Published: December 24th 2007August 10th 2007
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
The city of Damascus wakes up every day and opens its arms to touch you softly like the fabric of damask and bloom in front of you in its entire splendor like a damask rose. Walking through its streets you will soon find yourself intoxicated by the magic of this ancient city and the magic of the Middle East.
T.E. Lawrence once wrote about Damascus: "The silent gardens blurred green with river mist, in whose setting shimmered the city, beautiful as ever, like a pearl in the morning sun. No wonder that they call it - The Pearl of the East..."
Historically, Syria included Jordan, Israel and Lebanon as well as the area now known as Syria. Syria played an incomparable role in the history of mankind. It is often described as the Cradle of Civilizations, since many of the greatest human achievements that later spread to encompass the world had their beginnings in Ancient Syria. Therefore, Syria has been on my travel-list for several years. - Beirut to Damascus -
Lebanon was nice but after a while it was time to move on to Syria, so Grace and I left Beirut in the early afternoon by
bus. As Grace had a free transit visa for Lebanon which was only valid for three days, which she overstayed for 3 more days, we weren't sure what would happen at the border when leaving the country. We expected some grim looks from the immigration officers and a fine to pay, but still you can never be sure what will happen. I had the feeling that she was a bit nervous when we were standing in the queue, even though she denied it. But everything turned out to be as expected. Grace had to go to another office to pay her fine and then to return to the immigration office to get her exit stamp.
The whole procedure took a while and our bus left without us, the bus assistant just threw our backpacks on the street and left. We had only paid for the ride to the border anyway. Grace was a bit stressed out by that and whenever she is stressed out (or in bad mood, hungry or sleepy - and the latter two will cause "super bad" mood) the tone in her voice changes, so I decided to stay relaxed and just to guard our bags
and to wait until she gets her passport stamped. After approx. 45min, 2 Lebanese sandwiches, 1 can of Sprite Light, 3 cigarettes and a bunch of Arabians staring at me the whole time, Grace (switched back to "normal" mode) returned with an exit stamp in her passport and we could finally cross the border and leave Lebanese soil.
As our bus had left, we would had to walk like 2-3km through noman's land between the Lebanese and the Syrian border, but we decided to hitch hike and it took us just a few minutes to find someone kind to give us a short ride to "the other side".
To enter Syria, most nationalities need to have a visa. The Syrian visa is a myth, as different people will tell you different things about how to get a Syrian visa or that it's impossible to get a visa while you are on road. Officially the only way to get a visa for Syria is to apply for it in advance at the Syrian embassy in the country you are residing - for Grace it would be Washington DC. If there is no Syrian embassy in your country you may
Men having a chat
apply for it at any other country with a Syrian embassy or you can get it at the border. Therefore, if there is a Syrian embassy in your country of residing, no other embassy (with 1-2 exceptions) will issue you a visa and tell you to apply at your homecountry, which is a kind of impossible when you're already on road. But then, inofficially you can get the visa at ther border, though it requires some time - depending on nationality - as they need to send a fax of your passport to Damascus and to wait for the confirmation and permission to issue you the visa at the border right away. In case you are in any way suspicious, have the wrong eye colour, an ugly haircut or if they are just in bad mood, it could happen that they will deny your request and you're not allowed to enter the country.
I already got my multiple-entries visa back in Germany, as we have a Syrian embassy in Berlin with 2-3weeks proceeding time and a consulate in my hometown Hamburg, which issues the visa within 6-7hours (!), but Grace had to apply for a visa at the border
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
and to wait for the confirmation. Fortunately Grace's haircut was ovbiously not too bad in the eyes of the immigration officers and as she switched on her "nice girl" mode, it just took about 5hours until she finally got her visa. We were prepared for the waiting time and bought some softdrinks, chocolate biscuits and candies at the duty free shop and just waited until the immigration officer gave us a sign that the confirmation had arrived.
After setting our feet on Syrian soil, we had to find a ride from the border to Damascus. We were lucky and ended up having a ride on an empty, big bus with 48seats for just the 2 of us. The driver was driving the empty vehicle back to Damascus anyway and just told us to jump on and to pay him whatever we think would be right. We gave him approx. 2-3USD each (a bit less than what we would had paid for a normal bus ticket). The busride took us about 1,5hrs and we finally got to Damascus around 10PM and were happy that we made it. - Damascus - The Pearl of the East
For me there
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
is something magical about the mere word "Damascus". It has been referred to several names as the 'Emerald Oasis' and 'The Pearl of the East' for centuries. Lying close to the Mediterranean Sea, Damascus - means "the Northern" in Arabic, has always been an important commercial center and one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world with a recorded populace as far back as 5000 BC.
