Damascus, Syria Before the Strife

Editor’s Note: Leading up to publication of this issue, things changed radically in Syria. The State Department issued a warning, advising against non-essential travel to the country due to the potential for ongoing political and civil unrest. Our writer visited the city when the situation was much different. Following is an account of her journey and experiences before the recent strife broke out.

Damascus, also known as the “eternal city,” is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world with a mystique that transcends time. Here’s a snapshot of its recent past.

The muzzein’s call drifts across the slowly brightening skies, and the morning sun crests the horizon. Hues of ocher and taupe are warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and dark, covered markets that make up the old city of Damascus, my footsteps echoing on the cobblestone streets.  

At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination: the spiritual and historical heart of the old city, Umayyad Mosque. At this hour, I am alone in the presence of Syria’s most important religious structure, one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world.

Ancient Damascus was a beautiful sight on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes surrounded by verdant groves of orange and olive trees. Even the Prophet Muhammad, on first approach, is said to have turned away, saying, “Man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”

Damascus has maintained this mystique for more than 6,000 years, and modern travelers from all over the world have long flocked here to discover its inner beauty.

An Unexpected Guide

Only one man is in the mosque. He wears a flowing Islamic robe and carefully tied turban. His beard is wispy and black. I feel a bit anxious as he approaches, looking me dead in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says with an Oxford-perfect British accent.

“I am from Britain and moved here last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi,” he later explains as we walk outside. “I will show you a beautiful place to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souk; there is much more to see. Come with me.”

I’m slightly nervous, but the intrigue of the city — the possibility of discovering what lies beyond its brightly lit markets, tourist attractions and busy city streets — overcomes my reservations, and I set off with him.

The two of us weave around the mosque into the tiny, dark alleys of the Arab quarter, speaking in whispers so as not to disturb the stillness. Several women appear, covered in head to foot with black robes. Mohammed explains that women who wear these black abayas and hijabs might be either villagers or tourists. (Damascus is popular with Arab travelers, as well.)  

We turn another corner, and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. It’s the mosque of Ruqqaya, the daughter of Muhammad, and a throng of veiled and cloaked women crowds the blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. The attendant hands me a similar garment. I put it on and disappear into voluminous folds of black fabric. I remove my shoes, cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the creamy ivory dome and minaret of the mosque glowing in the morning sun.

Beyond, the interior dazzles, lit with the gleam of what seem to be a million lights that beam through artfully crafted windows and reflect off fragments of beveled mirror attached to dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns and vaulted ceilings, leading to Ruqqaya’s tomb. Women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.

A Jew in Damascus

Mohammed and I part company, and I venture onward through the Hamiddiya souk. The scene is vibrant with horse-drawn carts, brightly colored candies, pomegranate juice vendors, aromatic spices and luxurious textiles. I feel like I have been transported back into the Middle Ages. A quick left leads me into a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores. I enter one of them. Ancient lamps hang overhead, carpets line the floors and walls, and the interior is crowded with cases of antique silver and Damascene knives, elaborate pottery and dark wooden furniture intricately inlaid with mother-of-pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets in the back, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea.

Selim is the owner and one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. He offers me tea and shares a story. Once a community of more than 100,000 people here in the city, Jews prospered as gold and textile merchants lived in harmony with Christians and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the Arab world. Life in Syria changed for the Jews; privileges given to them as a financial elite class were revoked, travel visas were denied and Jewish people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, they began to leave.

“Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim says with a sigh. “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues, but now we have only two, closed except for special days of worship.”

“Can I see one?” I ask, having heard of these clandestine places. Selim pauses and then makes a call: “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”

After a 20-minute ride through the labyrinthine alleys of the old Jewish neighborhoods, the driver stops by a small door in a towering cement wall. There is a tiny sign that reads: “Kinise Jobar–Eliahou Nabil” (synagogue Eliahou Nabil). 

My driver knocks loudly, and the door opens. An old man, Edmund, a caretaker, greets him with a warm hug, smiles at me, shakes my hand and welcomes me in Arabic. Once in the courtyard, he unlocks a large door and leads me inside. 

With the flip of single switch, the synagogue transforms. A thousand lamps glow and illuminate the tomb of Eliahou before me. Beyond are pulpits, ancient tomes, carpeted floors and framed documents. At the far end, Edmund pushes back thick velvet drapes that hide an ornate door. A final lock is undone, and he reveals the synagogue’s Torah scrolls. As I photograph and wander, I think of my Jewish friends at home and what it would mean to them to view these particular scrolls.

A Family Visit

Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street in Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the old city, I find the Church of Ananias, the man believed to have cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one in English. 

After not too long, a woman approaches and, as we chat, warmly invites me to her home for coffee. We make our way to where she lives. The street outside her home is higher than the entrance due to centuries of buildup, and we have to step down to reach the doorway. A long hallway leads to an open living room, where a family of eight sits on couches, working. Pictures of Jesus, saints and crosses decorate the walls. Everyone stares at me, likely because my light skin and blonde hair are a rarity in their home. I smile and shake each person’s hand. 

One younger woman says hello confidently in English. She is Caroline and is 28. She is dressed in Western clothing and works for the Pepsi marketing team in Damascus. Her father also speaks some English. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus and says, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him — for more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The mother brings me coffee and biscuits, insisting I stay for dinner. But as much as I would like to stay and enjoy their company, I don’t want to take advantage of their hospitality, and I make my leave.

As I head back to my hotel, nighttime in the old city is announced by the final call to prayer. The air cools as I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the less hectic Muslim quarter. Tourists and local families fill the sidewalks. Older men crowd the cafes, where they while away the evening sipping tea and smoking nargileh (water pipes). The popular streets are packed, so I choose the emptier ones.

I walk and savor all that is around me. As I do so, I can’t help but think of a passage from Mark Twain’s travel book Innocents Abroad: “Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. … To Damascus, years are only moments, decades 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 prosper and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” Soaking in the history and depth of this beautiful ancient city, I know someday I’ll return.