“There’s no country in the world whose image is as distorted as Syria,” Mahamid explains with a quiet seriousness. “Our country is very unlike the image the western media shows.
I don’t believe there’s a safer country than Syria and I think the majority of the Syrians are the friendliest people in the whole of the Middle East. We have no troubles, no terrorists and we always feel safe.”
Word must have got around. Last year Lonely Planet’s Bluelist labelled Syria a hotspot (in a good way), and this year Damascus hit their must-see list. When The Guardian asked Tony and Maureen Wheeler the 25 places one has to visit, the Syrian capital – the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city – was up there, too. Heed their advice and it won’t take you long to understand what all the fuss is about.
While the modern city of Damascus functions as you may expect – office blocks, overpasses and gridlock traffic – step through the old city walls, past the drink sellers with their ornate flasks and it’s like McDonalds and metros never happened. Old Damascus is a spicy mix of souks, knotted lanes and ancient brickwork, centred around the Umayyad Mosque and, five times a day, set to the soundtrack of the muezzin’s call to prayer.
Every evening, Abu Shady adds to the medieval magic, sitting on a throne in a coffee shop and opening a huge tome to continue a centuries-old storytelling tradition. He does a pretty good job if the diorama at Azem Palace is anything to go by. In a room at the former Ottoman governor’s palace, a costumed mannequin sits on a throne, telling a shisha-smoking crowd tales of damsels in distress and lovesick princes (my guide guesses).
While the museum goes to great lengths to recreate Damascus of old – several other reconstructions depict life as it was, from school days to wedding ceremonies – history is much better retold through the building itself. The mid-18th century home of As’ad Pasha al-Azem is a complex of rooms around courtyards of fountains, jasmine and citrus trees. Some interiors are clad in walnut wood and filled with mother-of-pearl furniture, while others are tattooed with verses of poetry or passages from the Koran. The exterior walls are lined with black and white stone – the Damascene stripes for which the city is famous.
Storytelling is not the only echo of the palace outside its walls. Here the hammam, which the family and guests would have used, is a series of small rooms that take the bather from cold, through tepid to hot. Today the tradition continues in the old city and though women have less choice than the men (visiting a hammam is much more popular for men these days) you can still find a couple. We visited Hamman al-Qaimariyya where 250 lira (£2.50) got us a scrub and a massage.
At least, I think it did. With the language barrier and no clue of local protocol, my friend and I were stripped, soaped, scrubbed and sent on our way before we really knew what was happening. It was definitely cleansing.
After our extreme ablutions it felt natural to head to the nearby Umayyad Mosque – one of the largest, oldest and holiest mosques in the world. Ladies in anything that gives them a feminine silhouette need to rent a hooded cloak, and though this is hot in the summer months, it’s more than worth the resulting glow.
The walls of the inner courtyard used to be entirely covered in mosaic and judging from the small section of glittering gold remaining, it must have been stunning. After glimpsing the shrine of John the Baptist in the prayer hall and the Dome of Treasury in the courtyard, it’s time to make like other visitors and grab a few Zs in the colonnaded arcade.
With our energy restored we hit the souks. The Western Temple Gate leads from the mosque to the Souk al-Hamanidiyya, a covered market where holes in the roof (made by bullets from French planes in the 1930s) let shafts of light illuminate the wares. Although the bridal wear and tacky lingerie don’t take our fancy, a stop at the Bakdash ice cream parlour makes us understand why the queues stretch out the door.
Damascus is certainly a city for the sweet-toothed. “All Arabs like sweets, but Syrians are especially good at making sweets and the best place to buy them is in Damascus,” says Mahamid, scooping a handful of sugared almonds from a nearby pile to prove his point.
South of the mosque, at Souk al-Bzouriyya, stall after stall overflows with confectionary, from colourful Smarties to candied apricots. Further along, the piles become neat pyramids of herbs, spices and teas and as we move onto Straight Street the smell of roasting pumpkin seeds fills the air. Along the busiest, noisiest street in the old city, nuts, seeds, olives and coffee beans spill from bulging sacks.
“Tourists from Jordan and the Lebanon come to Damascus just to shop,” says Mahamid proudly. I can see why and my guess is many other nationalities will soon join them. Hopefully, they’ll make time for a little more than haggling – if only for a story from Abu Shady.
» Amy Adams travelled to Damascus on a tour of Jordan and Syria with On the Go Tours (020-7371 1113; www.onthegotours.com). The 11-day Arabian Highway trip starts at £649.
Theatre of dreams – The ancient city of Bosra
An easy day trip from Damascus and a convenient stop on the way to or from neighbouring Jordan, there’s no excuse to overlook Bosra while in Syria. First a Nabatean city (bigger than Petra) and then an important trading post for the Roman empire, Bosra became neglected when, during Ottoman times, pilgrims found an alternative route to Mecca. Today both influences remain, but the lasting legacy is undoubtedly one of the best-preserved Roman theatres in the world.
In the 12th century, as a defence against the marauding Crusaders, a citadel was built around the theatre and today you can play hide and seek among the fortifications, wandering dark tunnels to emerge into the vast bowl as a member of the audience (once 15,000-strong) or a player on stage.
Outside the fortress you’ll find kids selling postcards and offering tours to the ruins of the old Roman city. You could navigate the crumbling buildings yourself, but after asking Mustafa the way to the hammam it seemed I was a guinea pig for the 10-year-old’s burgeoning guiding career. Gravely pointing out the Nabatean gate, cathedral and Roman market to the delight of his elders, Mustafa then politely hands me a cloak as we enter the still-used Mosque of Omar. No doubt he’s got a bright future ahead of him.
The ruins themselves would be impressive anywhere, but set as they are in the middle of the Syrian desert, they’re incredible. These days Palmyra might be a shadow of what it once was – a wealthy city on the old silk road and one-time home to the Queen of Zenobia – but enough of a skeleton remains for you to imagine its former glory. Avoid the crowds by visiting early to watch the sun rise behind the temples, tombs and grand colonnaded streets.
Krak des Chevaliers
Lawrence of Arabia called it “the finest castle in the world” and you couldn’t ask more from a stronghold than Krak des Chevaliers. Sturdy yet elegant, imposing yet dreamlike, it’s a wonder the Crusaders (the term for medieval Christians fighting to win the Holy Land from the Muslims) lost it to the Mamluk Sultan Beybar in 1271. Visit from nearby towns Tartus or Hama.
In Ottoman times the size of the souk depended on the importance of the city and the fact that Aleppo’s was and still is bigger than that of Damascus says a lot about the status of Syria’s second city. Like the capital, Aleppo is divided into new and old with the latter deserving the lion’s share of your attention. You could spend hours exploring the souk – still the main shopping area for locals – but make sure you leave some time for the Grand Mosque and its leaning tower of Pisa-style minaret.