He called Damascus the ‘Eternal City’—indeed, a visitor can savor the present through its past
SAMUEL CLEMENS, AKA MARK Twain, he of the sparkling American wit and humor, wasn’t joking for once when he wrote of a favorite city: “To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.”
Twain wrote that in 1869. These days, the tourist map tends to overlook Damascus and Syria itself for flashier outposts in the Middle East—Cairo in Egypt with its glamorous pharaohs and pyramids, Israel and its profusion of holy places, even Jordan with Petra. But Damascus can hold a bright candle to these destinations with its own extremely rich history and culture, beginning with its claim to be the oldest inhabited city on earth.
Cradle of civilization
Syria is “historically the cradle of civilization and religion,” said Tourism Minister Dr. Sa’ad Alaah Aga Alkal’ah, citing as proof, among others, the world’s first alphabet (found carved on a mud tablet in the Phoenician city of Ugarit); the definitive development of Christianity as we know it, with St. Paul’s conversion on his way to Damascus (the “Street called Straight” on which he met St. Ananias still bisects the city today); the march of the great Biblical tribes across the country’s length and breadth—Hittites, Amorites, Akkadians, Sumerians, Babylonians, Phoenicians, the Roman legion—along with history’s mightiest warrior-kings from Nebuchadnezzar and Darius to Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted.
[Click on photos to enlarge.]
Statue of Saladin, the Crusaders' greatest foe, in front of the Damascus Citadel
Damascus Citadel at night. The fortress was built by Saladin's brother in the early 13th century. Beside it is the famed Al Hamidiyeh souk (market).
Minaret and inner courtyard of the Omayyad Mosque, built in 705 AD and the heart of old Damascus. Inside the mosque is a shrine to St. John the Baptist.
Byzantine mosaic displayed at Al Ma'ara Museum, in the northwestern part of Syria between Hama and Aleppo
Satellite dishes--preferred by Syrians over cable TV--bloom in profusion on apartment rooftops in Aleppo.
Modern Syria is pegging its tourism efforts on the rediscovery of the country’s pivotal role in world history, specifically its central part in the spread of commerce, culture and technology through the Silk Road, the fabled 7,000-mile trade route that transported goods from China to Europe, to Africa, the Mediterranean and back for nearly 3,000 years.
Along the way, Syrian cities such as Palmyra, Aleppo and Damascus became important cosmopolitan trading centers and restful oases for caravans of merchants and adventurers traversing the gruelling transcontinental route.
To highlight its international Silk Road heritage, the country has been mounting a lavish festival every year since 2002 as a way to attract more tourists, visitors and connoisseurs of history and culture. This year’s festival, for instance, brought together performers, musicians and artists from Turkey, Yemen, India, Iraq, Jordan, Spain, Tunisia, China and (much applauded) some high-kicking martial dancers from the Carpathian mountain region of Romania.
Banner announcing the 2009 Silk Road Festival
Opening program of the Silk Road Festival featuring performers from India, China, Africa, Spain, Romania and other countries once linked to the ancient trade routes
(The Philippine Department of Tourism, representing a country itself touched by the southern maritime fringe of the silk route, has a “Memorandum of Understanding” with Syria that calls for “deepening the cooperation in the field of tourism between the two countries, [paying] special attention to cultural and historical tourism.”)
Despite lingering perceptions of Syria as a dangerous country, derived mainly from its prickly relations with the US—which has accused Syria’s authoritarian government of supporting terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon, among other charges—six million tourists are expected to pour in this year, up 10 percent from last year. That includes, said Deputy Prime Minister Abdal-allah AlDadari, an average of 50,000 American tourists a year, despite the absence of direct flights from the US mainland.
What they see when they arrive in Syria is a country that breathes its past even as it embraces the present. Glittering bars and restaurants in Damascus testify to a thriving modern nightlife, even as the city’s most famous souk (market), the Al Hamidiyeh Bazaar, with its ribbons of shops and streets brimming with fruits, perfumes, spices, garments, brass and metalware, handicrafts, brocades, native delicacies and handblown glass, provides a direct echo of the times, peaking in the Middle Ages, when Damascus, with the colonnaded Roman metropolis of Palmyra planted in the desert and the prosperous Aleppo to the north, resounded with the din of caravansaries from far and wide descending on the country.
Women buying fish at Al Hamidiyeh Bazaar in Damascus
Fruits in a riot of colors being sold on the streets of the seaside city of Tartus
Young Syrian outside his garment shop at the Suleymaniye Islamic-Ottoman Complex, Damascus
DVDs of Hollywood movies for sale; CDs of Western artists are also abundant.
Man offering cups of traditional Syrian drink to pedestrians for a fee
Bananas--big ones-- sold on the sidewalk in Tartus
These men saw our cameras, went outside their store and asked to have their picture taken.
That age-old mercantile tradition seems to have bred in Syrians a sense of gregariousness and hospitality. Not very many speak English, but even those who don’t will cry “Welcome!” or nod and smile when they see foreigners on the street. Children, especially, love to mug before tourist cameras.
Girls crowd out the boys and confidently vogue for the camera.
Two boys playing at the Omayyad Mosque courtyard pause for a pose. Kids are allowed to be frisky not only at the courtyard, but inside the mosque itself.
Bedouin boys in traditional garb
Schoolkids, two of them in their trademark blue grade-school uniform, have fun in front of the camera.
