Thursday, October 16, 2008

Syria: Damascus, The oldest city in the world

Chapter One - The oldest city in the world

After a turbulent flight, the KLM plane landed at 11:30 pm at Damascus International Airport. I felt tired. I had been a bit nervous; this was my first solo trip after I had to return home from Thailand, while on my way to Burma, after suffering from food poisoning.

Passing through customs was a nightmare. There were two huge queues. Some bored policemen were walking around, while a couple of equally bored immigration officials were checking the passports of the people trying to get into the Syrian Arab Republic. Somehow my queue was advancing much slower than the one to my left. I soon found out that the lane I was in was for people who still needed to apply for a visa, which as you notice, can be done upon arrival. I've seen many different nationalities being given a visa this way. They only needed to fill out a form. I had obtained mine from the Syrian embassy in Brussels, where the available visa were valid for entry within six months and I was given the choice between single or multiple entry. The former cost 1250 Belgian Francs, the latter 1500.
Once I was in the right lane, things at least went a little smoother and finally it was my turn. My documents were carefully examined to be sure that there were no Israeli stamps in them; Occupied Palestine, they call it. Once that was verified, I received my stamp and was in.

From there I moved on to a desk where - officially - you have to declare any foreign money in excess of US$5000 equivalent.

Finally, I was able to pick up my backpack in the baggage claim area. It was somewhere on the floor. There's a ridiculous 1 US Dollar charge for using the the conveyor belt. No-one seems to pay it.

The only thing I had left to do at the airport, was change a bit of US Dollars to Syrian Pounds. There's a branch of the Commercial Bank of Syria, which at the time of writing is the only bank in the country, state-owned. The official rate was S£45 to the Dollar. It doesn't matter if you change at the airport or elsewhere. The rate is always the same, except of course on the black market, which is - needless to say - an illegal market.

There are no buses to the city centre in the middle of the night (after 11 pm). So you need to go by taxi. Inside the arrivals hall are desks where you can arrange a prepaid cab. I didn't have to look long to find one. They found me. :-) Knowing I was in a bad position to bargain - taxis are the only real means of getting to the centre - I asked how much it cost; a query on UseNet had revealed the fare was more or less fixed at US$10. To my surprise, the asking price was still 10 Dollar. I tried to lower it, but to no avail. I decided to take it. There's really no coming down in this case. Take care not to pay more ! Some desks were asking twice as much !
Outside, taxi drivers start offering rides at $20 as well, which is way over the top.
Once in the city centre, taxi drivers seem to know about the more or less 'fixed' price for the trip between the airport and the city, and will also ask you for US$10 to get back to the former.

In a new pickup truck I travelled the 30 kilometres or so. What I immediately noticed, were the numerous pictures of president Assad. They were literally everywhere, even in the pickup I was in...

I asked to be let out on an-Nasr Avenue, near the citadel and souqs. I knew in the adjacent block many of the cheap hotels were to be found. It was half past two in the middle of the night, and there I was, wandering around in a faraway city with no real clue of where to go. I found some small hotels - most of them are upper floors of other businesses. All of them were either too filthy or just not worth the money.

The Syrian Grand Hotel apparently had no singles available. The rate for a double with en-suite shower / toilet was S£300, and no bargaining at all. I found the room and bathroom not particularly clean and not worth the asking price. The guy who had been sleeping on the floor before I barged in, was quite friendly but not willing to do a deal.

Perhaps it was the late hour, but nobody seemed to want to come down from the initial asking price much or at all. Finally, I stumbled into a place called the J. A. Hotel. It's also near Martyr's Square (close to the mosque). The staff were very friendly. Only triples were available and they were far too expensive at S£400 for me alone. I could bargain down to S£300 but that was it. The beds were not so clean. I think I even detected some sperm stains on the sheets. That didn't surprise me at all, as the first thing I had been welcomed with down on the street, was "Madame ? Madame, sir ?"

The only bit of comfort was a washbasin. I washed up a little and then decided to hit the sack. I was with one leg in the bed when I heard a soft squeaking sound above the window, in the casing of the rolling shutter. First I thought it was a mouse, but I soon discovered a family of swallows had made my room their home. In the very early morning the little birds started squeaking loudly, making my stay not exactly a pleasant one. I didn't sleep at all in this place, although I was very tired.

