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Volume 16, Number 3May/June 1965

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Silks And Seeds And Silver Swords

Camel saddles. Sir? An amulet, Madame? Or a hat, perhaps? We've jugs, and javelins, brushes and beads...

Written by Daniel Da Cruz

If you happen to be in the market for a dog muzzle, a canvas belt, a Thermos jug, a horse bridle, an artificial leg, a bandoleer, a cow bell, a football, a clothes line, an amulet against the evil eye, a racing saddle, a shopping bag, a padlock, a fiber inner sole, a canteen, a laundry brush, a swagger, stick, a string of worry beads, or a leather fly swatter, Sa'id Tughli's six-by-nine-foot shop in Damascus' Suq al-Hamidiyah, which he shares with his abundance of merchandise, two sewing machines, two sons and a welcoming smile that embraces all humanity, is unquestionably the place for you.

If, on the other hand, your tastes run to javelins, razor blades, panama hats, chewing gum, French perfume, dart boards, pith helmets, dark glasses, police whistles, sport shirts, hammocks, baby blankets, table tennis paddles, silk neckties, hot water bottles, boxers' mouthpieces, brass polish, key chains, spiked soccer shoes, watchbands, paisley scarves, chess sets, coat hangers, woolen underwear, toothpaste, compasses, skin divers' snorkels, cuff links or switchblade knives, the shop you're looking for is Silo's, which is roughly half the size of Tughli's and just around the corner.

Buried deep amid the labyrinthine passageways of the sprawling, ancient suqs—markets or bazaars—of Damascus, Tughli's and Silo's are in microcosm the great bazaar itself—a marriage of convenience between modern merchandise and stubbornly traditional merchandising methods, a total incapacity for haste, a finely-developed instinct for plucking the potential buyer from among the horde of window shoppers, and a lofty indifference toward the fast lira, for, in the suqs of Damascus, what still matters is not the bargain, but the bargaining.

A single step takes you from the hot asphalt streets of downtown Damascus into the cool interior of the roofed-over "Street called Straight"—and right out of the 20th century. The Acts of the New Testament record that down this very thoroughfare, perhaps upon these same worn cobblestones, walked Ananias to whom the Lord said: "Arise, and go into the Street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus..."

The pressure of centuries has squeezed the Street called Straight—in Roman times a proud avenue 100 feet wide stretching an arrow-straight mile from the Bab al-Jabiyah to the East Gate—into a narrow and twisted thoroughfare only a third its former width. Today some 500 shops crowd the western end of the street, those of the textile merchants and the food sellers, the copper and brass dealers, the mosaic makers and the brocade weavers—each in turn occupying what is by tradition long established, their section of the street. Parallel to the Street called Straight is the Suq al-Hamidiyah (named for Turkish Sultan 'Abd al-Hamid), only a third the length of its neighbor but lined with more than 700 shops. Clustered around these two main streets, and hemmed in by the ancient walls of the Old City, are a dozen or so other suqs, each with its specialty.

The Saddlers' Suq deals in spurs, bridles, buggy whips, cartridge belts, and the hundreds of other leather and metal items associated with horses and the hunt. The Fez Suq sells fewer tarbooshes (the brimless hat usually called the 'fez' in the West) than it did in the days of Turkish occupation, but compensates by providing headgear of all descriptions, from the kafiyyah headcloth and black camel-hair agal, or headrope, of the tribes, to the latest in snapbrims and Texas Stetsons. The Greek Suq has traditionally catered to tourists who crave camel saddles, curved daggers, antique jewelry and Arab coffee sets, with egg-shell cups so tiny that five can fit into an American teacup. The Tobacco Suq sells ripely yellow, exquisitely carved meerschaum pipes, blends of tobacco made on the spot to the customer's order, and decorative stems for the narghilah (what the West calls the hubble-bubble or waterpipe) which, when encrusted with gold and semiprecious stones, cost in the hundreds of dollars.

The Booksellers' Suq and the Boot-and-Shoe Suq deal, unremarkably enough, with books and boots, respectively. The Old Clothes Suq is perhaps the answer to what ever became of your old tweed suit coat. It may well have wound up here, to be bought for the equivalent of a dollar or two and worn for another dozen years by some poor Syrian workman. A major source of the merchandise for this suq is the wholesale dealers in used clothing in the United States and Europe, who bale suits and dresses like plantation cotton and ship them to the East, where anyone from peasants and longshoremen can be seen sporting Hart, Schaffner & Marx and I. Magnin labels.

