Wandering about Damascus

January 17th, 2009 by scott and becky

We really like Damascus. Becky thinks that our image of a place is certainly nicer when the sun is shining. Like Aleppo, Damascus also suffers from daily power cuts. When the power is out, you can see the pollution in the air – which is a real shame because otherwise, Damascus is a very neat city. We would have liked to spend more time here, but we don’t want to risk Becky getting sick again.

Our first order of business for the day was to get Becky’s running shoes repaired. She has a tendency to wear holes in the heel of her shoes, making an otherwise perfect pair of shoes unwearable. At home, the only real option is to replace them, but here there are many places that repair shoes – plus it would be impossible to replace them with anything similar as light hiking shoes are not available here. We found the street of shoe repair vendors and left the shoes with one of them while wandering around for an hour. Upon our return, a patch had been sewn into the heels. Scott first thought the vendor wanted 1000 SP for the repair, but Scott paid him 100 SP and he was happy. Later Scott realized that the number mi’a (which sounds like mille – French for thousand) is actually 100, so it was just that he was confused. So, for about $3 Becky’s shoes have been rescued. Hopefully the repair will give them 4-5 months (until we return to Canada and they can be replaced).

The vendors in the markets are a refreshing change from our experiences in Wadi Musa, Jordan. Each time we bought something (bread, olives, cheese, fruit, vegetables) and gave the vendor a 100 or 50 SP note, we got change back. The prices seemed fair, and Scott is getting better at both reading the price tags and understanding Arabic numbers. With 36SP = 1CAD, the numbers are much bigger now!

The flat-bread was being freshly made in the ovens just behind the stall, and it was a fascinating process. The guys making the bread invited us in to get a closer look and take some pictures. Later, the guys in the cheese stall were especially amused with us. Wanting to ensure that the cheese was not goat or lamb, we were mooing and bah’ing as we pointed at different cheeses. This caused many laughs but also ensured that what we bought was cows cheese! We found all the vendors to be very tolerant of our attempts at Arabic, and friendly without being pushy. The souks in Damascus and Aleppo feel real to us in a way that the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul doesn’t. The Grand Bazaar felt to us like it is mostly there for tourists, and there are pushy touts everywhere. In Syria, the only touts are in the very touristy portions of the souk. Everywhere else it is just the occasional vendor crying his wares. Scott enjoyed listening to two fruit vendors extolling the virtues of their respective oranges today, and it was neat that he could actually understand this was what they were doing, even if he didn’t get the details.

Walking through one of the market streets, Becky wanted to get a picture so she pulled out her camera. Suddenly there were many kids asking to have their pictures taken. It was especially amusing when an older guy jumped into the fray to have his picture taken kissing his son on the cheek. We laughed, and obliged by taking a few photos before continuing on our way. This is the side of Syria which we love, and we’ll definitely miss when we head back to Turkey.

We happened upon the Azem Palace in the old city as we wandered while waiting for Becky’s shoe repair, and decided to pay the 150 SP entrance fee to see it. Our guidebook says that it is a Museum of Popular Arts and Tradition. The Palace itself was not that interesting although Becky found the decorated ceilings quite neat. It was very interesting to watch all the locals who came for the tour. This was Saturday and the place was filled with mostly women and children. Scott found it challenging as he tried to be careful not to smile and make eye contact with all the women in Hijab. Becky enjoyed the opportunity to not have to worry about who she was making eye contact with – it was a nice reversal of roles!

No trip to Damascus is complete without a visit to the Umayyad Mosque. We initially tried entering through the main door, but were quickly re-directed to purchase a ticket and enter through the tourist door. Becky was wearing a long skirt, jacket and her buff as a headscarf, so decided not to wear one of the grey robes they give out to women who are not appropriately dressed. Despite the guidebook comments that all tourist women needed to wear one, she didn’t get any hassles. We did notice that even local women who are not wearing skirts donned the grey robes when entering.

Unlike the Grand Mosque in Istanbul which felt like a Museum or silent place of worship, upon entering the Umayyad Mosque you are immediately struck by the activity. There were children running about in the courtyard (one girl was skating around with her rollerskate/running shoes). The kids climb over every structure in the courtyard as well as some of the structures within the prayer hall. People were sitting and chatting or having a picnic – and of course there were also people praying. It felt like a real community place – much like the Mosque in Ottawa.

The building itself was beautiful. The prayer hall was immense, with four separate minbar (nooks that indicate the direction of Mecca), each one decorated in a different style to represent a different type of Sunni Islam. There are also tombs for John the Baptist (whose head is reported to be buried here although two other places also claim that honour) and the Prophet Al-Hussein, son of Ali, the founder of Shi’a Islam. Just as we were leaving the Mashad Al-Hussein, a large group of pilgrims entered the hall. Scott guesses they were Shi’ite pilgrims (possibly from Iran), although we aren’t sure.

The courtyard is surrounded by many gold inlaid mosaics. We were there as the sun was setting, which caused several of the mosaics to glow – truly beautiful. We were frequently distracted from our picture-taking by children coming up to say hello and practice their English, something with which we’re always happy to help.

One Response to “Wandering about Damascus”

  1. Friedel & Andrew Says:

    Awwww, your photo of the father and son made us so nostalgic. Actually, Friedel (the sappy one) got tears in her eyes. That is the Syria we know and love. What a great shot. Some day I would like to buy a copy from you to frame! (Seriously) – Andrew is far more practical. He just got nostalgic over your description of the bread. Have you had an ice cream yet from Bakdash in the market (not far from the mosque)?

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