Monday, February 18, 2008

Charming Damascus

Meet Annette and Rob at 8am, and we head out together to find breakfast. I’m feeling lovely and clean having had a washing binge the night before, a warm radiator does wonders to what you can get dry overnight! Clean trousers and fresh underpants, Mmmmm!

The Citadel

We head down past the castle-like citadel, which is not open to the public, and enter Souk al-Hamidiyya, which is apparently quite famous! Today though is Friday, the Islamic holy day, so everything is shut, shops shutters are down, and the covered shopping walkway is almost completely disserted.

Friday is not a good day for shopping

And this would sell..

Half way along though we find the exception to the rule, Bakdash ice-cream shop!

Busy preparing

Is ice-cream for breakfast wrong? If this is wrong, I don’t want to be right!


I ask for a single scoop and get a good fistful of ice-cream, what I’d define as at least two and a half scoops of the creamy white ice-cream, rolled in chopped nuts and handed over for 50 pounds (about 55p).

The remains of the Temple of Jupiter forming a gate at the end of the souk

At the other end of the souk, the covered arcade opens up to the beautiful Umayyad Mosque, the primary sight of Damascus.

It’s enormous, but we’ll visit it later – first we skirt round the southern side to a café, Jabri House.

Old house designs

Ornate doors

Pretty tiles

Duck through a low doorway, and we’re in the old house, built in 1737. Round the corner and we emerge into the large bright covered courtyard, used as a café and restaurant. It’s beautiful, but unfortunately they’re not open yet. 10am – about another hour.

We head further along the street

and find another place which does serve us Turkish coffee.

They also provide a large plate of peanuts, which we presume we’ll be charged for. What does surprise us when the bill comes is that we’ve also been charged for the box of tissues and an unopened bottle of water which was placed at the end of the table! This was difficult to sort out as the bill was entirely in Arabic, numbers, item names and all! Rob takes the box of tissues with him.

Next we pass the Dah Dah Palace,

a restored house which we are invited into after ringing the doorbell – the daughter of the chap who restored it shows us around the beautiful courtyard

before taking us into a room with all sorts of artefacts, some of which are for sale – the others pick up two hundred year old brass bowls decorated with artistic Arabic calligraphy for about 16 UKP. Outside, we examine the trees, some bearing bitter mandarins, and one with enormous bitter lemons which are used in local marmalade. I’ll have to look out for that, I like marmalade! It’s amazing the lemons haven’t dropped off the tree, one of them is like a rugby ball!

We look for St. Paul’s Chapel, but the LP map is as usual substandard, but a short old lady spots us looking lost and takes charge of us, taking us to a doorway, knocking loudly, but when a young girl emerges, she doesn’t want to let us in to what looks like her apartment. We’re not sure what’s going on, but we’ll just give Paul a miss.

The main road leading to the gate in the city wall is being reconstructed, meaning some careful trudging through the mud.

The Old City is divided up into quarters by religion, and we’re definitely now in the Christian quarter,

as we pass nunneries and statues of Mary on street corners. We pop into an Armenian church, before reaching the end of the Old City, where the main road brings us suddenly and rudely back in civilisation, with busy traffic passing the large mosque the other side.

Heading up, we pass the Chapel of Ananias, which is reputed to be the actually house of Ananias, one of Jesus’ disciples. They’re charging for entry. We stumble across a local bakery, where a chap called George who speaks good English makes little pizza breads with a pesto style sauce on top which we try. Delicious! Then we also taste their lemony spinach parcels. It’s all good, despite seeing George drop his rolling pin, watching it roll across the floor then him just pick it up and carry on. Ah well, it’s all being cooked I suppose!

At Bab Touma, we eat in a café, having rather heavy pizza and a draft beer, which turns out watery. At least they have nice toilets, with a metallic fountain head instead of a tap. We almost forget the coffee we’ve ordered as we try to leave. When we do, it’s like the city has suddenly come to life! People are everywhere, the streets no longer belong to us. Kids must have finished school, and everyone is buzzing about – it has that weekend feel (it’s Friday today). We head back to Umayyad Mosque.

The Umayyad Mosque

The Umayyad Mosque was built in AD 705, converted from a Byzantine cathedral which itself was built on the site of the 3rd century Roman Temple of Jupiter, the only remains of which are the Corinthian columns at the end of the souk. It’s famous for its golden mosaics inside. But first, we have to visit the “Putting on Special Clothes Room”,

where Annette has to cover up with a large baggy grey robe, looking something like what monks wear. We pay 50 pounds each entry, and are given a small information leaflet which doubles up as a ticket, stamped with the date.

Inside, it starts off saying “The Umauuad mosque is the Islamic most famous mosque”, which I’m sure some people would disagree with!

Before the mosque, we pop into the adjacent red-domed Mausoleum of Saladin, built in 1193.

Inside there are two coffins, both very ornate, one with a green cover, the other marble.

Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria, was a 12th century Kurdish Muslim political and military leader from Tikrit, Iraq who is best known for leading the Muslim Armies in the Crusades.

I pop back outside and ask the chap selling postcards which one is Saladin, and receive an unintelligible reply, but he points at the green one. Shokran (thank-you), I say. “Hello” he replies. Hello, as probably the only English word many people know, is often used in every situation. In fact I’ve started doing it myself. Someone shouts “how are you”, you say back “hello”. Where are you from? Hello! It works and is an accepted response to all questions!

The Mosque

The main door, with the souk behind

Shoes off, and we enter the mosque, into a beautiful large colonnaded space, with fantastic mosaics of various degrees of preservation on all sides, described by the leaflet as “the most beautiful in the world”.

The tiles are nice and warm in the sun, but as we walk into shaded areas they immediately turn freezing.

It’s funny to think of all the temples I’ve been to in the world where my feet have been nigh on burnt by the hot floor, and here my toes are about to reach frostbite!

There are lots of children playing in the open area, which is nice to see. Inside the actual building it’s absolutely huge. It’s interesting to consider that this was built not long after Mohammed was about – how much did it evolve over time – surely Islam didn’t take off so fast that they built something this size from scratch?

Then again, supposedly it was hacked together from an existing Byzantine cathedral – perhaps that was already of this great size? Supposedly the building of the mosque was completed in just 10 years, which to me implies that much of this grandeur must have already been in place.

Leaving the mosque, we split and I head off to use the internet.

On the way to Cham, I pop into a travel agent, who phones the station for me, on 8129105. Time of train? 7am, 3:30pm and 5:45pm. On the internet, I check the Syrian Train Company ( and find that these times don’t correspond to anything listed. Then again, they don’t list *any* trains in the morning, so that sounds a bit suspect too. And later back at the hotel, I ask them to call, and get another time – 6:55am! I think it’s one of those “go to the station and see” situations, which I wouldn’t mind, but if I miss it, I’m potentially going to have to wait the whole day at the station!

At Cham, I get the usual disdainful service, but free internet, and today Blogger works! Strange. I find out from Orange that I can’t get a phone upgrade until June! Drat! What do I do? For now, I head home back to the hotel for some BBC World before meeting Rob and Annette for dinner.

Al-Kawalhi Restaurant
For dinner, we enjoy a bitingly-cold walk to Al Kawalhi restaurant, tucked away in the old town, and supposedly the host of such distinguished guests as the President, plus of course my good self!

We’re seated in a side room – the main room being fairly full, and order a selection of food off the menu – I do the ordering, and after I’ve ordered almost all the food for the table, the waiter asks me whether this is all for me!!

First out of the blocks is Rob’s single puff with cheese in it, which he generously divvies up between the three of us. Straight after, hummous, tabouleh, vine leaves and stuffed aubergines (or aborigines as they’re described on the menu!).


Aubergines and Vine Leaves

All tasty, but we have no bread – they’d forgotten it. When it comes, we realise it was worth the wait – the bread is divine! Straight out of the oven, really thin, crispy bread, folded and used to scoop up a dollop of the best hummous, my mouth is watering writing this blog entry!

Hummous and Tabuleh

Next up out comes the Mixed Grill and Kibeh in yoghurt. We didn’t really understand the description of Kibeh, but what it turns out to be is a sort of battered covering for a variety of ingredients, in this case minced lamb, the whole thing then sitting in a nice yoghurt sauce.

Naturally by now we need more bread, and there’s a very real danger of just filling up on that, and why not?! By the end of the meal, almost nothing is left, and we’re all full. We query our drinks still not arriving – I had ordered a “Lemon with mint”, and they come, along with some small pastries soaked in honey and a fruit bowel. l ask for coffee and the bill. Now, we’re not sure whether they will charge us for the first round of drinks which never came, so we try to explain this to the waiter. No comprehension whatsoever. The bill comes, no breakdown of course, so we ask what the numbers are made up of. No joy. So I ask for a menu, to try to do a mental tally of how much it should be. I think the combination of these efforts suggested to the chap that we believed he was trying to cheat us, and he was quite surly from this point onwards.

Annette and Rob

The bill was 1,200 pounds, or about thirteen UKP, which for what we had enjoyed was very reasonable, so without further ado we paid up and left, being given an unexpected chocolate as we walked out of the door.

On the way back to the hotel, partially to escape the bracing wind, we pop in to Hejiz Station so I can show the others the implausible scale model of what they are constructing. The chap running the bookshop says it will take 3 years. 30 more like! Anyway, I notice there’s someone sitting in the ticket window! I walk over, and minutes later have a 165 pounds first-class ticket in my hand for Hama, 7am train the following morning. And better, they tell me that there’s a free shuttle which runs from outside here to Kadam in the morning, 6am departure. Marvellous!

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