At first light, the first thing I did was check out and change hotels. I really needed a comfortable place to stay now where I could wash up and have a good night's rest. I ended up in the Alaa Tower Hotel, Branch 1 - there are seven of them. This was one was right by the French Cultural Centre. The people are incredibly friendly and welcoming here, and most of the 34 rooms are well equipped, comfortable and spotlessly clean. I'd recommend asking to be shown a couple of rooms before taking one, however, as quality does differ quite a bit. The only downside is the price : at US$44 or S£2200 per night for a double (there are only doubles and triples, and no bargaining) they don't come cheap, but for this kind of quality it's good value for money. The restaurant upstairs is good, although they only prepare the breakfast themselves (the toasted bread feels like you're eating bricks, but otherwise it's a good buffet type of breakfast which is included in the room price). All other things are fetched elsewhere. Still, the food is always very tasty and you can order 'round the clock.

Now I was finally ready to start exploring Damascus, which claims to be the oldest city in the world, continuously inhabited to this very day.

No better way to start than by diving right into the souqs, the lively bazaars. Although it's fun to explore them on your own and getting lost in the maze, you miss a great deal of the things to be seen inside if you don't know where you're going. In this perspective, the walking tour described in the Lonely Planet guide is indispensable. It takes you past all the main sights.

I started off in Souq al-Hamadiyyeh, probably just like everybody else. This is probably the most touristy part of the souqs, but it's still worth going in. I had walked about 20 metres, when I was approached for the first time to buy tablecloths, wooden boxes or anything else I could want. The young salesman called himself 'Mike Tyson', and had collected hundreds of business cards from people around the globe. His shop was full of postcards and photographs, many of cute-looking Western girls. This was clearly an indication that his style was appreciated by many, but to me it was also obvious that buying from this guy would be throwing away my money. He loathed bargaining, and was a bit pushy. I underwent his presentation show, I drank tea, observed and learned. But I didn't buy anything.

Omayyad Mosque, Damascus In the middle of the souq area is one of the greatest Islamic monuments : the Omayyad Mosque. There's a S£10 entry ticket to get in, which I dislike, as I really hate paying to get into a religious building. Anyway, it's not much…

The Omayyad caliph al-Walid in 705 decided to build a mosque, more beautiful than any other one ever designed, or ever to be designed. The mosque is very, very impressive and really massive. It takes a while to walk around it. Upon entering the courtyard, the first thing I noticed were the stunning mosaics and the peaceful atmosphere. This feeling is not different inside the mosque; unlike in some other Islamic places of worship, elsewhere in the world, I felt welcome here. People asked who I was and where I came from, kids wanted to take my picture, other people still spontaneously came up with explanations of the interesting things in the mosque. Nice !

I noticed many Iranians, Shiites, who were praying for Hussein, son of Ali, the last of the Four Companions of the prophet Mohammed. His head is supposedly buried in a shrine inside the mosque. I was impressed by the incredible faith these people seemed to possess, and by their astonishing affection for Hussein. Many were crying out loud, shedding buckets of tears !...

Virtually next to the Omayyad Mosque, in a very anonymous building - it's not really marked or anything - lies buried one of Islam's greatest leaders - if not the greatest : Salah ad-Din. Saladin - as the man's better known in the West - used to be a name which was associated with both military superiority (he fought ceaseless battles) and true chivalry.

It was not without awe that I stepped inside the mausoleum. Salah ad-Din died in 1193, but the tomb doesn't date from that period. Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany donated a new marble sarcophagus in 1898. Beautiful. I paid my respects and left, glad to having 'met' the great leader.

Saladin's Mausoleum opens at 10 am, but you may be able to get into before that. Some baksheesh will be expected of course.

Saladin is not the only great Islamic hero who lies buried in the city of Damascus. It was only a short trip to the mausoleums of two other famous personalities : Baibars and Nur ad-Din. The first is easy to find; it's quite nearby Saladin's, in the Madrassa az-Zahariyya. I had only just passed through the gate and someone showed up to unlock the anonymous room for me.

