Damascus: History, Souqs, Tea and People-Watching

Date: 1st April 2011

To Damascus, years are only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise, and prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality

– Mark Twain

The exterior walls of the Damascus Citadel

Statue of Saladin beyond the exterior walls of the Damascus Citadel (which is closed to the public)

Many people asked me when they first heard of my plans – “Why Syria?”. Well, Twain answers that question far better than I ever can. Really, Damascus is THAT old. I’m not going to quote statistics here, you can read them in Wikipedia. But I can tell you that one gets a very medieval feel while walking down the narrow, twisting alleyways and stone- paved streets of the old city. Of course, the Hyundais, Skodas, Ladas, Dacias and Geelys dampen this feeling a little but that is the price one must pay for “progress”. Although how Ladas and Dacias count as progress is beyond me. Geely, on the other hand, will soon take over the world, just you wait and watch.

So 1st April was Friday (the Syrian weekend is Friday and Saturday) and everyone was very tense about what would happen after the Friday prayers; people congregate on Fridays to pray together and given the current situation “only Allah knows what would happen afterwards”. So the prudent thing to do was to stay indoors till about 3 PM, watch the news and assess the situ.

It was a bit frustrating, as it was my first day in a new city and all I wanted to to was set out and explore, but it was all good, as I got time to connect with my host and his house-mates, partake in what was a fabulous breakfast meal, cooked by Mustafa. I got some understanding into what life in Syria was all about, made a fool of myself and caused a lot of amusement when I was asked to write down the Hindi alphabet, and picked up some Arabic pronunciation tips.

A Syrian Breakfast

A sumptuous breakfast/lunch with my host. Notice the bottle of home-made olive oil?

One of the guys in the centuries old house is an Iraqi, studying in Damascus, the other is a Syrian Orthodox Christian from Aleppo and another is a guy born to a Cuban father and an Iraqi mother in Bulgaria. Overall we had a great time, between cigarettes, tea and the fabulous meal we just had. The prepared dishes (meat and eggs, meat and tomatoes, some green thingy (zatar) bathed in olive oil, a butter/yougurt/cheese thingy (also topped with lots of olive oil) are kept in the center, everyone picks up a bread which is like a HUGE chapatti and digs it. Fun!

Two things to note here – The amount of sugar that goes in one glass of tea (milk-less, btw) is enough to sweeten the tea of a small village. And you thought Indian streetside tea was too sweet. Ha! I’ll repeat, in case you missed it the first time. “Ha!”. The other is that it seems that everyone here smokes. At least the men do. It is still not very halal for women to smoke cigarettes so they restrict themselves to Nargileh (hookah).

I don't understand it, but I love how beautiful it looks!

A beautiful sign over what seems to be a hotel.

One of the first things I noticed when I entered the streets of Damascus was how incredibly good looking the young people are. Everyone (women AND men) is dressed to the nines, well kempt/made up ALL THE TIME! There are statistically no homeless in Syria and I saw only two women asking for alms in the two days that I have been walking around town, and even they were both covered from head to toe in the crispest, cleanest and the most crease-free black cloth you have ever seen.

We were walking down straight street (from the latin Via Recta – recta means straight; get your mind out of the gutter) and there was a guy standing by the side of the road – probably in his early twenties, very well dressed, accessorised, good looking etc. He wouldn’t have been out of place on a ramp or a music video somewhere, just as he was dressed then. And then he picks up a bag lying beside him and offers to polish our shoes. He was a shoeshine boy. You get my point? Astounding.

Now, the good looks that the youngsters are endowed with makes it all the more stark how – how shall I put this – “un-good looking” the middle aged people are. Something starts to go horribly wrong when they reach the age of 35 and by 45 the damage is complete.

Park near Bab Touma

A New Park near Bab Touma (St. Thomas' Gate)

Anyway, enough with vanity. I should probably mention that the old city is really well preserved, in spite of the fact that it is a living, breathing city where thousands of people still live in ramshackle centuries old houses and where life goes on as usual with or without the tourists, unlike the “old cities” of Latin America (Antigua, can you hear me?) that, lovely as they are, seem to be almost entirely tourist oriented.

Mustafa was free and took over the day’s agenda, and I was happy to follow him around as he led me through lanes merely a metre wide, under splendid old Roman arches, around toppled Corinthian columns and “Babs” (gates) of the old city. Bab Touma (St. Thomas Gate) and our old friend Sharky Bob are particularly impressive samples of the remaining gates. Of the ramparts (walls – damn the English) not much remains but from the glimpses of the parts that remain you can tell that they were once formidable.

