The World’s Cultural Bazarre
Damascus and Aleppo are two of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world, where the footsteps of travellers, traders and conquering armies have trodden for over 6,000 years. Both cities’ old towns are steeped in this history, but far from being relics, they are living breathing entities that ooze history, charm, excitement and magic.
Fabrics souq, Aleppo
There is a sense of purpose on the streets of Damascus as people head to work in the early morning sunshine. Sharia an- Nasr is a slow flowing river of yellow taxis, all using their horns incessantly. A group of women swathed in black stand amid the dust and pollution, waiting for a bus to appear, while a man erects a table at the side of the pavement and starts laying out a huge selection of second hand TV controllers.
At the intersection of Sharia ath-Thhawra, three young men place large synthesizers on top of their boxes while a policeman in elbow length white gloves waves the traffic on, the occasional blast from his whistle helping move things along. One of the synthesizer sellers begins to play a distinctly Eastern flavoured tune, all minor keys, as I cross the road and arrive at the walls of Damascus’s ancient Old City.
The scent of cumin and cardamon mixes with the aroma of coffee as I move from the coffee souq to the spice souq, before taking a left into a pretty street with vines hanging just above head height. I stop to look at a vast array of nuts and I am encouraged to sample as many as I like. The next-door stall has baskets brimming with dried fruits and one full of delicate dried miniature rose buds. The stall keeper leans across and picks one out and hands it to me; “for the lady in you heart”, he says with a smile.
The fruits give way to sweets as I make my way down the cobbled street. Wherever I go I am handed things to eat, always with a smile. I try various kinds of Turkish delight, before entering Al Ghraoui Confiseur Chocolatier, allegedly ‘purveyors to Queen Victoria’. Judging by the decor and the quality of the chocolates I sample, this could be true.
I stop to visit the 18th Century Azem Palace. A huge courtyard of striped flagstones the size of a football field, complete with gardens and orange trees, is flanked by several sumptuous and ornate rooms and buildings. Each room is themed with displays of mannequins that look like they are suffering rigor mortis. A group of school children cannot contain their delight at the artificiality of the displays, much to the dismay of their teacher.
I pass a Roman arch and enter the Jewish and Christian Quarter. I stop at the first church I come across and am approached by an old man in a suit and a flat cap. “Where are you from?” he enquires. “Ah, you are English! I fought with General Montgomery and the English against Rommel in El Alamein and Tobruk.” He is delighted to learn that my grandfather also fought in the same campaign. “My name is Moses, like the king of the Jews”, he tells me. “This is a Catholic Church, but here in Damascus, Christians, Jews and Muslims have lived together for thousands of years. Would you like to visit the church?” he asks, “I can show you a bible written in Aramaic.” He leads me to the wooden door and produces a large key from somewhere inside of his jacket.
At Bab ash-Sharqi, one of the eight gates in the walls of the Old City, I turn left into even narrower alleys with towering walls. Voices echo and drift from different directions. I notice nearly all of the wooden doors of the houses have brass doorknobs in the shape of feminine hands. One stands open and I enter an old 18th century Damascene house that is being completely restored. Most of these huge houses, centred around huge fountained courtyards, have fallen into disrepair; but some like this one are being restored and turned into hotels and restaurants, I am told by the foreman as he feeds a gaggle of cats nuts from the palm of his hand.
The centrepiece of the Old City is the Umayyad Mosque, the most holy mosque outside of Mecca. Previously, pagan and Christian temples dating back to the 9th century BC stood here, some parts of which are now part of the mosque. I remove my shoes and enter, dazzled by the sun’s reflection on the mosque’s vast limestone paved courtyard. A gentle calm pervades the air. Families, many of whom are Iranian pilgrims, sit together on rugs they have brought, picnicking and marvelling at the gold gilded mosaics above the main entrance to the mosque’s giant prayer hall.
It takes several minutes for my eyes to readjust to the darkness of the prayer hall. The floor is covered with hundreds of carpets. Some people kneel and pray, while others simply lie back and relax. I place my shoes on one of the many shoe racks and find a quiet spot close to the Shrine of John the Baptist; a green domed marble affair that purportedly contains the head of St John. People kneel and pray in front of it, before resting their heads against the shrine.
I leave the Umayyad Mosque via the western gate, and am greeted by a large row of Corinthian columns that mark the beginning of the Souq al-Hamidyya, which looks more like Petrovsky Passazh than a middle-eastern souq. Two storied marbleclad shops stretch as far as I can see, the wide cobbled street awash with emporium shoppers shaded by a vaulted corrugated iron roof peppered with bullet holes from when the French bombarded the city in 1925, during the French Mandate period. The holes give the impression one is shopping under the stars, the celestial impression enhanced by the regular shafts of sunlight angling across from the windows in the roof, spotlighting the walls on the opposite side of the street.
Sharia al-Bara’a ibn Malek starts the kilometre-long market street of Salihiyya. Ancient mosques, tombs and madrassas are woven into the very fabric of this bustling narrow street. Small Suzuki vans peep-peep their way through the shoppers. A group of women inspect buckets of olives, bending down to pinch them while the next-door stall keeper sprays his radishes until they glisten. It is a riot of colours and a cacophony of sounds. I buy a slice of pistachio cake, yellow on the outside and green on the inside while watching a man pierce and drain the milk of a coconut into a little plastic bag for a small girl. A Suzuki van passes with a man in a wheelchair sitting on its flat bed, like royalty in a litter. Above, a faded Mickey Mouse with a football looks down on an old man in a jalaba sitting next to his pile of onions as the late afternoon sun crawls up the tops of the houses and the birds begin to swirl overhead.
