Like other Arabs, Syrians are intensely proud of their heritage and their important contributions. Yesterday in Damascus, we learned that the first alphabet was developed not in Lebanon but in Syria, and civilization has its real origins not in Mesopotamia and Iraq but rather in, you guessed it, Syria. One of the first things our guide told us was, "All civilized people have two homes: their birthplace and Syria."
Nicole and I took our first trip outside of Lebanon to the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, Damascus. But of course like the claims about where the alphabet and civilization originate, that statement is widely disputed. Same goes for whether John the Baptist's body really resides in the Old City of Damascus. But no matter how hotly those statements are disputed, folks in Syria love to talk about their place in history.
Driving from Beirut to Damascus is like driving from Detroit to Toledo if armed checkpoints dotted I-75 from Monroe to Tony Packo's. We had our passports and Syrian visas, but we also had to fill out Lebanese exit forms and Syrian entry forms. Border guards make notes on your entry and exit forms of all previous travel documented in one's passport. The road to Damascus was bright and I couldn't help but wonder if St. Paul was blinded not by God, but rather by the sun.
We started our tour at the National Museum, a great source of pride for the Syrian people, as I noted above. The Museum holds treasures from all over the region and from the ancient (Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, etc.), Christian, Islamic, and modern eras. The Ministry of Culture in Syria maintains good relationships with historic preservation communities in the region even during political tumult. We saw what the Syrians claim is the oldest cuneiform, written on a finger-sized rock and magnified for museum visitors. We liked the garden outside the museum the best, maybe because the weather was breezy and because Damascus has more green space than Beirut. The gardens are full of mainly Roman artifacts and we took many pictures.
Our guide took us to the old train station, dating back to 1917, and built toward the end of the Ottoman reign mainly to take Syrian pilgrims to Mecca. Though many of the routes have been destroyed, you can still travel cheaply by train from Damascus to cities like Tehran. The station was beautiful. Like many of the historic sites in the region, it sits in the midst of daily life without much fanfare. As I've said, the fanfare comes not from plaques but rather when you hear people talk. We met a French woman (I think part Arabic and part French) whose grandfather was the architect who designed the station. Again, the pride and the sense of history.
Down the street from the station is a government building where virtually all bureaucracy happens. While passing the building, I was surprised to learn that Syria has civil marriages, unlike some countries in the region. As you approach the Old City walls, one of the first things you encounter is the statue of Saladin, the Arab military leader who fought the Crusaders. With pride, our guide told stories of Saladin's mercy. Reportedly, he provided emergency medical care to enemy soldiers and befriended enemy leaders like Richard the Lion-Hearted during the Crusades.
I wish we had been provided even more time to wander in the souqs (the outdoor markets) that literally fill the Old City. I would have been happy to have spent the entire day getting lost in the rows of spices, nuts, sweets, fabrics, jewelry, and housewares. Our guide may have had a little kick-back deal going with vendor-friends of his, because he seemed to point us toward the most expensive shops and talk up the quality therein. I should say that sweets in Damascus are not quite the same as Lebanese baklawa--more whole nuts and honey, less rosewater and other "extra" flavors. We had some simple ones that reminded me of the chickpeas with honey my family eats on Christmas Eve. Very, very nice.
The Umayyad Mosque is one of those places, apologies for the cliche, that words can't describe. The site has hosted worshipers for many, many centuries, and the entrance is a former Temple of Jupiter, with the arches and columns still standing. As you enter into the Jupiter courtyard, you find the "Putting on Special Clothes Room." I wore long pants and long sleeves, both mandatory for men. Nicole wore the same, along with a hijab, and thought she was prepared, but she was given a long skirt to cover her slacks. Many visitors, especially women, are given long, hooded robes that cover arms, legs, and head. And of course, everyone must remove shoes.
The Mosque is like a little village, with numerous nooks and crannies. Inside the walls of the mosque are schools, meeting rooms, special shrines to Islamic figures including Ali, Hussein (including an indentation in the stone where the Umayyads kept his head), and John the Baptist, whose tomb and head are both present (there's one of those disputed claims). The prayer rooms have beautiful, pristene maroon carpet with blossoms and pillars that point toward Mecca, as well as a huge digital clock that lists the day's prayer times. The main courtyard of the Mosque is the place to gaze at the minarets, including the Minaret of Jesus, which locals believe is the site where Jesus will return on Judgment Day. The ground is covered with white limestone and most people in the courtyard have already removed shoes before they get near the prayer rooms. A domed structure houses the money collected for alms for the poor, one of Islam's pillars. And the walls of the yard are covered with calligraphy, gold with mosaics of paradise. The paradise images, including trees and green forests on top of the gold backdrop, represent Mohamed's words upon seeing Damascus, something like "I thought I'd only enter paradise once, after my death."
We did some further sight-seeing in the Old City, including Azem Palace, where the Pashas once lived, and did more wandering, usually my favorite thing. We saw the Christian Quarter, including Straight Street, where St. Paul had his revelation, and his wall, where early (the first, according to Syrians!) Christians lowered him from a window so he could flee the city after his conversion. Our guide recommended a restaurant which turned out to serve Italian food. Um, Italian food in Syria? Really? Luckily, they also had shish tawook, which was some of the most tender chicken I've ever eaten. And the Arabic art inside the restaurant has inspired Nicole to re-do our bathroom in a similar style once we get back home.
To see pictures of our visit, follow the "Photos" link on the rightside of the blog, or just click here to go directly to the Syria album. Nicole will post her thoughts, too, and no doubt talk about some not-so-nice European tourists we met.