One of the very few shops that were open that day in the Souq

One of the very few shops that were open that day in the Souq

We stopped at the famous Ice-cream maker Bakdash in the Al Hamidiyeh souq the rest of which, along with other souqs was closed for the holy day. Bakdash is famous for its ice-cream, considered the best in the Middle-East and has been featured in numerous travel shows, including Globe Trekker.

Interior of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

Interior of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

A curious little incident took place when we entered the old (and huge!) Umayyad Mosque. Mustafa of course, enters without hindrance, but one of the guards stops me.

“Where are you from?”

“India”

“Are you muslim?”

“No”

“Then you must buy a ticket. The counter is that way.”

Of course we didn’t go “that way”. We skirted around the monument and entered through another gate where the same dialogue was repeated, only this time, instead of “no“, I said “yes“, and entered unmolested. Cheap? Perhaps. Unethical? Maybe. But I hate discriminatory pricing and I bypass it wherever I can. I have done it before in Latin America (Guatemala, Colombia, etc), Sri Lanka and Myanmar and I’ll do it again.

Anyway, Umayyad mosque is Islam’s first great mosque. Before that, it was a Church and even before that a temple of Jupiter and well before that a temple to the Aramaic God Hadad. Phew!

We went out into the “new city” for a while, paused at a cafe for some internet for a couple of hours and ended the day with a Lebanese Shawarma and a well-earned beer (also Lebanese) each.

Bab Touma at Night

Bab Touma (St. Thomas' Gate) at Night

The day’s expenses:

  • Chocolate Bread – 25
  • Ice Cream (2) – 100
  • Cafe – 100
  • Shawarma – 80

Total: 305 SYP (Approx. 300 INR or 6.7 US$)

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19 Responses to Damascus: History, Souqs, Tea and People-Watching

  1. Animesh says:

    I realize that I should probably provide some photographic evidence to support my praises of the good looks of the Damascenes, but I can't really go up to people and say -"Excuse me, but I'd like a picture of you to show my blog readers how beautiful Syrians are", can I?

  2. Jivtesh says:

    Ani, great going – keep up with the posts. Maybe its the smoking that catches up by the time they reach the middle age.
    Love the expenses section.

  3. Tanya says:

    Fine description of what seems to be a gorgeous city. Do not EVER hesitate to ask for photographs of shiny shoe shining guys 😉

  4. Mustafa Guclu says:

    Really enjoyed reading your blog Animesh. Thanks a lot for writting, I guess It should not be easy travelling and writing at the same time. Hope you can continue till the end…

    And when are you coming to Turkey and to Izmir

    hati hati di jalan ya

    all the best

    Mustafa Güçlü Yılmaz / Turkey

  5. Ash Mhatre says:

    Lovely travelogue on Damascus, Animesh, The Desi Backpacker. Make me wanna jump outta my bed and get on a flight right now(well, atleaset get my butt to get that visa.) Pics are nice too! I know there is enough time you have left in there, but would love to see those faces of locals in pics. – Ash Mhatre

  6. See Bee says:

    interesting. What is that big roti like thing in the pic? A Roti-like thing or something else? and cmon, Irani chai in India is perhaps as sweet. Milk-less super sweet tea does sound interesting….

  7. Jivtesh says:

    Ani, great going – keep up with the posts. Maybe its the smoking that catches up by the time they reach the middle age.

  8. Identityless says:

    Great blog. Reads like Bill Bryson.

    Wonderful point about 'damage' when they near the forties. That is something I have noticed (with a lot of disappointment) in Swedes, Finns and Norwegians too. Sad.

  9. Abhijit says:

    I can't believe one can have a sweeter than Indian cutting chai.. Is it tastier as well? (This has nothing to do with my blog's name 😛 )

    Btw, great going.. love your blog! keep posting!

    • Animesh says:

      Hey Abhijit
      Believe it! And the tea is as strong, so since it's milkless I guess at least some sugar is necessary. About taste, well nothing can really beat cutting chai…

  10. anviti says:

    love the trivia that's slipped in between .. nice narrative . great going bhau !

  11. Djoko P says:

    Wow… Perjalanan yang hebat! Two tumbs up! I still cannot take a leave to make my dreams come true for India. Keep Moving Dude!

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