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Volume 13, Number 10December 1962

In This Issue

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A Walk Around Damascus

Travelers to this old, old Syrian city find history underfoot every step of the way.

Tradition makes Damascus the oldest walled city in the world—and the strict truth of that claim is quite irrelevant. Assuredly in one of the old bazaars of this Syrian city is an Aladdin's lamp from the days before magic became neglected. Perhaps some cramped genii will assemble a group of Western tourists through whose eyes this exotic place may be visited. With a rub of the lamp, let them appear in Merjeh Square—between the new and the old city—with guidebooks in hand.

The guidebooks relate that the Barada River, called Abana River in the Bible, flows through the heart of Damascus. Lush groves surround the city's walls. Low hills from the Anti-Lebanon range bound the area to the east, while the peaks of Jebel es-Sheikh (Mt. Hermon), el-Aswad (the Black Mountain), and Mani (the Inaccessible) stand as sentinels over the green valley. Such richness in the midst of desertlands inspired many a Bedouin's voice to song and poetry. Included in the guidebooks is the city's ancient story, when Damascus was renowned over the civilized world for its trade, its silks, called "damask," and the keenness of its shimmering steel blades.

But enough of the guidebooks. The businessman, always on a busman's holiday, will want to drift over to the business district in the Harika Quarter, just south of the thirteenth-century Citadel. In the Midan Quarter, farther on, the glass factories may intrigue him, as well. But equally appealing to commercial souls are the bazaars of the city. These are all "specialized," so that the Harir Suq sell silks, the Kuya deals in leathers, the Arsuniyeh handles hardware, the es-Sagha jewelry, and the Besuriah carries sweets to appease wives who wanted to visit the Dadeh Palace. The potential buyer in the East does his market research simply by walking down the street!

"I want to buy something for the office," says the fellow wearing the straw hat, a sports shirt and sunglasses. The group wanders over to "the" bazaar of Damascus—the Suq Hamadiyeh. There, beneath a covered arcade stretching for blocks, one can find all the products of the East. Silks, brocades, cleverly wrought metals, leather goods of all descriptions, "oriental" merchandise, pottery, glass, and an endless array of camel saddles, braided whips and curved Bedouin daggers are displayed in the shops, on the streets, hanging from awnings, and in the hands of sidewalk salesmen! This is "the East," at least for the tourist, and it has all the sights and noises traditionally belonging to the Arabian Nights. Syrian merchants in business suits, Bedouins from the desert, sturdy laborers, loquacious guides,—and unmistakable tourists—jam the streets. Here, too, honeymooners in the party can pick up great brass trays, inlaid Koran stands, leather hassocks, cigarette boxes, ivory elephants, Persian carpets, or silver coffee sets to adorn their new apartment in authentic Near Eastern decor.

But what of the delightful couple in the group who are on their way to the Holy Land? Surely Damascus has something for them, too. "Isn't this the place where Paul stayed?" they ask. Yes, and also where, so says tradition, Adam took up residence and Cain slew Abel. Jebel Kassiun, far to the west of the city, claims Adam's cave, but the Bab Touma section, over near the eastern wall, is the actual Christian quarter. It is there that visitors find the small underground chapel marking the House of Ananias, the instructor of Paul. Just south of it, stretching roughly East-West, is Suq Midhat Pasha. "What would you call this street?" someone asks—and the whole group replies, "the Street Called Straight of New Testament fame."

This street, in good Roman town-planning fashion, was the Main Street, or carda recta, of old Damascus. In the middle of its long expanse there stands a Roman arch of the second century A.D., and at its far end is a triple gate called "Bab es-Sharqi," now almost unrecognizable amid the houses which have used two of its arches for rooms.

Leaving the city by that gate, the group follows the wall to the south and stops at Bab Kisan to see the "window" through which Paul is said to have made his prudent, but slightly irregular, exit in a basket! Not far from that spot is the traditional site of his conversion to Christianity, and almost at the other end of the Street Called Straight is the traditional location of the house of Jude, where Paul is said to have been baptized.