The Spice Suq sells the multitude of aromatic flavoring and preserving spices—cardamom, clove, sage, basil, thyme, bay leaf, marjoram, curry, dill, rosemary and dozens of others—many of them native to the Middle East where they give taste and variety to local diets. Then there is the Seed Suq, which supplies cashews, pistachios, pecans, pine seeds, peanuts and almonds, as well as roasted chickpeas and salted watermelon seeds—the latter the Arab equivalent of popcorn.

Doubtless the most colorful marketplace, and magnetically irresistible to women, is the Silk Suq, whose dozens of shops display their goods in tiers of bolts stretching from floor to ceiling, and fastooning the storefronts to invite the appraising touch. Here have been sold for centuries the world's richest cloths, the names of many of them revealing their Middle Eastern origin: muslin from Mosul, Iraq; damask linen from Damascus; baldachin, originally a silk fabric from Baghdad; gauze from Gaza.

Though it never fails to excite the wonder of foreign visitors, who cannot understand how a hundred shops, every one of them selling virtually identical merchandise at closely competitive prices, can survive side by side, this peculiarly Eastern practice has endured with surprisingly little modification at least since the days of the ancient Greeks. In those early times, when government was still a matter of personal leadership rather than bureaucratic organization, such modern commonplaces as fire and police protection, standards of weights and measures, building codes, product quality control, labor legislation and the enforcement of fair prices simply didn't exist. In self-defense against a community of customers who had little sympathy for their problems, dealers in like commodities banded together to bring order to their trade. They fixed minimum standards of quality for their goods, maintained warehouse facilities, participated jointly in wholesale buying and selling, set up rules for the training of apprentices, fixed prices and working hours, agreed on uniform weights and measures, and ruthlessly fought unscrupulous traders. Men in the same line of work regarded themselves as a brotherhood, not as competitors, and the system took root in medieval Europe to become the guilds—ancestors both of modern labor unions and the learned societies in which physicians, chemists, engineers and other professionals seek the understanding and protection of their own kind.

Other survivals of ancient practices persist in the Middle Eastern Suq. No clear-cut distinction is made, for instance, between the makers and vendors of a particular product. The same men (and in the suqs there are rarely female workers or salesgirls) frequently produce and sell, with an appreciation of the true value of their merchandise rarely found among salesmen in the West. That, in turn, may account for the persistence of the most famous of all Middle East customs—the immemorial process of bargaining which, in the suqs, has been brought to a delicate perfection. Bargaining in the suqs combines a commercial transaction with a test of wit, manners, skill in acting and the pleasures of a purely social visit; it usually proceeds something like this:

"That's an interesting-looking manuscript—there, next to that engraved dagger. May I have a look at it?"

"By all means! Which one do you wish to see—the 18th-century firman (scroll) of Mustafa III on the left, or the 15th-century illuminated copy of the al-Mutanabbi poem on the right?"

"The firman, of course. I'm not interested in copies. How much are you asking?"

The proprietor dusts off a chair with a great show of deliberation, and places it a fraction of an inch closer to his desk.

"Terribly hot day, isn't it? Would you like a cold drink before your coffee?"

"Pray do not disturb yourself, for I really can't stay," says the patron earnestly, sitting down. "But if you mean to insist, I'd prefer coffee alone—mazbuta."

"Two coffees, little sugar," the shopkeeper says, snapping his fingers at a passing boy who balances a tray of empty cups as he threads through the crowd. "Now, sir, as to the price of the firman, I will tell you frankly that, although it is indisputably a masterpiece of the calligrapher's art and quite unique, I am weary of seeing it in the shop, where until today no one took the slightest notice of it. Therefore, to a discriminating gentleman like yourself—may God preserve you—I could be persuaded to part with it for the ridiculous sum of—shall we say—250 Syrian pounds."

The customer laughs softly. "As you say—ridiculous. My cousin 'Abd al-'Aziz Khurshid, who happens to be a good friend of your nephew Abu Talib, warned me that you have a sly sense of humor. For a moment I thought you were speaking of the firman, when it is obvious that your quotation refers to the illuminated copy."