When I was a kid I used to love tales and movies about crusaders and they were always talking about ancient cities like Jerusalem, Alexandria, Theben and Damascus. Damascus was always the city of the Arabs, and if you ever visited Jerusalem you will know that there is a Gate called "Damascus Gate", the one that faces Damascus. Damascus dates back anterior to the days of Abraham. It was founded by Uz, the grandson of Noah. So if you go back the timeline for a few thousand years there was always a Damascus.
So to cities like Jerusalem and Damascus, years are probably only moments, decades are only flitting trifles of time. They measure time, not by days and months and years, but by the empires they have seen rise,
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
and prosper and crumble to ruins. So in my childhood they were a kind of immortal, they saw the foundations of Baalbek, and Thebes, and Ephesus laid, they saw all these villages grow into mighty cities, and amaze the world with their grandeur-and they lived to see them desolate, deserted, and given over to the owls and the bats. They witnessed the ancient Greece rise, and flourish for two thousand years, and die. In their early age they witnessed the build of Rome before it overshadowed the world with its power, a thousand years later they saw it perish. Damascus has seen all that and is still there. Though Rome claims the name, old Damascus is in a way the real "Eternal City".
Damascus is now Syria's capital and largest city with over two million people and it felt different than Beirut with its bustling crowded streets, oriental scents, a very own atmosphere and a lot of ancient history.
As Grace had to do some more editing work online, I ventured out into old Damascus myself, first to the vaulted roofed Souq Al Hamidiyeh, also known as 'bazaar street', which runs against the southern walls of the city's
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
citadel, and halts in front of a Roman archway that flanks the nearby Umayyad mosque. Tourists and locals flock to the Al Hamidiyeh souq for souvenirs, shoes, perfumes, candles, gallabiyas (women's clothing), nargilehs (hubble-bubble pipes), jewellery, game boards, mosaics, antiques, textiles, kitchenware, gold lame toreador pants, and other modern and traditional products, what makes Souk Al Hamidiyeh the most popular souq in old Damascus.
After that I visited the grand Umayyad Mosque within the old city. Pope John Paul II came here some years ago and it was the first time a pope has ever visited a Muslim mosque. And in fact I haven't been in a mosque for ages myself. The last time I stepped into a mosque was a few years back when I travelled to Israel and visited the holy Dome of the Rock Mosque there. I remember that there was a red line on the floor and we were told that we are only allowed to walk into the mosque and to follow the red line. In addition we should walk fast, so that I felt like a cow chased around by some Arabian cowboys, while Muslims were allowed to sit around, have a nap
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
or a picnic inside of the mosque. I am not religious, but for me a religious place like a church, temple or mosque should be free accesible for everyone, and everyone should be free to just spend the time he wants inside to pray, to have a rest or just to think about life. If you can't live with that, for what reason ever, then don't take money from visitors and just don't let them in at all. Anyway, a house of god should be open and welcoming to all.
On later trips I never entered a mosque, because I always had the feeling that I am not welcomed, but for some reason I thought that it's time to see a mosque from inside again and the Umayyad Mosque was nice, there was no red line and nobody who told me what to do and what not. People were friendly and I could just sit at one of the big columns, watch the people and have a nap. I had some chats with several people, some wanted to have a picture with me and were friendly. Then, something strange happened, when I was sitting at one of the columns,
a mid aged man sat down next to me and put his hand on my knee, but when he started to move his hand upwards I told him to stop it and he went away as fast as he came like a fata morgana - I am still not sure what he actually wanted? To hit on me in a mosque? Anyway, whatever his intentions were, I don't appreciate other men's hand between my legs at all, no matter if I am in a mosque, a church, a synagoge or a pub in London.
