Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Mon 5 Jul 2010 19:05

My love affair with Syria continues, especially now we are in Damascus.  Damascus is more prosperous and far less frantic than Aleppo.  It is very small so you always see the dusty hills surrounding the city.  The old city makes up about one quarter of the area of Greater Damascus and is still surrounded by a wall, parts of which are Roman (restored).  There used to be 13 gates into the old city, all of which were closed at sunset.  A few old gates survive, mostly medieval horseshoe arches, built out of black and white stone blocks in a striped pattern and decorated with Arabic calligraphy.  Most of the old city is traffic free as the winding medieval streets are too narrow for cars.

We are staying in the Christian quarter in a charming hotel created out of a large Ottoman house.  To find our hotel you go through Bab Toma (Thomas’ Gate), pass various churches, shrines, seminaries and convents and enter into the house via a plain narrow passage, through a carved wooden door into a magnificent courtyard, tiled on the floor and walls, with a splashing fountain, orange and lemon trees, and ferns and roses in pots.   The roof is open to the sky but partially covered by an awning for shade.  A few small birds regularly fly in and perch in the trees, and a family of brown doves have made a nest on top of one of the brass lanterns.   At any time of the day in this quarter of the city you hear psalms or hymns being chanted.  The large number of devout Syrian Christians was a surprise, although we have become aware of how important Damascus was in the early days of Christianity.

Elsewhere in the city the muezzin call from the mosques five times a day.   Many of the mosques date back to the earliest days of Islam (7th century AD), when Damascus was the capital of the expanding Muslim empire.   The old mosques have much more charm than the modern mosques we have seen everywhere in the Muslim world, which are usually monstrosities.   Other fine ancient buildings are the Khans, inns for travellers, which gave shelter to the pilgrims on their way to Mecca.   Damascus was a crossroads both for the Silk Route from East to West, and for the pilgrims making their way to Mecca for the Haj.

The Ummayad mosque, one of the oldest, largest and most visited in Islam dominates the old city, and is the place I return to every day to find my bearings after getting lost in the souq.   The mosque contains the tomb of Saladin, bane of the Crusaders, although also renowned for his chivalry, and the shrine of John the Baptist.  The site of the mosque had previously been a Byzantine Christian basilica, (containing a casket believed to hold the head of John the Baptist), a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter, and an earlier temple built by the ancient civilisations who were the original builders of the great temple at Palmyra.

Unusually, the central courtyard of the mosque is decorated with beautiful mosaics, showing palaces, trees and fruit in shimmering  gold, green and blue tiles (perhaps a representation of Paradise).  The rule of the Ummayad Caliph lasted until 750 AD, after which time figurative design was disapproved of in mosque interiors.

The mosque also holds the shrine of Hussein, revered son of Ali (Mohammed’s son-in-law) and Fatima, (Mohammed’s daughter).  Ali is regarded as the founder of the Shia branch of Islam, whereas the Sunnis see their founding father as Abu Bakr, close friend of Mohammed, and father of his second wife.   Abu Bakr was the first Caliph (spiritual  and political leader).  The differences between Sunni and Shia are political rather than religious.  90% of Muslims are Sunni and could be regarded as mainstream Muslims, many of whom have adapted to the modern world (although their number includes fundamentalist fanatics like Osama bin Laden, a Saudi Wahhabi).  The Shia, whose leaders are called Imams, are found predominately in Iran and Iraq.  The recent Shia Imans (such as Ayatollah Khomeini) have called for a return to strict traditional habits, the most noticeable of which are women being almost totally covered in black robes, like the women in Saudi Arabia (which is Sunni but influenced by the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect).  The mosque today was full of black-clad Iraqi women visiting the shrine of Hussein.   Syrian women, of any religion, are mostly dressed in western style, in tight fitting tops, jeans, make up and earrings.   Some of them cover their hair and neck with a scarf, but they usually have a fully made up face and accessorise with sunglasses on top of their heads and sometimes a diamond nose stud.  A lot of the Syrian women are very beautiful.  It must be strange for the Iraqi women in their ugly black abeyas and hejabs (cloaks and head scarves) to observe their attractive and liberated Syrian counterparts.  (Although I have a friend who takes tour parties into Iran, wears an abeya and says she finds it liberating.)   To walk around the mosque I have to wear a hooded robe and I find it very hot and somewhat annoying.