More schoolkids, this time crowding around a Japanese journalist
After offering me a cup of hot chocolate bought from the vendor in the background, this boy segued into his pose.
The boys were playing soccer, but forgot their game at the sight of the camera; the girls scampered after them.
Adorable kid in native garb with beaming mom and dad inside their clothing shop
Shy kid with grandma
The young boy was no match to the two perky girls, who kept dragging him along and introducing themselves to visitors, including to us.
They came at us from nowhere, smiling endlessly, wanting to have their picture taken and gamely following our hands-on-chin instructions.
This kid's a born performer, joining a group of adult males perform a traditional welcome dance.
Two young boys eating ice cream on a hot afternoon in Aleppo
And just like that, this tyke obliges our colleague Ron Jayme's camera.
While the state apparatus remains palpable with heavy police and military presence everywhere (ensuring low crime on the other hand), Syrian society itself appears to be more open and tolerant than its Arab neighbors.
The October 2009 issue of “Syria Today,” an English-language magazine, openly discusses the question of “Breaking Taboos”—specifically the “Forbidden Trinity” of Syrian society: sex, religion and politics.
The articles tackle changing perceptions about living-in and premarital sex among young couples; the stigma attached to social outcasts such as the homeless and mentally handicapped; the lives of Syrian gay men and women; the increasing popularity of tattoos.
Syrian history has one remarkable chapter that perhaps illuminates its attitude toward women. The desert town of Palmyra, known as Tadmor in 19th century BC, became a magnificent city of Roman arches, columns, temples and an amphitheater with the rise of the Silk Road.
Palmyra's Roman ruins, fronted by the 2nd-century AD Monumental Arch or Arch of Triumph
What remains of the colonnaded avenue leading to the amphitheater
These ruins were once a glittering cosmopolitan destination in the middle of the desert--an oases for Silk Road caravans
Impressively built amphitheater with great acoustics and a breathtaking view of the surrounding plain
The main avenue where once the Arab queen Zenobia had her triumphant processions
Timeless ruins bathed in sunset
The ancient metropolis dramatically lit at night--a sight to behold after driving in pitch-black darkness through the desert
In 267 AD, its king was supplanted by his second wife, Zenobia, who, like Egypt’s Cleopatra centuries before her, would govern her kingdom with a crafty blend of ruthless cunning and feminine wiles.
From her majestic desert city, Zenobia waged war on other tribes, conquering the whole of Syria before grabbing lower Egypt and parts of Asia Minor. Rome, enraged at the loss of its wealthy Eastern province, eventually raised an army which defeated Zenobia. She was brought to Rome and paraded in humiliation before jeering crowds.
Syria, though, has acknowledged Zenobia as a proto-patriot and heroine. From the seminal coins carrying her likeness that the queen had struck in defiance of the Roman emperor Aurelian, there are now Zenobia streets, Zenobia stores and shops, Zenobia five-star hotels and Zenobia ballrooms within five-star hotels, Zenobia brands from textiles to household products, and, no doubt, Syrian girls named Zenobia.
The influence of her headstrong life and example can still be seen. Though many still prefer to be covered head to toe in all-black robes, Syrian women are free to dress in Western-style clothing, even showing skin. They are allowed to go to school, drive cars, hold office, interact with the other sex publicly.
Maya, our pert and pretty guide, a Journalism student at Damascus University
Bedouin girl taking care of her baby brother. Note the eyes rimmed with kohl.
While the other children were checking out their picture in Ron's camera, this girl tugged at my shirt and asked for her own shot. Sure, kid.
Young woman by the door of her family's dress shop
Mother with two kids in tow crossing the street in Tartus
Veiled women avert their faces at the sight of camera-toting foreigners.
In the seaside city of Tartus, a Templar stronghold in the 12th-13th centuries (a well-preserved Romanesque church stands in the old part of town), it’s a common sight to see young lovers cuddling by the seashore, enjoying the sun and breeze.
The seaside city of Tartus, a Templar stronghold in the age of the Crusades
Young couples enjoying each other's company in the sun and sea breeze of Tartus. Men and women are free to intermingle in Syria.
Of Aleppo, meanwhile, John Kelly, in “The Great Mortality,” his exceptional book on the Black Plague, writes that the city was already “an important international trading center and listening post in the Middle Ages.” By 1207, it had its own trade agreement with the powerful city-state of Venice.
The city’s enduring symbol is the Aleppo Citadel, an imposing structure of fortified gates and towers that dates back to 312 BC and sits on a lofty mound from which the rest of the city radiates.
Aleppo Citadel, the ancient city's landmark and the scene of mighty conflict, among them the bloody siege of Tamerlane in 1400 AD
Entrance to the fortress, lit up for festivities
Cathedral-like corridor leading to an inner courtyard
Complementing the fortress is the nearby Aleppo Museum, which houses priceless treasures from various eras, from the Assyrians to the Greeks, the Byzantines and beyond.
Entrance to the Aleppo Museum
Magnificent head of Assyrian statue made of basalt, a jewel in the museum's collection
The statue in profile--a fantastical creature with the head of a man, torso a combination of lion and scorpion, topped with eagle's wings
Mark Twain himself didn’t reach Aleppo. But of “Beautiful Damascus, the Oldest City on Earth,” he was categorical: “Though another claims the name, old Damascus is, by right, the Eternal City.”
A compliment he could have paid the rest of Syria as well.
PLUS: Relinking--Going to market--at Damascus' famous Souk al-Hamidiyeh