Across the street is the Madrassa al-Adiliyya, the burial place of a brother of Saladin. I suggest skipping the latter. It's not that interesting. The caretakers of both places will expect tips for services rendered.

The mausoleum of Nur ad-Din is harder to find. It's really completely integrated in the souqs; I passed it by a couple of times and had to ask before I noticed it was there. A friendly man turned up and asked if I wanted to see the tomb. I did. I wasn't really surprised to find a very plain interior. Modesty is quite usual in Muslim burial sites.

I wandered through the often narrow streets of the Damascene souqs. I loved it ! This was really the oriental bazaar as I had imagined it, inspired by movies and books. The pressure to buy is only minimal, the atmosphere is lively and the people friendly and helpful. These souqs were way better than those of Aleppo !

I emerged from the shady, covered streets and stood in front of the entrance to the Saida Ruqqaya Mosque. It's quite distinct from the other mosques I had seen so far in the Middle East. The style is Persian. Shiite. And that's not surprising : the building was primarily financed by the Iranians. It's a very beautiful building, both outside and inside. Especially inside. The decorations are baffling, the atmosphere tense. Tense but friendly. People, Shiites and other visitors alike, gather around the central mausoleum of Ruqqaya, the daughter of Hussein, the saint whose head is supposedly buried in the Omayyad Mosque. Just like in the latter, people cry out loud for the sake of the dead one. I stood quietly in the back and watched what was going on without disturbing the praying. When I left, I walked out with a feeling of having had a wonderful experience.

I walked on, passing by Café Naufara. The place has become very touristy, but the 'hood still has just enough atmosphere left.

Just before reaching the Azem Palace, so after emerging from Mu'awiyyeh Street, on your left hand side is an excellent, cheap cookies bakery. They're super fresh, and taste heavenly!

A ticket to the palace costs S£300. Most of it is occupied by the Museum of Arts & Popular Traditions. Mannequins are displayed in traditional costumes and jewellery. They occupy the renovated rooms of the palace. Photography is not allowed inside the rooms, but the guards will probably give you the opportunity for a bit of baksheesh - only if you want of course. Apart from the often beautifully decorated rooms, I found the most interesting thing a tiny rice grain on which a more than fair chunk of the Qur'an is written. A magnifying glass is provided.
I have mixed feelings about this place. Several rooms were locked, and I doubt if the place is really worth its hefty entrance fee.

The Street Called Straight - yes, that's really the name; Via Recta in Latin - is an unusual sight in the Old City, which otherwise consists of narrow, winding streets. A Roman Arch short over halfway separates the Christian and Muslim quarters. There are no noticeable problems between the different religions, but as everywhere, people of the same kind tend to bunch together here.
Yes, there are some important Christian sites. The one of most historical interest, is the Chapel of Ananias, a disciple who gave St Paul his eyesight back. Set at the end of a cosy back street, close to the old city walls, the chapel is in an underground room. There's no entrance fee and the guy at the reception desk is friendly.

From here it's only a short walk along the old city walls to Bab Kisan. Here's to be found the tower from which St Paul was lowered in a basket so that he could escape the soldiers of the Jewish king Aretas who wanted to arrest him after having preached in preaching in synagogues. A chapel has been built over the spot. It's a Biblically interesting place, but one shouldn't expect too much. It's not as if St Paul will skim the city walls in a basket again. The nuns of the nearby convent are friendly and helpful.

A whole day of walking in the intense heat had caused my feet to blister heavily. I was in too much pain to continue back to my hotel, so I took a taxi. The cab drivers in Damascus aren't too bright when it comes to finding places, but they'll ask around and most of the time they'll be able to take you where you want to be. There are times, though, when they don't know where you need to be, and then they'll often try to drop you off at some place which may be far away ! It happened to me on several occasions, when I hadn't yet developed a feel for the city. In doubt, let them take you to a nearby, better known location.

I found that only about 50% of the Damascene taxi drivers used their meters. Those not using them, mostly kept refusing to use them even after drawing their attention to it. Avoid these cabs, or be sure to agree on a price before getting in. On my first day I dropped my guard and was hit for S£200 for a short ride ! A typical taxi ride which can cost you heaps if you're not careful, is the ride up Jebel Qassioun to get an incredibly great view of the city. It's not unusual for taxi drivers to ask S£200 for this short trip !

