lamps (if I could just figure out home to get one home!). On Saturday, it was very crowded; we had men following us, pestering us to buy and talking as fast as they could. It was the first time on this trip that Martin just about lost it.

While walking through the Christian Quarter we met Maurice, a retired man who is working part time for KLM Cargo. He is Catholic, was educated in a Catholic school in French. He cannot understand why there is no extensive second language training in Syrian schools today as he as benefited greatly from being fluent in more than one language. He has one daughter living in Montreal and another in Dallas, Texas.

We ended up spending an extra day in Damascus because I was unable to get too far from the bathroom. Martin was fine, so it was probably something I ate or drank that he didn't, like the vegetable and lamb soup I had one evening or freshly-squeezed orange juice with water from the local water system. Thank God for anti-diarrhea pills!

We have enjoyed Syria, though I doubt that we'll be back considering it's such as big world and there's so many other countries to see. The main thing that the people here want us to convey is that it is a peaceful and safe place to visit. It is somewhat trying to Western women, but, all the same, it has been worthwhile travelling here. (And re: the ring - I don't really think it was necessary. No one questioned whether or not we were married, probably because we're just too darned old!)
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