Damascus is but a quick, two hour cab ride from Beirut, and that includes time going through security checks and customs at the border. While we paid top dollar for a private cab to and from Damascus, it was well worth it as our driver quickly sheparded us through customs with his easy banter with security officials. We were surprised to learn that a no man’s land exists between the countries of Lebanon and Syria that is claimed by both countries. We realized quickly that we were in new territory when we saw a road sign to Baghdad.
When we talk about visiting Damascus, it is more accurate to say we visited Old Damascus; the old walled section of the otherwise large, “modern” city that serves as the capital of Syria. The city appears dingy and not particularly inviting when first entering it. We passed two large Palestinian camps, with crowded, poorly constructed, dusty, cinderblock shacks. As is the case in most “old” cities, Old Damascus is relatively small compared to the larger city. We could easily walk Straight St., which bisects the old city from east to west, in under 30 minutes.
Much of our time was spent wandering the back streets of Old Damascus. Our guide books describes the area as “medieval Islamic”, and that is quite accurate. Narrow streets, many with overhanging second floors, some of which still carry automobile traffic, are more common than not. Shops of all kinds, some for locals, others catering to tourists, are scattered throughout the area. Some sections of the old city are souqs, or markets; some are covered, some are open air.
These are very extensive but relatively easy to navigate compared to the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. It is common to find one type of item in a section; spices, fabric, wedding wear, candy, household items, clothing, tourist stuff, with carpets and kilims most everywhere. We never tired of wandering the streets and souqs and watching the locals buy and sell their goods.
We stayed in a former Ottoman house, with a beautiful central courtyard, which would have been a real joy in warmer weather. Given that it was winter, breakfast was served in the ante room of the hotel’s Turkish bath.
As is the case in Beirut, people do not go to dinner here until at least 9 or 10 p.m. We actually pulled this off one night, but only after I dragged Sharon out of her deep 8-9 o’clock nap.
The Umayyad Mosque is a dominant structure in the old city and is the location of important structures for over two millennia. Worship on this site goes back to the 9th century BC when the Aramaeans built a temple to their god, Hadad (mentioned in the Old Testament) here. Later the Romans built the Temple of Jupiter. One small section of the temple remains, just outside the walls of the mosque.
The current mosque is considered one of the holiest sites in all Islam as it contains the remains of one of their most important martyrs, Hussein, who was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.
Hussein’s father Ali is considered the founder of the Shia sect of Islam. Hussein died in battle in the 7th century AD, and it is his martyrdom that is celebrated on Ashoura (we had this day off back in December).
His tomb is located in a wing of the mosque, and once we squeezed into the room holding his remains we were spellbound by the wailing, crying, and need for the Muslim pilgrims to touch his glassed-in tomb. The energy and emotion of these people was incredibly powerful and quite palpable. All we could do was look at each other and mouth, “Wow” or something to that effect.
Trying to make our way through the turbulence of the crowd was one thing. Stepping over, around and between other Muslims sitting on the floor; some praying, others having what we would call a picnic, was another whole challenge. I knew these people took their religion seriously, but this was still a real eye opener. It was one of the most amazing experiences we have ever had. The Umayyad Mosque is also the burial site of Saladin, the warrior responsible for driving the Crusaders out of Jerusalem. He died in Damascus in 1193. And finally, within one of the mosque’s prayer halls is a casket reportedly holding the head of St. John the Baptist, (known as the prophet Yehia to the Muslims). Of course, we were also shown his head in the Tokapi Palace in Istanbul, so who knows.
A short distance fromm this mosque is another mosque that holds the remains of Ruqanna, Hussein’s daughter, another important Shia martyr. She was four when she died, supposedly after being shown the severed head of her father. We witnessed a similar scene, but this time with the women and men segregated. Same wailing, touching, praying going on, but with the added piece of adults and children throwing cheap, Barbie type dolls onto the top of the “tomb”. As we departed the mosque we noticed all the stalls selling these cheap dolls. And to our amazement, almost every doll was blonde haired. Go figure.