Equally ridiculous amounts of money are demanded for rides to the Saida Zainab Mosque (about 10 kilometres out of the city centre) : S£100-150 ! I visited it at the end of my trip, just before I had to return home, but in the context I can just as well talk about it here.

This Shiite mosque is very impressive. Non-Muslims can go inside the mosque, even touching the mausoleum. Photography is strictly forbidden, however. Some older and not-so-tolerant devotees didn't appreciate my presence and I was requested to leave the 'inner sanctum'. I decided not to argue (which is never a good idea in places of worship), went out and collected my shoes from the counter where I'd left them. A very traditional looking person came up to me, and started asking me questions about why I had come to visit this mosque. I explained I had an interest in culture, architecture, religion, people,... and said that important mosques, churches and temples are the places where these culminate, so they are highly interesting from my point of view. He answered this wasn't enough to visit mosques. One should have a genuine interest in the Koran (Qur'an) as well. He asked if I had read the Qur'an. I told him I had read a translation. He wasn't impressed.

"Was it written by a Muslim ?"
"No, it was a translation by a university teacher with a genuine interest in Islam."
"That's not good ! You should read a Qur'an written by a Muslim."

I tried to explain that as Arabic is a very figurative language, and mine - like most other Western languages - is not, it's very hard to make a highly accurate translation, but the people who are attempting to do one, do their utmost best to make it as accurate as possible.

"That is not good. You should learn Arabic first, and then read an Arabic Qur'an..."

This was clearly a case of the religious blindness I hate so much. After all, Islam and Christianity teach there's only one God, and it's the very same God. So, why all the intolerance and discrimination ?

A young Shiite man from Dubai, early twenties I think, had been following the single-sided discussion and decided to interfere. He devoted at least an hour to explaining about the mosque - its architecture and purpose -, about the life and death of Saida Zainab, and about Islam in general. His explanations were from the heart, and he somehow could see the value of my points. I could see his. Some topics, however, like the veiling of Islamic women although that is not written in the Qur'an, remained not discussible. I didn't try very hard, as not to upset anyone.
All in all, this had been an interesting experience...

Now, to continue where I had left off before...
The next day I spent another full day in the souq area, visiting some of the lesser sights. Because of the blisters, my pace had reduced considerably, and I was actually able to appreciate the bazaars even more.

The day after, I paid a lengthy visit to the National Museum, a must see ! Entry is S£300, and in this case it's probably warranted. Take care ! The museum definitely is closed on Tuesdays ! Photography - as in all Syrian museums - is strictly forbidden. Bags have to be left at the entrance.

A short stroll through part of the shady garden around the museum buildings brought me to the majestic entrance. No wonder ! It's the immaculately reconstructed facade of Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, a desert castle west of Palmyra. I would visit its eastern counterpart, Qasr al-Hayr ash-Sharki, later on.

Inside, the museum is huge, much bigger than you'd expect it to be from the outside. The displays are great, although labelling could be better. The best rooms IMHO are the Dura Europos room (with the original impressive frescoes found there), the reconstructed Dura Europos Synagogue (very impressive !) and the equally fantastically reconstructed Tomb of Jarhai, which is an underground burial chamber from Palmyra.

The museum is to be found in a busy, though pleasant area of the city; the Barada river flows in front of it. Right next door are the Takiyyeh as-Sulamaniyyeh Mosque and the War Museum. Not exactly a perfect match, but perhaps it's an 'opposites attract' kind of thing ? :-) The entrances to both are next to each other in a nice, shady park. The old Syrian, Russian-made, warplanes in the grounds satisfied me enough, so as not to feel tempted to pay to enter the museum itself. The signs accompanying the planes were fun to read; anti-Israeli propaganda at its best.
The mosque is very beautiful, which is not surprising when it's built by the great Sinan, of Istanbul fame.

I concluded this sightseeing day with a visit to the Hejaz Railway Station, which is of great historical interest as for many it was the departure point of the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. When looking at the building, now completely covered with pictures of president Assad, and the old steam loc in front of it, one can still imagine the pilgrims, enthusiastically queuing to board their train.

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