I moved on and strolled through the narrow alleys of the old city and met a friendly men sitting in front of two cars with a bunch of carpets to sell. He asked me if I am interested in buying one or if I am interested in seeing his shop, and when I told him that I am travelling and can't carry a carpet with me all the way, he said: "Young man, let me tell you something: A carpet is a way better than any woman. You can just roll the carpet together put it on your shoulder and go whenever and wherever the
Khan As'ad Pasha al-Azam
winds blows you. Then when you feel like looking at its beauty, just roll it out - and when you're someday tired of looking at the same carpet every day, just sell it, come back to Damascus and buy a new one!" - I smiled, though he had a point I still think that for some reason, I prefer women over carpets. But then, who knows, maybe one day when I am rich, I'll feel like having both! Or who knows, maybe one day in like 50years from now when I am old, a day will come when I appreciate beautiful carpets more than pretty women. But until then, I guess, I will be fine and definitely survive the fact that I am not a proud owner of a stunning Arabian carpet yet! :-)
On my stroll through the old city I stopped by several other sites, like some beautiful, hidden old churches and the Khan Asad Pasha. "Pashas" were being used as a storage space in the heart of a busy commercial area by a large number of shopowners. The two storey structure, which is considered to be unique, is square in plan, with a large, central court
Ray of Light
Al-Hamidiyyeh Souq, Damascus
surmounted by nine domes. It contains a total of 80 rooms distributed on two levels around the courtyard. A monumental portal allows access to and from the souq. It shows how rich this city was, having storehouses looking like palaces with breathtaking ceilings. Nowadays some are used as museums and exhibtion rooms for modern art.
In addition I felt like visiting a Turkish Bath "Hamam", as it has been a couple of years since I have been to a Hamam. A Turkish bath is much more than just a place to cleanse the skin. It is intimately bound up with everyday life, a place where you will meet people of every rank and station, young and old, rich an poor, townsman or villager. For me "Hamam" is a place to have a rest for my body, mind and soul... a world for itself where you can lock out daily life and wash away the dust of the modern day while laying there on a marble stone and just glancing up and following the ray of sun finding its way through the small holes in the ceiling. But as I couldn't find the Hamam I was looking for and had
Courtard, Umayyad Mosque
no more Syrian money in my pocket left anyway, I decided to head back and have dinner with Grace in her favourite restaurant in the old city.
In the early evening hours, the streets of Damascus fills with crowds of pedestrians, overflowing the sidewalks, and automobiles cram together and toot their horns in hopes to surpass the traffic jams. The Syrians react to the hustle and bustle with patience. As the day winds down, the pink orangey hue of the evening sky creates an amber reflection against the ochre walls of city buildings. Families stroll the streets after dinner, or relax on chairs or street benches, enjoying each other's company in the warm evening air or sit singly, reviewing the days events.
Damascus is a popular stop for travellers on the way from Istanbul to Cairo or the other way around. So we ended up staying on the rooftop of the hostel of our choice, as all rooms were full. I guess there were about 30 people staying on the rooftop, side by side on matresses and it a kind of looked like a refugee camp. It's interesting that "rooftops" are, for unknown reason, only a sleeping option
when travelling in the Middle East and in Northern Africa. Because nowhere else I ever stayed on rooftops. I think it's probably because it doesn't rain much in these regions, so it's fine to stay on a roof without to fear that you will drown or washed away by rain while sleeping and dreaming of beautiful Arabian carpets.
Interestingly, we bummed into a Swedish guy called Emilio in our "refugee camp", who for some reason recognized us from somewhere only that he couldn't point out from where! It turned out that he saw me and Grace 2 months ago in an small hostel in Nairobi, Kenya! The funny things is that we only stayed there for like 3hours while waiting for our bus, but then I could remember him as well. I could remember that there was a guy who was cooking pasta while Grace and I were chatting with a Canadian couple in the small lounge of the hostel and watching some cheesy Brazilian soap operas. And even though he was sitting and eating next to me on the couch, I didn't talk to him back then in Nairobi. But anyway, I could remember that pasta eating, skinny
Want some tea?
guy. He told us that he travelled all the way from Kenya to Syria overland, through Ethiopia, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Israel... so that he now bumped into us in Syria by accident - How small the world can be, or how big a rooftop. But then... who knows maybe it didn't just look like a refugee camp, but was one in real... and they just fooled us?
So far I liked Damascus and Syria very much, people were friendly and things were cheap and considering that Syria is a part of the so called "Axis of Evil", I was surprised that this country didn't feel evil in any way at all, but then I just remembered that they haven't found any "mass destruction weapons" in Iraq yet neither, so could it be that it was just another silly mistake? But well, considering that I am not political, I think I better leave that question unanswered... and for wiser and smarter people than me to give you a smarter and wiser answer! To be continued… next: Syria - The Queen of the Desert...
Until then... I wish ya all a merry merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
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