The atmosphere of the Old City has changed now that it is dark. There is a greater mystery and magic to the streets and alleys; some in virtual darkness, others bathed in the soft orange glow of the street lanterns. I walk through the gold souq. A boy is being paid his wages, and he kisses each of the banknotes as he is handed them.
I sit on a plastic chair on the side of the street beneath one of the floodlit minarets of the Umayyad Mosque, a crescent moon rising above the minaret’s crescent, waiting for my chicken kebab to be cooked. A man from the next-door table asks if he could roll one of my cigarettes. “I lived in Germany for eight years”, he explains, “and have not smoked this tobacco for many years.” He is Afghani and introduces me to his Iranian friend. “Here, people from all over the Muslim world live.”
Sweet Vendor, Damascus
As I make my way back to my hotel, I study the faces of the people I pass more closely, and realise my Afghani friend is right; I see Somali faces, West and North African faces, Persian faces, Arabian faces. The only faces I do not see are those of tourists, but this is a ‘pariah state’, on George Bush’s ‘axis of evil’. The everyday reality is of course far from the political rhetoric.
In the morning I am drawn once more by the allure of the Old City, this time being braver in just taking the turns and alleys which I feel inclined to take, getting hopelessly lost, but enjoying the assault on my senses. I inspect women’s bridal wear, sniff various perfumes, stroke stuffed animals, giggle at the most unflattering and un-sexy women’s underwear I have ever seen, and drink glasses of cardamon coffee with suited old men puffing on their nargileh pipes.
The Old Town becomes one giant souq, a living monument to trade and commerce, but one that becomes a little overwhelming as I head back to my hotel. I take the lift to the top floor and manage to get onto the roof. Metal bird-like aerials perch next to satellite dishes on top of dusty buildings. As the sun sets so the minarets of the various mosques rising up out of the greyness are highlighted with neon green lights. A muezzin from behind me softly starts the evening call to prayer, swiftly joined by a gruffer one to my right, and then a positively aggressive one dead ahead of me. Within half a minute I am sitting in the middle of the greatest muezzin soundclash I have ever heard.
After an early morning 45-minute flight and a short taxi ride I arrive at the Baron Hotel, in Aleppo, northern Syria. I walk into the foyer and enter a museum piece of early 20th century travel. Every detail is original, just a little faded and worn. The likes of Roosevelt, Agatha Christie and Lawrence of Arabia stayed here, when the Baron was in its prime, the Orient Express was the way to go east, and the natives were still restless. My room is reminiscent of my grandmother’s living room, endearing me fully to the Baron’s charms.
Entrance to the citadel, Aleppe
I ‘take’ coffee in the Baron’s bar, reclining in an old leather armchair, before making my way to Aleppo’s Citadel, the city’s ancient fortress. It sits on a huge mound, the scars of centuries of water-runoff reaching down to the moat like pianists’ fingers. The Citadel survived the onslaught of the Crusaders, but fell victim to an earthquake and is for the most part a large rubble heap. Aleppo’s low-rise and uniform dustiness stretches out beneath it, minarets pointing upwards like architectural missiles, ready to be launched from their domed pads. The muezzins start to sing, before reciting prayers, their chatter sounding like a multitude of distant horse racing commentators.
At the14th century Hammam Yalbougha an-Nasry I am lead through a maze of damp corridors to the steam room where I am left for fifteen minutes, before being taken to be washed with aromatic soap and what looks like an old blond wig, painfully scraped of my top layer of skin, pummelled like a slab of meat and massaged all too briefly. I have a few more steams before being swaddled in sheets and towels and placed on a divan with a cup of sweet tea. My head and heart are throbbing and I sit stunned, unable to lift my glass of tea to my lips. I glide lackadaisically and loose-limbed as if in a dream back to the Baron. After a wonderful pre-dinner nap on my bateau bed, I dine on one of the most superb dishes I have ever tasted, at Beit Wahil in the Christian Quarter of Al- Jdeida; kofta kebabs in a sweet and sour cherry sauce.
I ‘breakfast’ in the wood panelled dining room of the Baron, served by a wonderfully dishevelled old waiter who looks like he slept in his uniform, before heading to Aleppo’s souq. The souq’s streets are incredibly narrow and I am pinned to a wall as an old man trots past on his donkey. I stop to watch peanut roasters tossing large quantities in sieves and am joined by Osama bin- Laden’s double who nibbles on a few. The meat market is a pretty gruesome sight and I move on to the fabric souq where men roll out lengths of brocaded material for women to inspect. At the hardware souq blacksmiths hammer by their blazing forges, intense concentration on their sweating brows.
Great Mosque, Aleppo
As it grows dark, so the atmosphere in the souq becomes softer. Shopkeepers dust down their goods, one using a hairdryer, the merchants in the gold and jewellery souq place items in safes, while others chat with their neighbours. I am invited to drink coffee with Mohammed who sells backgammon boards. “Business is not good now, it has been terrible since the start of the war in Iraq”, he tells me. “The Americans think they can just do what they like to other countries”, he says indignantly. I point out that the British invaded Iraq too. “That is ok, we like the British!!” he says with a huge smile and slapping my back, “but we don’t understand why you all stay at the Baron Hotel!!”
Travel Info Piers
Gladstone flew to Damascus on Aeroflot for $500 including taxes. Damascus – Aleppo cost $48.00 return on Syrian Air.
A single at The Sultan Hotel, Damascus, cost $25.00 per night and at Hotel Baron $35.00.