Friday, January 07, 2011

The Marvels of Old Damascus

After a fabulous few days in Beirut, some 50-60 people from the conference, including wedding guests, caravaned to Damascus in waves either with the official IASTE post-conference tour (the delegation got to meet President Assad at the Presidential Palace!) or independently. As you may have guessed from the previous post, Keenan and I traveled independently to Damascus with our friends, Clare and Drew, where we spent three nights in the Christian Quarter in Old City Damascus. Being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities, Damascus certainly has many marvels to enjoy --  colourful souks, historic mosque, Saladin's tomb, Greek and Armenian churches, Damascene houses, Roman ruins, and beautiful old palaces. We couldn't wait to take in all the sights and smells. 
Shops in the souk:
Greek and Armenian Churches:
Damascene Houses & Buildings:

After a leisurely lunch at Al-Khawali with Clare and Drew, we split up to do some Christmas shopping at the famous souks of Damascus. Weaving our way through the bustling labyrinth of alleyways in the Muslim Quarter, we browsed through the souks of Medhat Pasha,  al-Hamidiyeh, and al-Bzouriyya. Between the various souks within the Old City, you can buy everything from handicrafts, oriental carpets, nuts and sweet, spices, household items, clothing, jewelley, and other kitschy souvenirs. The souks alone can keep you busy for hours, if not days, especially since the exchange rate is very favourable against the US dollar. In fact, Syria is a great value destination compared to its neighbours, Lebanon and Jordan, so be sure to pick up a few scarves, olive soaps, and mother of pearl wooden plates as gifts for friends and family.  You won't be disappointed.
Rugs and Sweets:
We took several shopping breaks for coffee at an old Damascus institution, Al-Nawfara, located near the Ummayad Mosque, and visited the 18th century Khan As'ad Pasha. Named after the Governor of Damascus, this beautiful piece of Ottoman architecture in Souq al-Bzouriyya hosted caravans coming from the old cities of Baghdad, Mosul, and Aleppo. Spreading over two floors covering 2,500 square metres, the khan is decorated with stone carvings and roofed by a muqarnas semi-dome. Beautiful. 
Khan As'ad Pasha:
Near Al-Nawfara:
That evening, we met up with the rest of our friends who arrived later in the day for a light dinner at Elissar, a Syrian/French restaurant with a beautiful courtyard nestled in the Christian Quarter. Good company, good food -- what else can  you ask for?

On our second day, we joined Mona & JC's families on a guided tour with "cousin" Noel. The tour started on a good note with a visit to the Church of Ananias (Ananias was a disciple who healed and baptized Paul), St. Paul's Chapel and Bab Kisan where Paul escaped in a basket to flee the Jews, and then a visit his "cousin's" tamarind juice shop outside of Bab Touma. Hmmmm...sounds fishy; too bad for his "cousin" that we only bought one small cup as a sample. By now we were eager to see Damascus' main architectural attraction: the Ummayad Mosque, the fourth holiest place in Islam.

The site of the mosque itself is rooted in history dating back from the Roman period where they built a temple dedicated to Jupiter. When Constantine converted the Roman Empire to Christianity, the temple was replaced by a basilica dedicated to John the Baptist; and later under the Arab conquest of Damascus, the eastern basilica was converted to a mosque, leaving the western side dedicated for Christians. This is a significant landmark for both Christians and Muslims -- within the prayer hall contains the shrine with the head of John the Baptist and nearby is the shrine of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, an important site among Shitte Muslims.  Adjacent to the mosque is the tomb of Saladin, the great leader who led the Muslims against the Crusaders and eventually recaptured Palestine from the Crusader. We spent a good hour admiring the beauty and taking in the history contained within the walls of the Ummayad Mosque. 
 Romain Arches:
The Ummayad Mosque:

 Shrine of John the Baptist:
 Shrine of Hussein:
Tomb of Saladin:

In terms of eating, some of my favourite highlights:

Bekdach, located in lively Souq al-Hamidiyeh, for some heavenly hand-made ice cream made of sahlab topped with pistachio nuts (cheap -- 50 SYP) -- I wish I had a second stomach for a second helping or the
mahallibieh -- not to miss on your visit to Damascus!

Naranj Restaurant near the Roman Arches was our best meal in Damascus. Set in this beautiful Damascene house, 13 of us sat down for a scrumptious feast of traditional Syrian dishes with a modern twist. We ordered a huge spread of mezzes and salads accompanied with fresh flat bread, followed by several main courses, shared family-style. Everything was well executed, but stuffed eggplant with minced meat was my hands-down my favourite. An array of Syrian sweets and fresh fruits were brought to the table after our 2.5 hour meal along with black tea. I am not exaggerating but we had three massive trays of sweets for our table of 13 people. Delicious!

Feast at Naranj:

The next day, we were off to see the impressive Roman ruins of Palmyra with our London-based friends, May and Payal. More to come.