On the Road to Damascus

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January 12th 2008
Published: January 12th 2008
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Damascus is one of those cities that conjure up images of far flung exotic locales - its name itself seems to evoke something magical, like Timbuktu or Mandalay. Today, Damascus is a thriving, buzzing metropolis centred around the magnificent Old City. As mentioned earlier, it shares the title for the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (with Aleppo) and everywhere you turned some key site in history presents itself to you. Much of the last week has been spent just wandering aimlessly through the Old City and its Muslim, Christian and Jewish Quarters - checking out the myriad of souqs and zebra-striped khans, or ambling down little cobbled laneways draped in vines. We wandered awestruck through the massive Umayyid Mosque, saw women crying as they kissed the shrine where the head of John the Baptist (or the Propeht Yahya as he is known to Muslims) is reportedly housed and peered in at the tomb of Salah ah-din, the bane of the Crusaders and eternal hero to the locals.

I also found an afternoon to sit and reflect in one of the world's oldest working hammans. There’s something to be said for being pummeled by a hideously fat bloke, then having your skin rubbed raw with what felt like sandpaper by a second and finally being thoroughly scrubbed clean by a third. Top it off with a sauna, steambath and finally being swaddled in layers of towels as you sip a chai and read the papers and discuss the latest football transfers with the locals. For some reason, everyone here seems to think that I’m Spanish so I usually end up discussing the ins and outs of Barcelona and the tribulations of the Primera Liga, but c’est la vie I suppose…

The people of Syria have surpassed all expectations as well, so wonderfully friendly and hospitable. Much like the Iranians, they are keen just to sit and chat, to discuss life, politics and religion. Whether it was the lovely newspaper sellers in Hama who whisked us out of the cold, thrust cups of tea in our hands and proceeded to enlighten us regarding the scientific insights of the Qu’ran. Or the rubbish collector at the bus station in Damascus who ushered us out of the rain and into his little shack to warm ourselves by the stove (and again share cups of tea). Or the bunch of blokes who I sat around with one evening, discussing society, politics and religion (yes, with yet more copious cups of chay) while on the TV a replay, of all the strangest things, of the Australia vs Argentina game from the MCG six months ago flickered away, much to my hosts' great amusement. Everywhere we went we were welcomed and touched by this generosity of spirit. And it certainly isn’t limited to short-term visitors - Syria has, until a trickle have started to return, been home to roughly 1.5 million Iraqi refugees and hundreds and thousands of Palestinians, which obviously must be a strain on the local population in the face of overcrowded schools and hospitals and even more so when you consider the immense effects of the current international isolation. But it’s interesting, when you consider the so-called Axis of Evil, some of the nicest people we’ve ever met have been in both Iran and Syria…

And as the Ayatollah Khomeini is in Iran so President Bashar al-Assad is in Syria. Everywhere you go his moustachioed face is looking on - posters, pictures, murals, stencil art. Cars are adorned with large portraits that cover the entire back window and sport these black and silver decals of a quite funky looking Assad sporting a pair of Ray-Bans. We’ve even found cigarette lighters which, when you press a button on the side, project a wonderfully detailed image of him onto the wall. Somehow I can’t really see it catching on with Rudd though…

Anyway, after the best part of a week in Damascus, and with our days rapidly slipping away, we packed up again and headed south to Bosra, and then on to Jordan. Bosra is another ancient Roman town down near the border, and its main claim to fame is that it is home to one of the Middle East’s best-preserved theatres - a huge structure that seated up to 15 000 people and was made from a greyish volcanic basalt which gave the entire scene a dark and slightly forbidding mood. We wandered through the crumbling ruins of baths, markets and colonnades, weaving between ancient houses, inhabited by modern day Bosrans and sporting satellite dishes on their roofs. We spent a few hours there, in the drizzling rain, before bidding Syria a fond ma’a salaama and crossing the border into Jordan…which is a whole other story in itself…


7th May 2008

Wonderful reporting
Simon, We're heading for the Middle East soon and have really appreciated your journals. They're enjoyable and informative and very literate. Thank you and safe and happy travelling. Thea

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