Tuesday, March 23, 2010
Walking through the Hamidiyeh Souq in Old Damascus, clothing vendors called out “come inside”, jewelry sellers encouraged us to “take a look”, and ice cream shops beckoned us with their mountains of white fluffy goodness.
But I wasn’t interested in the shopping. I was too busy marveling at a place so bathed in history. The oldest continually inhabited city in the world, Damascus dates back to 9000 BC. Home and host to everyone from an impressive lineup of Biblical characters to thousands of marauding crusaders, the city is pretty impressive.
Continuing our walk through the souq, we stopped at a stall selling shoes. My boyfriend, who was still limping around in the flip flop he had broken in Ma’in several days prior, was in need of some cheap Syrian sandals. He found them in the shape of two spongy bright blue flops, perfect for getting him around the ancient city.
Our shoe shopping taken care of, we moved on to more important things: sweets. First we sampled the ice cream, which the concierge at Le Meridien in Amman insisted we try as soon as we arrived. We soon discovered why. The pistachio-smothered vanilla ice cream was some of the richest, creamiest, and smoothest I’ve ever tasted.
From there we walked to some more souqs, where my boyfriend bought a variety of small sweets, including apricot candies, nougat, Turkish delight, and tiny fruit-shaped candies that looked like miniature versions of the real thing.
We then spent several hours wandering around Old Damascus, the part of the city surrounded by the ancient city walls. We passed the Umayyad Mosque, which used to be a church that used to be a Roman temple that used to be a Greek temple, then walked down a Street Called Straight (and that’s really what they call it) and meandered past innumerable churches of every denomination from Greek Catholic to Armenian Orthodox.
Given its central role in Biblical history, I’m not sure why it surprised me that there were so many churches in Damascus. Every time we came across a new one, I had to re-remind myself that the city was, after all, at the center of many Christian events, including start of Paul’s whirlwind evangelical tours of the Roman Empire.
For dinner that night we settled into Naranj, a large restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows across the street from a Greek Orthodox church. Dinner was a spread of excellent meze and lamb kebabs in sour cherry sauce, all washed down with Jordanian wine. This was followed back at the hotel by sheesha, or “hubble-bubble” as they call it in Syria.
The next day we were back in Old Damascus by noon, ready to see more of the sights. We first walked around the Citadel, with its larger-than-life statue of Saladin-the-crusader-slayer out front.
Next we walked through the Umayyad Mosque of multi-religion fame. Unfortunately my jeans, long sleeved jacket, and hat weren’t modest enough for the religious powers-that-be, so I was made to pay for a long hooded robe that made me look like I had just stepped in for a quick Ku Klux Klan meeting. No, the irony was not lost on me.
I enjoyed seeing the remnants of the Roman and Greek temples, the shrine that holds the head of John the Baptist, and the rest of the mosque. But between the KKK resemblance and the fact that the hood kept blowing off my head every three seconds, I was ready to get out of there as fast as I could.
Moving on, we picked up some fluffy “pizza” breads for lunch and ate in an odd little park with mushroom-shaped sculptures every few feet.
From there we visited the church of St. Ananias, the former home of said saint. It was a tiny underground church with two Byzantine-style rooms decorated with paintings from Paul’s life and ministry.
We then tried to visit St. Paul’s church, but somehow ended up locked in the lobby of a modern building with public restrooms and a large kitchen. In spite of the official plaque next to the door, it in no way resembled a church. A maid let us out of the building, and we hurried off down the street.
That same street held a pleasant surprise: the gallery of sculptor Mustafa Ali. We stumbled into the courtyard of a beautiful old house, taking in the sculptures and other art, the outdoor and indoor spaces, and the beautiful terrace.
Our time in Damascus was quickly drawing to a close. After an aborted attempt to visit the National Museum (apparently it was closed for a holiday, but nobody seemed to know which one), we had tea at the hotel before meeting our driver for the trip back to Amman.
The drive from Damascus to Amman went smoothly, and except for the odd case of a man walking up to us at the border control area to ask if we wanted a drink from his already-opened water bottle, there occurred nothing out of the ordinary.
Back at Le Meridien in Amman, we asked the same concierge that had recommended the Syrian ice cream to tell us where we could find the best shawarma in the city. Shawarma Reem. We went. We brought our shawarma back to the beautiful atrium lobby of the hotel. We ordered two glasses of wine. We ate. We immediately regretted that we had ordered just one shawarma each.
But that was the only regret with which we left the Jordan-Damascus portion of our Middle Eastern odyssey. The next morning we were off to the last destination on our itinerary: Oman, the sunny sultanate on the sea.