Damascus: end of the road

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Azem's distinctive styling is evident on both the external and internal features of the various builings. The multi-coloured and highly detailed brickwork (ablaq) is particularly distinctive, replicated in buildings across the city and very complimentary to more contemporary French design that is also prevalent here (being a French domain for some time in the last 100 years).

Inside, each of the dozens of rooms display similar but ultimately unique ornate ceilings and carved wall panelling. No photos were allowed and after the first room I couldn't be bothered sneaking the pictures but the image above left gives you the gist. Back outside, fountains and hanging and bedded gardens complete a picture of opulence that the governing family would have enjoyed amongst the ordered chaos of the old city that surrounds it.

After walking along the famed Straight Street - which is apparently mentioned in the only ironic passage in the Bible - for a couple of hundred metres (this city is so compact!), we arrived at a small Roman arch that marks the start of the Christian quarter. Largely a residential district these days, it's where you find a lot of great restaurants tucked away in courtyards behind plain building facades. As there is less problem with religion and alcohol here, it is also where you find a lot of the bars, so it's a place you should head to if you're looking for a night out. Many beautiful local women were in the cafe we managed to find, and for some reason many of these were chugging on Sheesha pipes whilst enjoying the late afternoon sunshine - more so than the men. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.

The Umayyid Mosque beckoned so back we went. Michael had to don a skirt as his shorts were a little too short, but soon we were in and checking out the third most holy Mosque in the Islamic world (behind Mecca and Medina).

In much the same style as the grand mosques I visited in Cairo, this is a huge place with a festive atmosphere that has been the centre of worship for the city for more than 3,000 years. In the 9th century BC the Aramaeans built a temple here and the Romans built over that, until in the mid 7th century AD the grand mosque replaced all these with the creation you see today. It has a number of minarets and some very pretty gilt finishing and coloured stonework on the walls which no doubt confirms the power and beauty of the faith once the hard and solitary work of prayer is over.

Inside the great hall on the southern side is a seemingly out of place Shrine to John the Baptist. Legend has it that a casket containing a head was found on the site during one building period, and that this was taken to be the missing head of the revered man. However other sites around the world claim to have this sacred relic too and he was never known for having more than one head so someone must be blowing smoke. Still, plenty of worshippers were kissing the brass doors around the shrine so some importance must be attached to it.

I found the beautifully coloured and maintained domed ceilings to be of more interest. Some very interesting work to study up there from a quiet corner whilst the passing parade moves by and clerics plaintively sermonise.

By then it was time to head back to the Hotel Al Rabie, great little digs with a very pleasant courtyard and a highly ornate dining and sitting area. Not a bad place to base yourself if you're in town as it is central to everything and has a spectrum of services nearby to satisfy every traveller need. I decided to grab a quick shave and haircut for the princely combined total of $US3 and although the haircut was pretty well butchered I at least came away with my neck from the shave. Oh well, the hair will grow back!

From what I've seen, Damascus is a fantastic city with great infrastructure and a progressive, cultured and friendly populace. Notwithstanding monetary sanctions and trade embargoes, latest technologies and every household item you can imagine is available in stores as western as anywhere in the West. Traffic congests roads in a relatively orderly manner and the streets are generally clean. Skyscrapers dot the skyline and new, high standard construction continues apace - all draped in the largest advertising billboards I've seen outside of Moscow!

I'd come back here in a flash and recommend it to anyone who is thinking of visiting. It's an Arab society, but it's a cultured Arab society that most will feel comfortable in, especially when they realise what good value the place is too. That said, I'm very much looking forward to the rest of my Syrian adventures in the coming week.

Until next time.

Next entry -> Hama

Freak of the Week

Sorry mate but I mean it in the kindest way - you're certainly the longest-term traveller I've ever met and an inspiration to keep going just that little bit longer.

Charlie is a 69 year old Aussie (made just a little famous in the Madaba and Azraq entries previously) who has been travelling Europe, the Middle East, Central Asia and Siberia for the past 9 years on his huge 1,000CC BMW motorbike, the very same model that is preferred by Paris-Dakar rally riders.

He figures he's got a few more years in him left so is about to embark on a north to south tour of Africa, then get his biked shipped to the Americas to ride the Trans-Continental highway.

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Where I stayed
Al Rabie Hotel
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technotrekker on

Re: Coming to America?
Hey Al,

Good to hear from you again. Mate if I can find some sponsorship then the Americas would be on, but even if not I'll no doubt make it over there sometime in the next couple of years once I'm based in Europe. Are you talking Canada or west coast US? Last time I heard you were moving there with a new girl???

How's business anyway, what else is happening? Drop me an email with an update. I'm living to blog at the moment and all is well...


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