"Ah, would that it were so cheap," the proprietor says apologetically, "but still it is exceedingly reasonable at 475 pounds—450 for a family friend of my sister's second son."

The coffee comes, and the discussion slips imperceptibly from the subject of manuscripts to family and friends, politics, school days, the changes in the city since their childhood, the terrible inflation of prices since the war. And just as imperceptibly, the discussion comes full circle.

"And speaking of prices," the customer is saying, having put down an empty cup with the traditional salutation dayme, "would you believe that I bought a similar firman in Aleppo not ten years ago, for barely half the price? Not a single water stain on it, either."

"A slight yellowing merely proves the document authentic ... Very well," the dealer says resignedly, "I will sacrifice my profit, though my heirs will curse me for it. Two hundred pounds. My last, absolute, final word."

The customer rises slowly to his feet, the hand that hovered near his inside breast pocket falling to his side. "Your coffee was excellent, your shop fascinating, your views on the current state of affairs most absorbing. All the same, I'm afraid I couldn't distress your heirs for the sake of a second-class antiquity, which in any case is not worth above 150 pounds. Thank you very much for a pleasant half-hour, and good day." He shakes hands warmly with the proprietor and starts to leave the shop. A hesitant cough behind him brings him up sharply.


"I'd be disgraced if you went away empty-handed. You may have the firman for 180 pounds, provided you never breathe a word of my foolishness to my colleagues—they'd laugh me out of business."

"I would be the worst kind of ingrate to ignore such a kind offer," the customer says, "and to show you my appreciation I am going to relieve you of that inferior copy—which I strongly suspect to be a forgery, by the way—as well." He reaches for his notecase. "Five hundred pounds for the pair—agreed ?"

The proprietor calls upon heaven to witness his soft heart and even softer head, meanwhile reaching for the wrapping paper. That night he tells his wife, "Remember that Mutanabbi poem we've never been able to move? Well, today," he says, rubbing his hands briskly, "this distinguished but, alas, uninformed gentleman came in and ..."

The customer is also relating his day: "I finally got it, and the old pirate never suspected a thing! As for that firman—we can always give it to your father on his next birthday. He values such trifles."

All the world loves a bargain.

But not everybody comes to the suqs of Damascus to buy or sell. As it is in life, so too in the suqs the best things—the sights, the sounds, the smells—are free. From the moment you pass through Jabiyah Gate onto the Street called Straight, you are witness to a pageant which has been played out daily here for uncounted centuries. The setting is properly ageless: the darkened street is a great long cavern, walled here by 17 feet of 3rd-century Roman stones, there by massive blocks of rock hewn during the days of Saladin (whose tomb, incidentally, lies within a modest garden in this same bazaar area), and covering all is a roof of galvanized iron, leaking sunlight to the cobbled street below through countless holes made by stray bullets during the 1926 revolt against the French occupier.

The actors, too, have an oriental diversity. Hawk-nosed, eagle-eyed patriarchs just hours off the desert sweep along in long robes, followed at a discreet distance by their black-veiled women; German tourists in lederhosen. peeling noses and serious mien, guidebook in one hand and camera in the other, stride purposefully along, missing nothing; pilgrims from Persia in white skullcaps and pointed shoes stare in wonder at the goods on display; ebon-skinned Sudanese, wrapped in layers of clothes and an imperturbable dignity, peddle hot peanuts to the passers-by; a smudge-nosed, barefoot gamin races laughing through the crowd, depending on youthful speed to escape the wrathful shopkeeper from whom he has just borrowed a juicy pomegranate; a covey of white-topped nuns, all starch and rustle, whispers along, oblivious of the hurley-burley about them; a pair of middle-aged Syrian gentlemen, immaculately clad in white linen and red tarbooshes, stroll arm-in-arm discussing world problems in flawless French; a porter with bulging muscles and horny feet half-trots under the weight of 20-odd five-gallon tins, while the crowd parts, like the water under a ship's prow.

