Damascus 'Eye Of The Whole East'

Damascus could be compared to a mother holding her baby. For this is a city loving like a mother, always to be missed, a city from which much can be learned, a city in whom interest will never wane.

This is the city the Arabs call ‘Dimashq’, the Europeans ‘Damascus’ and we Turks ‘Şam’.  ‘Şeref’ül-mekân, bi’l mekin’, as the old saying goes: “The honor of a place lies with its people.” The people of Damascus confirm the aptness of the expression right from the outset. They are, after all, representatives of a refined culture distilled from a civilization thousands of years old.

Situated on a gently undulating plain at the foot of Mt. Kassioun, Damascus has been continuously inhabited for nine thousand years. Capital of the Arab Republic of Syria today, Damascus has been capital in turn to the Amorites, the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Umayyads, the Seljuks, the Ayyubids and the Fatimids. After settling into a hotel at the city center, I immediately set out to find the traces of those civilizations in the city. Damascus National Museum is the best place to start. Closed Mondays, this museum further enhances my already great respect for the city when I am confronted with relics of Damascus’s millennia-old history. The city is known as ‘Dimashqu’ on one of the Ebla tablets dating to 3,000 B.C. that were unearthed in an archaeological excavation in 1975. Archeological and linguistic sources tell us that the city’s name comes from the Aramaic, ‘Dar Meşq’, meaning ‘fertile place’, or ‘place of abundant water’.

Leaving the museum, I see a mosque whose cone-capped minarets look familiar. My feet automatically lead me to it. Opposite me in all its glory stands the Süleymaniye Mosque, together with its complex one of the loveliest examples of classical period Ottoman architecture. Inside I meet an elderly man by the name of Adnan, who welcomes me in broken but charming Turkish. We stroll through the mosque’s graveyard together since I’ve come all the way from Turkey. Several members of the late period Ottoman dynasty are buried here including, most significantly of all, the last Ottoman sovereign, Sultan Vahdeddin.

This is the name of the great rail project that linked Istanbul with the cities of Damascus, Baghdad, Beirut, Haifa, Amman and Medina. Commissioned by Sultan Abdulhamid II, the Damascus railroad station dazzles with its colored glass and interior paneled with the wood of the famous Cedars of Lebanon. I’ve felt at home everywhere I go here, but even more at this particular spot. Currently used as a book sales center, the building will eventually become the central station of the Damascus metro, construction of which is slated to begin soon. Tickets for the train from Aleppo to Mersin are sold at the station.

Imagine the upper part of Istanbul’s İstiklâl Caddesi and its side streets covered with a roof and there you have it, Hamidiye Souq! The pure pleasure conjured up by the dim light seeping in through the roof and the aroma of cardamom-flavored Arab coffee, sahlep and spices of every imaginable variety reminds you that you at the heart of the East in all its radiance. Reminiscent of a film set, this bazaar harbors people from every segment of the city’s population as well as its diverse languages and colors. At the end of the main street of this vast, historic market offering every gift item you can think of, from jewelry and handbags to perfumes and copper work, the magnificent minarets of the Umayyad Mosque appear between ancient columns.

Removing your shoes in the marble-paved rectangular courtyard is de rigueur here. The mosque’s splendid gold mosaics, fashioned by Byzantine and Coptic masters, strike you at first glance. Filled to overflowing with a constant stream of visitors and worshipers, this mosque was commissioned by the Umayyad caliph Walid ibn Abd al-Malik (706-715 A.D.), though the building actually dates back to antiquity. Inside the building, which is as impressive on the interior as on the exterior, there is also a mausoleum where the head of the John the Baptist is thought to be buried. The legendary medieval sultan Saladin is also buried at the mosque entrance. The tombs of Captain Lieutenant Fethi, Lieutenant Sadık and Second Lieutenant, the first air force martyrs of the Turkish state, lie adjacent to the mausoleum. Leaving the Umayyad Mosque behind, I proceed now through the narrow streets to Old Damascus’s famous district of Al Qaimariyah.

The local shopkeepers have turned this old quarter into a bustling commercial district. A wide array of local handicrafts are sold here in shops large and small, and eats and drinks from sugar cane juice to assorted grilled meats await the hungry at the tiny snack bars and stands. The Damascenes call the water pipe a ‘bottle’, and Al Qaimariyah is famous for its ‘narghileh’ cafes. Another big drawing card for tourists is the ‘hakawati’, a story-teller in traditional garb who mounts the podium at five in the evening to recite a series of ancient tales. On your tour of Damascus, be sure to set aside ample time for Al Qaimariyah’s mysterious narrow lanes, which will draw you in like a magnet. You will never get tired of poking around here.

Al Qaimariyah’s winding streets emerge onto a square. This is Bab Toma, home to most of the city’s Christian community. Syria is a country where people of different faiths live together in friendship and brotherhood.  Bab Toma boasts a large number of churches of diverse sects large and small. With Christmas approaching, the residents nowadays are engaged in elaborate preparations.

You are going to feel right at home as you stroll around Damascus. Not only is the public transportation system excellent, taxis too are plentiful and very reasonable. There are lots of hotels, too, with alternatives to fit every budget. And modern apartment buildings where long-term visitors can rent flats are going up by the day in the city’s newer districts. Damascus is also a city that closely follows the latest fashions, and you can easily find most of the internationally known labels in the city’s modern shopping centers. Besides Middle Eastern cuisine, many restaurants also offer choice selections from European cuisine as well as quality service. And last but not least, Damascus is also rich in bookstores, theaters, exhibitions and cinemas.

Among the local ‘mezze’, be sure to try hummus, tabbouleh and felafel, and to drink raw sugar cane juice and cardamom-flavored coffee. ‘Bakla’ lovers can sample the street offerings of the ubiquitous vendors of this boiled horse-bean specialty. Don’t neglect to sample the ‘dry’ baklava and kunafah pastries, Damascus ice cream and rice pudding, and to have a look at the wooden boxes and stools inlaid with mother-of-pearl.  And the women should not leave without seeing the Damascus embroidered blouses and dresses.

Turkish Airlines has flights to and from Damascus seven days a week. No visa is required for Turkish citizens  entering Syria.