Road to Damascus

Shoppers in the Souq al-Hamidiyeh, ‘‘one of the grandest of all souqs in the Arab world’’.
Shoppers in the Souq al-Hamidiyeh, ‘‘one of the grandest of all souqs in the Arab world’’. Photo: AP

Sean Mooney is converted in the crowded souqs and gilded mosques of the world's oldest city.

A tyre-squealing, seat-gripping ride in the back of a crumpled Iranian taxi has brought me to the original paradise. From a rocky outcrop on the top of Jebel Qassioun - a mountain so integral to history, it appears in the Book Of Genesis - I gaze down on one of the world's oldest settlements. On the plain below, partially obscured by a film of smog that, with the setting sun, lends it an apocalyptic hue, sprawls the ancient city of Damascus. Some believe the Syrian capital was the original Garden of Eden and Cain slew Abel on these slopes. Moses, Lot and even Christ himself are said to have traversed Qassioun. One legend has it that when the prophet Muhammad neared this barren peak and looked upon the vast orchards of Damascus, he quickly turned back towards Mecca, not wanting to experience a utopia other than heaven.

These days, it seems, even paradise has peak hour and a pollution problem. The city of fragrant flowers and succulent fruits described in The Thousand And One Nights is no more. In its place is a growing Middle Eastern metropolis spreading into the desert. But to lament the demise of the Damascus of the past is to misunderstand its history.

Human settlement here dates back at least 7000 years, with empire after empire taking, ruling, then losing the city. Seized by the Egyptians, conquered by the Assyrians and claimed by Alexander the Great,Damascus has been attacked by the Mongols and Crusaders and occupied by the Romans, Persians and Arabs. The Ottoman Turks ruled the city from the 16th to early 20th centuries, then the French oversaw a few troubled decades until Syria gained its independence in 1946. It has been razed, emptied of its people, burnt and plundered so many times it has developed multiple personalities, all of which are evident in the glorious chaos of the modern-day city.

I turn back to the road behind me, which is littered with decrepit VW Kombis now employed as roadside cafes. As the sun sinks below the horizon, strings of fairy lights illuminate a curious mix of social encounters. Men recline on ragged old couches smoking nargileh (water pipes) and listening to Arabic love songs played at full volume on laptop computers. Families stroll past restaurants built atop rusting oil drums. Young couples chat awkwardly under the watchful eyes of chaperones. Unveiled prostitutes slide out of the shadows with fixed smiles and wary eyes.

The surreal morphs into the spiritual as the day's fourth call to prayer, the maghrib, floats up from the suburbs below, starting with an imploring cry from a muezzin at the base of the mountain, then joined a split second later by hundreds more emanating from minarets across the city. The resulting resonance is enthralling and I swear I feel the mountain shake. Damascus is a city in which one can feel simultaneously world-weary and spiritually uplifted.

The capital's enigmatic nature reflects the Syrian Arab Republic's uneasy relationship with the world. A nation of about 20 million people with volatile neighbours - Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey - Syria is caught between east and west, Christianity and Islam, war and peace. It has always been so; its location on ancient trade and conquest routes linking Asia and the Mediterranean means conflict has never been far away.

The description of Syria by the former American ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, as a rogue state that sponsored terrorism and coveted weapons of mass destruction didn't do much for the country's tourism industry in 2002. Acts of violence, however, are relatively rare within its borders.

Many men have tried to rule this land, with varying results. The latest is President Bashar al- Assad, who has led Syria - some say reluctantly - since the death of his father in 2000. His image, often alongside that of his father and sometimes his children, watches over his people from billboards, shopfronts and car windows across the country. Assad once studied ophthalmology in London, so many felt that his experiences in the West would encourage him to bring political and social reform to Syria. This belief proved largely unfounded, although some economic progress has been made.

Reem Maghribi, the editor of the Damascus daily newspaper, Baladna, says the country has opened up to foreign influence and investment in the past decade but this is a double-edged sword. "I am concerned by the consumerism-pop influence on the country's wealthy teens," she tells me. "But this is a natural part of the process of integration and development."

If President Assad is the face of Damascus, the Old City is its ancient heart, fed by the increasingly clogged main artery of the Barada River. This once-great waterway flows from the mountains of Lebanon and, eventually, into the centre of Damascus.

One morning, I follow the Barada's course south-east and am surprised to see it flowing freely from recent rain (not long ago, it had almost run dry) alongside a highway crammed with minivans, taxis and Russian-style army vehicles.

The city has something of a Soviet feel, a legacy no doubt of years of Russian assistance with military hardware. It puts me in mind of Moscow in the early '90s, without its lawless feel. Damascus is, truth be told, a safe and welcoming city, a reflection of the way the hospitable nature of the Syrian people defies its troubled international standing.

The river eventually leads me to the Old City before flowing past the 12th-century citadel to the marshes beyond. I weave through a snaking line of yellow taxis to the entrance of Souq al- Hamidiyeh, a covered market that is as much sensual experience as shopping destination.

This is one of the grandest of all the souqs in the Arab world and it draws me back again and again during my stay. Al-Hamidiyeh is a true working market, as are most of the souqs of Damascus, used by locals as a source of everything from meat and spices to cleaning products and children's toys. Stalls stocked with toiletries and cheap kitchenware fill laneways only metres from brilliantly lit shops selling silk brocades, inlaid chess sets and olive-wood carvings.

Faces with Aramean, Hittite, Mongol, Turkish, Bedouin and Arab origins, among many others, surround me in the world's original melting pot of cultures. The smell of cardamom-laced coffee mingles with spices and perfumes, the mix overpowered by wafts of grilling lamb from shawarma stands.

