2010
01.31

EXPLORING THE OLD CITY OF DAMASCUS

Even Mohamed is reported to not have entered Damascus for he only wanted to enter heaven once, so the story goes…  Damascus is quite something.  David, there finally is a bazaar just like you imagined it!  Medieval walls, arched alley ways, covered stalls, a sea of people mainly dressed in black and merchandise over merchandise from spices, to perfumes, to cloth, to brass, silver and gold shops, to soaps, souvenirs.  Either you want to buy some of everything or, as in my case – you realize that looking at it and taking pictures is just as well.

Damascus seems to be quite manageable.  It is home to over 2 Million people and like Beirut spreads out from the valley up into the mountains seemingly endlessly.  High rises crammed together as far as the eye can see.  But what is of interest to a traveler like me is thankfully all within a 5 km square walking distance.  And as long as you keep an internal sense of directions, you will be found again even if you turn into one of those many little alley ways.  I think I will like it here.

It is hard to photograph the market for two reasons.  It is very dark to begin with due to the covers.  Every stall is equipped with these awful bright neon lights which create unwanted hot spots in any picture (there is some Photoshop work ahead of you, Corey!) and finally, wherever you look, there are those covered women who really object to being photographed.  I walked around with my camera dangling in front of me; flash turned off, just shooting from the hip again whenever someone interesting came my way.  So bear with me on that.  But thanks to Lightroom, I will be able to crop and doctor my pictures a bit.

At the same time as I am photographing people secretly, people do this to me, too.  Some brave ones came up to me asking if I would pose with them for a photograph.  I remember this well from Pakistan – so, of course I posed and smiled and made them happy.  One stall owner kept giving me gifts (a handful of nuts, a coconut sweet, a cup of tea) for just another photograph of him and me which he would take with his cell phone.  I feel just so special.  🙂

Strolling off the main road brought me to some interesting old Khans and Caravanserais.  Most of them have not been restored and are just quaint courtyards off of which people live now.  One of them however, has been fully restored, is empty and is kept as a ticketed monument.   Those arches create endless motifs for photographs.  I have to hold back!  I also visited the famous Al Azem Palace, an example of 18th Century palace architecture.  Prototypes for what I saw in Lebanon at Beiteddine.  Those nobles knew how to live.  Water and fountains and gardens inside and out and private baths with saunas and steam rooms!

And finally, the famous 8th century Umayyad mosque of Damascus!  If I remember anything from my art and architecture class of the Middle East at the U of M, it is this mosque.  To actually be there was something else!  This mosque is the St. Peter’s of Islam.  The prototype and measure for every other mosque that followed.    It is unusual for its decoration which is still figurative!  Clearly Byzantine inspired mosaics once covered the entire square of the courtyard.  Today, only one wall remains.  I wonder if the others just disintegrated or if they were victim of iconoclasm.  The weather today was perfect, blue sky and sun, but that always means shadows on one side.  I will have to go back there when the sun stands the other way and photograph a bit more.

This mosque has a lot of unusual kiosks and elements in its court as well as additional shrines.  The most noteworthy for Muslims is a shrine dedicated to a descendant of the prophet Mohamed.  People actually get tear-eyed there and stick their head into a box which they kiss…  At least one woman wiped the box before she did this…  For Christians the most notable may be the coffin of John the Baptist!  Really?!  Well, at least they say so.  I am sorry for being cynical, but when it comes to relics like this I always wonder.  Either way, these features have always accounted for the extraordinary importance of this mosque in all of the history of Islam.

The building itself is huge and an architectural masterpiece with a three-aisle lay out, separated by Roman-inspired columns.  Mihrab and minbar are spectacular but obstructed a bit from view looking from the woman’s section because of the shrine to St. John which occupies the center of the mosque.  I could have bulldozed into the men’s section as one other female tourist did.  But as cynical as I may be, I try not to be disrespectful.  So I stayed behind.

What is fun to watch is the life that goes on in that mosque between prayer sessions.  First, we were charged entrance fee – unusual for mosques.  Then I was forced to wear a cloak – despite my perfectly modest outfit.  But once inside, things became more informal.  People picnicked, hung out, took pictures everywhere, kids rolled around on the floor, women giggled.  But others bowed in silence, read the Koran, and were quite absorbed in prayer.  A delightful mix.

I decided that that was enough for one day.  I went home around 4 PM, headed out for lunch/dinner into a little stall next to my hotel.  I found the same dish I had yesterday and with the help of a guy on the next table ordered it with lamb this time.  Yum!  And there it was again – the guy, who did not speak another word with me paid for my food and waved a “Welcome to Syria” to me when he left!  What can I say – this is a very different welcome than I experienced in Lebanon.   So much more personal, so much  more outgoing, almost embarrassing!

I grabbed my laptop, went out to a hookah place and started my blog.  No, I did not smoke the hookah, but at least I know that when they smoke the hookah, they don’t smoke cigarettes.  And the hookah smells are quite pleasant.  I promised myself to set my curfew even earlier:  10 PM.  Yesterday, I was so pooped again after only walking through town for a few hours taking care of business – it truly is the traffic that is so draining.  You cannot cross a street or walk anywhere without being  100% alert.  If it’s a one-way street you still have to look out for bikes and motorbikes going the wrong way – why should they abide by the rules?  At the souk today, I got hit by a bike!  There is supposed to be no traffic.  Gee!   At times you have to cross four- lane traffic while traffic is moving as there are no pedestrian crossings.

I have not confessed this, but in Beirut I once was caught at one side of a four lane (each direction) highway with traffic moving at 60 km.  I had to step into traffic and get over without traffic stopping!  I have never done anything like this in my life!  I could not do it and had been standing there for a good ten minutes manifesting a solution as the alternative was a mile hike out and another mile back at the end of the day…  People were crossing these lanes seemingly effortless.  They just walked into the moving traffic when the lane they were closest to had a tiny opening.  Then they were in the middle of the road, cars zipping by and they waited for the next tiny opening in the next lane and they slid through.  No car slowed down for them, nobody honked; this seemed to be the expected way to do it.  And this in the dark!!!  One guy noticed me stranded and offered to walk me back.  I must have clawed his hand in fear, but I walked out and across with him, my heart pounding!  I swore that I would never take a minibus in that direction ever again.   Because of me this guy had to do this crossing yet another time.  I am so glad, he survived.

That’s why I like my new hotel location.  A tiny corner of about 200 meters without traffic.  This will be my oasis at the end of the day.

After a night on a rock hard pillow, in a room in which I could hardly turn in,  with a shower that only had a hint of temperature to the trickle that came out of it – I am looking forward to a step up.  I have to share the shower, but this hotel is clean, spacious, and has hot water.  As of tomorrow I will have a single room with my own shower.  Day by day I am stepping up the ladder.  You learn to appreciate the little things.   🙂

Good night.