A little beyond the Silk Suq, vivid with rainbow colors, lies the Suq of the Coppersmiths, whose wares glint in sunbursts of gold from the faint light above and where the tinkling beat of their hammers joins the clangor from the blacksmiths' anvils, where bare-chested vulcans beat white-hot metal into sickles, shovels and plowshares. Over all can be heard the sputtery backfire of motorbikes threading between the pedestrians—for street and sidewalk are all one in an Eastern bazaar—the strident braying of a donkey protesting his heavy load, a fragment of mournful song from behind a workshop wall, and the clash of brass cups by which the vendors of lemonade, raisin water, licorice water and orange juice announce their approach. "O, cheer thine heart," one cries, while another choruses, "Drink, O thirsty ones." And five times each day is heard the sacred chant of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer at the great Umayyad Mosque, a calm island in a boisterous sea of people.

Near the Great Mosque you spot a shop-window crowded with daggers, steel armor, maces and swords and all the paraphernalia for personal combat, for in the East the ideal in window display is to place one's entire stock, if possible, on public view. You ask to see the bright-bladed sword with the gold-encrusted hilt. It is handed to you carefully and then snatched away, as you start to flex the blade in the bravura manner of the Hollywood Saracen. Then you learn with surprise that only in the movies is the famed Damascus blade bent point to hilt; actually its virtue is a razor-sharpness that can cleave armor, but it is very brittle. How old is this sword? Eight hundred years, at the very least. And what is its price? This particular one, sir, is $890—but for you ... Thank you very much, you say, moving off.

Amid the vagrant odors of baked bread, scorching mahogany from a woodworker's lathe, and roasting coffee, the fragrance of a tiny shop attracts you, and you pause before its open shelves and rank on rank of little glass vials. Oriental perfumes, the owner explains, and only when pressed does he tell you that the principal suppliers are factories in Grasse, France, up in the hills beyond Nice, and other firms in Switzerland, the Netherlands and Germany. The huge carboys, though, are filled with Syrian rosewater and the essence of orange blossom, much valued locally as medicinal drinks.

Down the street you come to a shop from Lilliput: a diminutive workbench over which two watchmakers bend, foreheads an inch apart, their bald heads reflecting light from the single bulb between them. You mentally measure the shop, then do it again with the same result: two yards frontage by something less than a yard deep. Why such microscopic shops, you finally ask, and the explanation is quickly forthcoming: typical "key money"—the price you must pay an occupant to relinquish his tenancy—for a shop of 50 square feet (slightly larger than a Hollywood bed), is $16,500.

Scarcely more spacious are the shops of the Gold Suq, though here every shop must sacrifice some of its precious space for a glass window, to separate its displayed stock from the temptations of the light-fingered. The complete furnishings usually consist of a desk, two or three chairs, a heavy iron safe of vintage design, and a set of jeweler's scales. The Gold Suq is always crowded, and never more so than when times are uncertain and people rush to convert immovable property into something small, portable and unlikely to depreciate—like the gold, pearls and precious stones which are the lifeblood of this suq. In the Orient, banks have never had the appeal they enjoy in the Western world, and a .woman's, dowry and lifelong savings are customarily worn on the arms in the form of thin gold bracelets complemented, when means allow, by solid gold rings set with precious stones.

Nor are the prices arbitrary in the Gold Suq. Eighteen-karat gold sells currently for 375 piasters (3.75 Syrian pounds, or approximately one U.S. dollar) a gram, while 21-karat gold costs 430 piasters; no other quality of gold is traded here. Bracelets bought mainly for investment range in price from 20 to 60 pounds each, while a more decorative piece, a 21 -karat bracelet weighing 129 grams will cost 590 pounds, including about 35 pounds for the workmanship. The purity of each piece of gold sold in the suq is attested by the goldsmiths' guild, which laboratory-tests each piece offered for sale and imprints its tiny stamp thereon if the gold is of the requisite fineness; if not, the piece is confiscated and the maker fined. The abundance of precious metal, pearls, sapphires and diamonds in the space of less than a city block would seem an irresistible lure to thieves, yet a leading gold merchant cannot recall the last robbery—and he has been in business at the same shop for the past 45 years.

Still, by the standards of the Damascus bazaar, this is but yesterday. Merchants whose families have been in the same line of work since before the American Revolution are commonplace, and more than a few proudly claim direct descent from merchant moguls of the Middle Ages. It may well be true, for it is in the continuity of the traditions of unhurried hospitality and exquisite craftsmanship, as much as in the richness of its merchandise, that the enduring spirit of the great suq resides.

Daniel da Cruz, a free lance writer and correspondent, writes regularly for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 26-32 of the May/June 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1965 images.