It is entrancing, if slightly overwhelming, but I'm in no mood for distraction; I'm here for the ice-cream. I join the queue that stretches out the door of the century-old Backdash ice-creamery. It is packed with families, tourists, workers and even pilgrims on their way to the city's great jewel, the Umayyad Mosque, the western wall of which I can see through the Roman-era stone archway at the end of the souq. I watch milk, gum mastic and rosewater being pounded by hand in vats at the front of the shop. Chewy scoops are then rolled in crushed pistachio nuts and served in a cone. It's worth the wait.

Later, I discover that stepping into the Umayyad Mosque from the souq is like entering the eye of a great storm - stillness reigns yet chaos is only metres away. The mosque's limestone courtyard has been polished to such a high sheen by so many shoeless feet, the ablutions fountain at its centre appears to sink into its own reflection on approach. Local legend has it that this fountain is midway between Istanbul and Mecca and many Muslims believe the mosque to be the fourth-holiest place on Earth (after Mecca, Medina and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem). It might be expected to be a sombre and serious place but children slip-slide across the courtyard in their socks and splash about in the fountain. Young Damascenes gather in good-natured groups under archways supported by thick columns. Clouds of black-robed Iranian pilgrims float by on their way to sites in the mosque's north-east section that are holy to the Shiites. It's a joyous place, its muted beauty the result of a mix of architectural and decorative styles that reflect the city's turbulent history.

When Damascus ruled the Islamic world in the early 8th century, artisans from India, Persia and Africa were commissioned to build a grand place of worship. No expense was spared in building Islam's first great mosque on a site that was once a Roman temple, then a Christian church dedicated to John the Baptist.

The mosque was damaged in battle in 1069, the Mongols almost destroyed it more than three centuries later and the entire prayer hall collapsed in 1893. But much has now been restored. I spy a fragmented gilded mosaic dating back to the earliest days of the mosque depicting rivers, waterfalls, trees and towers on a field of gold - perhaps the Barada valley centuries ago, or even the Garden of Eden.

I wander to the southern prayer hall, with its high domes and ornate chandeliers. Feeling out of place among the worshippers, I step out to an alleyway and into a group of elderly men smoking water pipes alongside the garish facade of a toy shop - from the sublime to the secular. Not far away, I find a more serene souq in a 17thcentury khan, once the trading house of a company running camel caravans. I discover that a khan's open square is just the spot to rest with chilled tamarind juice poured from a silver urn by a drink seller wearing a fez.

One evening I stroll down the famous Straight Street, where Saint Paul is believed to have rested following his conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus. This experience left him blind until his sight returned to him on this street. It is, however, the sense of smell that's behind my epiphany, as I pass carts piled high with thyme, sumac, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, with notes of rosewater and orange blossom.With my appetite piqued, I head east towards the Jewish and Christian quarters and settle at a roof-top restaurant where fresh saj, or flat bread, is baked in an oven. I dip warm chunks into fresh hummus. The bread is also toasted and sprinkled on a zingy fattoush: cucumber, tomato, radish, lettuce, parsley and shallots seasoned with garlic, paprika, oil and lemon juice. I order the national dish of kibbeh - falafel-like pods of minced lamb with cracked wheat and onion - and eat my tabouleh from a cup of iceberg lettuce.

There's a mixed crowd of diners here and in many other eateries in the Old City; locals and tourists enjoy late-night meals in courtyards and terraces and under the delicate frescoes and Mamluk arches of the old homes converted to guesthouses and restaurants.

It has not always been like this and I recall the words of Maya Mamarbachi, the owner of Beit Al Mamlouka, one of the first boutique hotels to open in the Old City in 2005.

"When I launched the hotel, Syria was not seen as a tourism hot spot and many people were afraid of coming here," she recalled. "Now, it's booming; we have lots of restaurants, places to go out, nightclubs and cultural events. I am very proud that Damascus has grown so much over the years and opened itself to outsiders."

I leave Damascus via Jebel Qassioun, this time driving myself up the deserted mountain road just before sunrise. I stop for one last look at the city and as dawn's first light falls upon her - clear and crisp before the day's smog and heat haze render her invisible - I catch a glimpse of a paradise lost.

The fajr, the day's first call to prayers, drifts across the city as I continue north towards the snow-capped Anti-Lebanon mountains. It's not long before I am in the hills beyond the city and I smile as I pass row upon row of trees laden with fruit and blossoms. The famous orchards of Damascus have survived.

FAST FACTS
Getting there Etihad flies to Damascus for about $1538, with an aircraft change in Abu Dhabi. Emirates flies for about $1858, with an aircraft change in Dubai. (Fares are low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax.) Australians require a visa for a stay of up to 14 days (this can be extended once in Syria), which can be obtained from the Embassy of the Syrian Arab Republic in Canberra. See syrianembassy.org.au.

Staying there Beit Al Mamlouka is an eight-bedroom boutique hotel in a restored 17th-century building in Damascus's Old City. Rooms from $160 a night, suites from $340 a night. See www.almamlouka.com.

Eating there Al Khawali is a great rooftop restaurant, serving fresh bread straight from the oven and typical local dishes. Jabri House is an elegant and affordable traditional Damascene restaurant with excellent mezzeh. See jabrihouse.com.

While you're there In April, join the annual three-day tourist drive called the Discover Syria Rally, open to anyone with a driver's licence. See syrianautomobileclub.com/discover.

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