He Took the Road to Damascus

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, the Old City of Damascus is a marvelous maze of winding souks and weathered facades.
By Christopher Vourlias
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 17, 2008

"The problem with America," says Amr, digging into a gelato, "is that everyone thinks Syria and Iran are like Trinidad and Tobago."

We're sharing a park bench in a busy, modern part of Damascus. It's late in the day. Mothers chatter away on the benches, now and then looking up to keep an eye on the kids scooting across the playground. A toddler pedals by on training wheels; a few others chase a ball across the lawn. It's a scene just a hair removed from any American city, until the soaring cries of the muezzin fill the park. "Allahu akbar! Allahu akbar!" Two men sitting next to us break off their conversation and stare quietly toward a nearby minaret. A pair of soldiers in crisp khakis walk by, giving us wary looks.

Amr waits for them to pass and continues. "People talk about President Assad like he is Saddam Hussein," he says. "But he is not like that at all. And the country is much better than it was under his father. Much." He points to the rusting satellite dishes on a nearby apartment block. "Ten years ago, there was no satellite television. We are a modern, secular country. And we are going to get better. We must."

He's struck a defiant tone -- almost daring the world to prove him wrong -- and the strident turn in our conversation catches me off guard. A week after arriving in Damascus, though, I have to concede his point.

Before coming to this ancient city, I'd expected bearded clerics breathing fire on every street corner, women draped in coal-black chadors, the Morality Police confiscating CDs and festooning the trees with unspooled cassettes. Instead I've found a city of stylish cafes crammed late into the night; of flirty singles mingling in parks and shopping arcades; of young Syrians fretting over the latest fashions in glossy magazines. In fact, while the Baathists in charge cozy up to Tehran in the east, sentiment on the street seems to flow just as freely in the opposite direction.

Damascus is a city that, more than most, epitomizes this modern moment in the Middle East. Weighed down by history, maligned or misunderstood by the West, it's a city trying to chart a course between a proud past and an uncertain future. To say that it's having an identity crisis might not be entirely accurate. Peel back the centuries, after all, and you'll uncover a mercurial culture shaped by the comings and goings of countless conquerors. Around Damascus, every souk and street corner seems to tell a tale of empires past. And as events last week proved -- when a bomb blast ripped through the city's normally peaceful streets, killing one of Hezbollah's top commanders -- every day brings fresh questions about what lies on the road ahead.

* * *

If you'd come to this parched corner of the Levant 8,000 years ago, you'd find its sand already scuffed by the soles of its first inhabitants. Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on the planet. The long list of its rulers includes the Babylonians, Persians and Romans of antiquity; the Umayyad caliphate that reigned during its golden age; and, centuries later, the Ottomans and the French. Behind what remains of its ancient ramparts, the Old City is a marvelous maze of winding souks and weathered facades. Dilapidated buildings lean toward each other, their upper floors kissing; old men shuffle down narrow, twisting lanes, disappearing under low archways with Arabic script chipped into the stone.

It's easy to get lost in the Old City -- most would argue it's part of the fun -- before eventually finding your way to Souk al-Hamidiyeh, the vaulted, airy arcade that serves as the Old City's main artery. Though the modern souk dates to the 19th century, it stays true to the tradition of the great Damascene bazaars, where spices from Arabia and silk from the Far East were carried along ancient caravan routes and traded in the marketplace. Today it holds a curious hodgepodge of shops, reflecting the paradoxes of the contemporary Arab consumer. Puma track suits share real estate with elegant headscarves, or hijabs; finely woven rugs are sold beside piles of cellphone accessories.

Tourists and window-shoppers stroll along the cobbled promenade, its roof punctured by bullet holes from the days of Vichy France. Outside Bakdash, the city's famous ice cream parlor, young and old patiently queue for vanilla cones crusted with fresh pistachio nuts. Pigeons whir in the rafters, racing out into the open air toward the minarets of the Umayyad Mosque.

