Damascus, the “Pearl of the East”

Damascus, the “Pearl of the East”

Damascus (in Arabic, formally Dimashq), the capital of Syria, is said to be the the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It was inhabited as early as 8,000 to 10,000 B.C. The city with about 4.5 million people has been called the “city of many pillars”, the “gate of Mecca”, and the “city of jasmine”. Mark Twain, the American celebrated author and humorist (whose real name is Samuel Longhorne Clemens), referring to Damascus, wrote “Though old as history itself, thou art fresh as the breath of spring, blooming as thine own orange flower, O Damascus, the Pearl of the East”. In 2008, Damascus was chosen as 2008 Arab “Capital of Culture”.

Before the recent tragic conflict in Syria, i.e., the civil war which has been raging for eight years, eight months and a week, we visited historic Damascus and other parts of the country notably Aleppo, ancient Aramaic city of Maalula, the archaeological site of Bosra, and the magnificent ruins of Palmyra, on warm October pilgrimage together with the Middle Eastern countries of Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel.

Once the centre of Islam, Damascus, named a a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its outstanding universal value, has endured the test of time. A journey to Old Damascus is a journey to both the past and the present.

What is there to see in Damascus that will let you travel timelessly?

Foremost by itself is the Old City of Damascus surrounded by a Roman wall, rebuilt many times, with seven extant gates to protect the ancient city which is divided into the market area, Muslim area, Christian area and the Jewish area.

Although the capital of a Muslim country, Christianity, first introduced when St. Paul the Apostle entered the city, has a large presence in Damascus with its churches, including the Church of St. Ananias said to be the remains of the house of Ananias where blind Saul (who became Paul the Apostle) was baptised by Ananias. Ananias was a disciple of Jesus at Damascus as mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible.

Still frequented by Christians today, the chapel is recognised to be the oldest church in Syria and one of the oldest in the world.

History, past and present, lives at the famous street in the old city, called “Straight Street”, the Roman street that runs from east to west. “Straight Street” was visited by St. Paul as recorded in the book of Acts. Straight Street contains many interesting sights that have endured the test of time.

Also located in the ancient city of Damascus is the Azzam Palace which dates back to the days of the Ottoman Empire having been built in 1749 used to be the private residence of the governor of Damascus and now houses the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions.

A place that everyone must see, also at the old city, is the Souq al Hamidiyya, the largest and the central souq in Syria, that will certainly arouse all your senses. You haven`t visited Syria altogether if you miss the souq (market). The experience here is pure middle eastern! Built in 1780 under the rule of Sultan Abdul Hamid, the souq which is about 600 meters long and 15 meters wide and covered by an ornate iron cover, is the most popular shopping district lined with hundreds of tiny shops selling traditional crafts and jewellery, cafes, grocery stores, and food stalls. The souq also plays host to the `bouzuria`(spice market) giving Al Hamidiyya its unique aroma particularly the smell of cumin and other distinctive spices.

After the shopping experience or a wonderfal walk, you can relax and sample the delights of the Bakdash Ice Cream Parlour which serves locally-made pistachio covered-pounded ice cream, stretchy and chewy, known throughout the Arab world. Or eat at the Abu Al Aiz Restaurant which serves local dishes such as kabbab, kibbe (minced meat with spices), or middle eastern salad like the taboule (parsley with bulgur wheat, tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions dressed with lemon vinaigrette & olive oil and the fattoush (cucumber, arugula, radish, tomatoes, green onions, parsley and mint).

Just at the end of the covered souq you`ll pass under the famous remains of the Temple of Jupiter and its arch and then find yourself in the shadow of the beautiful Umayyad Mosque. also known as the Great Mosque built by Umayyad Calip Al-Walid in 705 AD. The Islamic most famous mosque has four doors, three splendid minarets,and has four spacious halls. In the courtyard adjourned with golden mosaics are three domes – money dome, clocks dome and a dome over the fountain in the middle of the courtyard. Pope John Paul II came here in 2001 to visit the relics of St. John the Baptist, the first time a pope paid a visit to a mosque. The Muslims believe that Umayyad Mosque is to be the place where Jesus will return at the End of Days.

After soaking up the sublime at Umayyad Mosque we stopped at at the mausoleum located in a small garden just outside the mosque containing the tomb of Salah-al-din, known in the West as Saladin, the first Sultan of Syria and the chief anti-crusader.

Last but not the least is our visit to the National Museum of Syria in the heart of Damascus, shut down and emptied during the country`s civil war and now has re-opened. With its over 3000,000 artefacts, the museum is organised into five wings – prehistoric age, ancient Syria, classical age, Islamic Age, and the Image Gallery.