With 30 minutes to go before leaving the city, I discovered, huddled next to the recently built luxury Four Seasons hotel, a cluster of Western coffee bars: Costa; Segafredo; etc. Protected behind a recessed wall, here were the Syrian youth: pretty, scantily clad and well-toned. Like moths drawn to a light, one feels encouraged to see that a double mochaccino with hazelnut syrup can tempt the young almost anywhere in the world.
It would seem that the free speech restrictions in Syria extend to the passing of weather readings to the Met Office in the UK because it was bucketing it down when I arrived in Damascus, in contrast with the sunny forecast the BBC claimed. Evidently it must always be sunny in the last Baathist Republic.
My mute taxi driver to the airport didn’t seem to want to talk in either Arabic or French so I was left to stare at the depressing billboards advertising the usual prosaic conferences that seem to always be taking place in the Middle East. I don’t think I saw one advert for anything that didn’t exist in 1970. But you do get to a see an awful lot of signs for Beirut, reminding you that this country still doesn’t really consider that town to be in a different country. Despite the rain, the streets were still crowded once we got into the centre of town making it look similar to Cairo but the lack of cars and the fact that they actually stopped for red lights ended the superficial similarity.
The more modern parts of Arab towns all have a rather generic look and feel about them. I think it is a combination of the brutal, concrete and sand coloured buildings, the lack of eclecticism of the shop wares and the fact that everything is always dirty, everywhere.
After going to sleep in my 1930s hotel to the sound of a somewhat raucous wedding nearby, I woke up to near total silence. It was like the first line in The Day of the Triffids. Fridays in Cairo are marked by discordant shoutings coming from the local mosques and the streets remain as vibrant as ever but looking out of my window, it looked like there was hardly anyone about on the streets.
Syria is a nominally secular state, Baathism being an offshoot of socialism, but Friday here reminds me of Sundays in Spain. Everything is pretty much shut making Syria feel more religious than Cairo.
Walking down to the Old City, the difference in the facial features is immediate. Given the large Kurdish and Turkish genes floating around the population here, aside from the clothing, the people look different to Cairenes. Some could be mistaken for West Europeans whilst others look almost Slavic. If I donned a dirty, striped, long sleeved shirt, I could easily blend in here.
The first building of interest is the terminus for the now derelict Hejaz Railway. The Turks built this line down to Mecca intending to use it for transporting pilgrims during the Haj, but instead used it for transporting troops during the 1917 Arab uprising, causing T.E Lawrence & Co to target it repeatedly. I saw a brief piece of the line down South a few years ago when I was in Jordan, and it must have been an impressive imperial engineering project at the time, with a suitably rococo station to match. But the stations continuing disuse, along with the rest of the line, reminds you how absent even modern railways are in this part of the world.
The main tourist attraction in Damascus is the Old City. Like it’s Jerusalem counterpart, there are 4 main gates into the walled city. The West gate leads directly into a covered market where you can still see the bullet holes in the ceiling, left by the French planes in the 1920s as they tried to put down the Syrian uprising. The market ultimately leads you to the Umayyad Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the world which holds a shrine to John the Baptist, which allegedly contains his head, as well as the tomb of Saladin. The mosque was pretty busy as the lunchtime prayers approached but it was curious to see quite a few Iranian Shia pilgrims, noticeable from their distinctive turbans, wandering around as well. Shia shrines are almost non-existant in Cairo but Damacus has a larger shia population, including its leader who belongs to a heterodox offshoot, and so holds a few large, functioning Shia mosques.
One Shia in particular, Hibzullah’s leader Nasrallah, was very prominent. His photo seemed to be as common, if not more, than the obligatory posters of Hafez and Bashar Asad which adorn every shop. However, continuing past the mosque into the Christian and (formerly) Jewish Quarters of the Old City, the names on the shop doors change to noticeably non-Islamic names and the dictator aesthetic dropped off in favour of poverty. I was surprised to see the area referred to as the Jewish Quarter in the guidebook so I stopped to ask an old man what the name of the district was. He used lots of different names but none of them were “mintaqa yehud”. He asked me where I come from, a frequent question here. As they don’t think I look British, they always ask me where my father is from. I usually semi-lie and say Romania (do you know what a Romanian looks like?) but he insisted I must be an Arab.
Damascus, like its fellow isolated and time-locked socialist republic Cuba, has some wonderful 1960s era Western cars. huge Buicks and proper Mercedes. Oddly, my taking photos of a particularly beautiful model was the only time I got stopped by a police man who asked to see what I was taking photos of. Yet, some signs of modernity are peaking through here. My guidebook said that there were only 2 or 3 ATMs in the whole city, but there seems to have been an explosion in the 3 years since the book was written. The continuing invasion of the mobile phone doesn’t seem as advanced here as it does in Egypt but you can still see the buds here and there; poverty stricken street sellers arguing with someone on their 1997 era Nokias.
With the city now being covered in a sandstorm, making the sky the same colour as the buildings, I headed over to the National Museum. The entrance to the main building hosts a garden which is littered with Byzantine and pre-Byzantine relics. They are not protected from the elements in any way and even an archaeological no-nothing like myself was someone shocked to see how little attention was paid to them. The lack of care and attention continued into the building, with some of the rooms looking similar to the looted Iraqi Museum covered so frequently on TV back after the war in 2003, though to be fair some of the rooms did have a bit more effort and pride put into them. However, the real surprise was the best preserved and looked after room in the whole museum: a synagogue dating from 2 A.D containing frescos and murals of Moses, Jacob, Mordechai and Abraham. There really was strictly no photography in the darkened room as the guard explained to me the biblical scenes painted on the walls. Judaism, like Islam, isn’t keen on pictorial images of historical figures such as Abraham and Moses which made the scenes unlike any other synagogue I have seen. A large menorah was visible in one of the frames, somewhat in contrast to the modern paintings in the foyer entrance depicting Jews in a slightly different format.
On Saturday morning, the sandstorm having abated and the streets now being filled with people, I headed up to the Abu Rommaneh district, which is supposedly the upmarket part of town. Unlike the upmarket parts of Cairo which could have been transported from America, there were only a few stores which looked modern. Certainly no brand names or chain stores would one identify. The standard police state dictator posters are everywhere here. However, unlike nearby countries which usually just have a photo of the dear ruler, they all seem to carry slogans. My favourite was: “President Asad and the Syrian People bend to no one except God.” And a crippled isolated, economy one feels like adding.