Built in the 8th century, under the caliph al-Walid, the mosque is Damascus's spiritual heart. Three thousand years ago, Aramean settlers built the first temple on the spot where the mosque stands. A thousand years later, the Romans erected their own temple to Jupiter over its remains; later still, a Byzantine church dedicated to John the Baptist rose from the same ground. The church remained a place of worship for Christians and Muslims alike after the Muslim conquest, until al-Walid ordered its demolition to make way for the Umayyad Mosque. The caliph himself is said to have driven the first golden spike into the church before its walls were torn down. A modest payment was made to the Christian community to compensate for the loss.

Today pilgrims spill over the mosque's thresholds, sandals in hand, and shuffle across the vast courtyard. Elaborate gold mosaics, crafted by Byzantine artisans, shine down from the facades. Inside, the cavernous prayer hall is a busy communal area, where men sit murmuring over their Korans and women in colorful hijabs struggle to corral restless kids. A few tourists circle around the shrine to John the Baptist, whose head, according to legend, was found buried beneath the demolished church. Some versions of the story say the skin and hair were still intact. The head is still believed by the faithful to be buried in the shrine.

The streets flanking the mosque do a brisk business in souvenirs: plastic worry beads, hand-carved backgammon sets, inlaid wooden boxes. In the surrounding souks, bicycles and mopeds weave through the crowds; hawkers sell nuts and spices, olives and dates. Old women haggle over bolts of fabric, rifling through piles of cheap bras, clucking their tongues in disapproval.

Outside al-Nafura cafe -- a Damascene institution just steps from the mosque -- I meet a plump, middle-aged man with a hawklike nose and thick-framed glasses. He introduces himself as Hassin and offers me a seat, prompting a great commotion of shifting chairs and water pipes. We sit with our backs to the wall, watching the traffic on the street. His shirt is stretched across his stomach, straining at the seams; when he swivels his head, I can see drops of sweat beading in the folds of his neck. We talk over our tea about traveling and about life in the Middle East. Hassin has much to say about the United States, though he admits he's never been there.

"Why would I go to America?" he asks, almost startled. "I have everything I need here."

* * *

It's certainly possible to live -- and travel -- well in Damascus. Relaxed property laws and the introduction of private banking have brought a wave of new investments in recent years. Boutique hotels are blossoming in the Old City, and a new Four Seasons -- with three sophisticated and highly regarded restaurants -- has become a de rigueur stop for the Damascene elite since its opening in 2005. Shoppers who once had to travel to Beirut for the latest fashions can snatch up many of the same styles closer to home, since the country's notorious import barriers were eased. And the Syrian passion for food can be indulged in a growing number of fashionable restaurants around the city.

Many, like Beit Jabri, in the heart of the Old City, have given the traditional Damascene house a handsome facelift. Set in a wide, airy courtyard with ivy crawling up the walls, the restaurant attracts a stylish weekend crowd. On a Thursday night, men in pin-striped suits and open-collared shirts puff argileh beside a burbling fountain. Waiters in snug black vests circle the room; a pair of musicians strum string instruments over the din. Women in tight jeans and bright, bejeweled hijabs eye the scene from behind layers of makeup, fastidiously picking at plates of olives and stuffed grape leaves. Short cups of coffee are knocked back with religious devotion.

Maybe it's the constant caffeination that gives Damascus its restless energy. Late one afternoon I set out for Mount Kassioun, whose gentle slopes rise over the city. Near the top a stretch of restaurants and cafes perch along the ridge, and half of Damascus seems to have made its way here to take in the hazy sunset. Families stroll on the promenade. Young couples sit on the hoods of parked cars, locking hands and sharing their argileh in the dwindling daylight.

Kassioun has long held a special place in the lore of Damascus. It was here that many believe Cain slew Abel, and that the prophet Mohammed is said to have paused and, overcome by the sight below, turned his back on the city, preferring not to enter Paradise until the afterlife. Today's visitors are content to sip their sweet, thick coffees and admire the view. And as the lights of Damascus flicker to life, the bright green bands of a thousand minarets glow with their urgent calling -- a reminder that a city's fortunes rest on its faith in what is, was, and will be.

Christopher Vourlias is living out of a suitcase in Africa and working on his first book.

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