Ian arrived here 2 days before me and found his way around, especially towards a fabulous restaurant called Naranj.  It’s on Straight Street, (called in The Acts of  The Apostles, ‘the street called Straight’ where St. Paul was taken after his conversion on the road to Damascus.)  Naranj has a second floor terrace overlooking the street (view includes Roman pillars, a medieval minaret and a new Greek Orthodox church).   It also houses a giant TV screen and is our favoured spot from which to watch the  football World Cup.  The waiters are dressed in white satin jellabiyas (robes) with a yellow sash, and an embroidered white skull cap with a yellow band.  They have adopted Ian with enthusiasm and flutter around him when we arrive like a swarm of beautiful butterflies.  They bring a nargileh (water pipe), a beer and trays of delicious dips and fresh bread.  Ian sits puffing on the nargileh like an Oriental pasha.   Every meal in Damascus ends with fresh fruit, usually plates of sliced and peeled melons and watermelons, and cherries, plums and nectarines in bowls, topped with ice cubes.   The food has been superb everywhere, and about half the price of restaurant food in England.

Wandering around Damascus is like stepping into an Orientalist painting.  There are workshops in every street where craftsmen produce the ornately decorated furniture for which Damascus is famous - wooden boxes or backgammon sets inlaid with a mosaic pattern made of shell or mother of pearl, elaborately carved and inlaid chairs, tables and chests, engraved copper and brass trays and pots, and trunks full of jewellery made out of silver and gold and set with semi-precious stones.   Other shops sell carpets, antique lamps and swords, Arabic musical instruments and bolts of silks in gorgeous rainbow colours.   All the Damascene crafts are found in the souk as well as clothes, brocade cushion covers and tablecloths, spices and gold jewellery, but the souq is a place to look rather than buy, as the quality of things in the souq is poor and I don’t enjoy haggling.

So another rave review from Syria!  But as tourists we do not see the whole picture,  and can’t experience what it is really like to live here.   We met a Syrian journalist who is very disenchanted and will have to leave Syria to find work.  He says that most newspapers and TV stations have been closed, there is no freedom of speech, and many journalists are in prison.  Photographs of Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in a coup in 1970, and his son and successor, Bashar al-Assad, are everywhere.   Presumably the Assads intend to create a dynasty like the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan (created by the British in the 20th century).   What can be said in favour of the current regime is that there is religious tolerance and the women are liberated, which is not the case in many Muslim countries.  (Also drinking of alcohol is allowed, even encouraged, judging by the number of bars in the Christian areas – making Syria a popular destination for ex-pats based in Saudi and the Gulf States where alcohol is banned.)  With the exception of Turkey,  (which is Muslim but not Arab) there are few democracies in the Muslim countries, and I think attempts to create them artificially are doomed to failure.   Democracies like ours have emerged slowly.   (100 years ago, after all, women did not have the right to vote in Britain.)  What changed the atmosphere in the middle east for ever in the 20th century, was the collapse of the Ottoman dynasty after 400 years of dominance in the region;  the discovery of oil, which made many of the ruling families fabulously rich and powerful, and attracted the superpowers from the rest of the world;  and the re-creation of the ancient Jewish Kingdoms of Israel and Judah as the modern state of Israel.  Most of the changes were effected by the British and French governments who had helped liberate the Arab lands from their Ottoman Turkish overlords but then created Protectorates over which they had control.   Another factor in the shaping of the modern middle east is the huge, and probably unexpected, population explosion of the 20th and 21st centuries.

We’ll be returning to the boat in Beirut in a few days but it’s been wonderful having some shore leave in stunning old Damascus.