"I say, wait a moment until I copy this inscription," says a scholarly-appearing youth in the party who has been busily taking notes on everything along the way. He is working now on a little Greek inscription over the eastern door of the Great Mosque. When he gets home, he will find that it comes from Byzantine days, when the mosque was a Christian church. For such a studious type, Damascus is a veritable gold mine.

Within walking distance of each other are sites which allow one to jump from the days of the Roman general Pompey down to the romantic era of the Crusaders. The history of the Great Mosque reflects the changes this span of years brought. On the ruins of a pagan temple to the god Rimmon, the Romans erected a temple to Jupiter. When Christianity gained ascendency, the temple became a church, with the head of John the Baptist as its most cherished relic. Byzantine rulers refurbished the place from time to time, vying with each other in munificence. In the seventh century the building finally became a mosque, after being shared as a place of worship by both Christians and Muslims. Because of the political prominence of Damascus, the Great Mosque soon became a major place of Muslim worship and was adorned by skilled craftsmen from all parts of the world. So great was their skill that the mosque surpassed even the splendors of Byzantine days in the lavishness of gold and silver, thick carpets, carved columns and lofty minarets.

A small side-door of the mosque leads the historian-tourist to the tomb of Saladin. There rests Islam's victorious champion against the crusading armies of all Europe. When the group visited the Silk Market, they passed the tomb of another opponent of the "Franks," the mighty Nur ed-Din of Aleppo. Much of the building in the old part of Damascus was done by this medieval ruler and many of his immediate successors.

"How about seeing some of this building?" asks the architect in the party. For students of architecture, the old buildings of Damascus are priceless because of their preservation in the midst of modern urban expansion. Not only are there the ruins and remains of the early periods of Damascene glory—many early buildings are still in use! This is more particularly true of the sixteenth and seventeenth-century structures, of course. Among these, visitors never miss the impressive Tekiyeh Sulemaniyeh, erected by Suliman the Magnificent in the middle of the sixteenth century, on the site of Sultan Beybars' "Black and White" palace; the Adiliya School, now the seat of the Arab Academy and of interest to educators (especially linguists), as well as to the architect; the Zahiriyeh School, once Beybars' palace, then his tomb, and now the National Library; the Silk Kahn, at the entrance to the Silk Market; the Wood Turners' Mosque, with its carved plaster decorations; and the Turkish-style Mosque of the Derwishe.

Folklore and dance are not to be overlooked in the city, either. The "Dancing Dervishes" are a familiar sight in Cairo, but their "home," the Tekiyeh of the Mevlevis, is to be found in Damascus, on the way to the railway station. The descendants of the sixteenth-century Jabbawiya society still recite their old liturgy each week in a meeting house (Mastabat Sa'ad ed-Din) in the Midan Quarter. Likewise, the splendidly restored Azem Palace, near the Great Mosque, is a "must" on every visitor's list. This magnificent private residence took twelve years to build. Appropriately, it is a folk-lore museum of fascinating interest, today. Stepping into its fountain-cooled garden court, the tourists are transported into another world. On every side they may ramble through apartments showing the daily life and culture of a wealthy Arabic family of two centuries ago, its richness in striking contrast to the simplicity of Colonial America of the same period.

And finally, for those in the party with the interests of "armchair" archaeologists, diere remains yet a final sight in this old, old city—the Syrian National Museum. There, in a superbly laid-out building, is housed a sampling of everything seen up to this point, along with specific material from some of the major archaeological "digs" of the past—Palmyra, Dura Europos, and the more recent work at the eighth-century Qasr el-Hair. The Museum also contains one of the best collections of Islamic art in existence—and the rich blue-green glazes of Raqqa and Rasafa wares reflect back the brilliance of gold and silver filigree, enameled glass, and ceramic tile. Faded Arabic manuscripts whisper again the eternal secrets of forgotten science which once awakened the minds of Western men long wrapped in the slumbers of the Dark Ages. Here is the Old, displayed in the bright lights and glass cases of a new age.

This storehouse of antiquity is perhaps -the best place to end a tour of Damascus, to summon the genii once again, and to depart from this incense-laden memory of the ancient Syrian city.

This article appeared on pages 22-24 of the December 1962 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for December 1962 images.