Syria, and the first thing that comes into many people’s mind are Islamic radicals. I suppose today it is the ongoing futile dissension. In addition, many countries’ travel advisory notifications strongly recommend that it is unsafe to travel to Syria. As we discovered both were so far from the truth. Farida and I arrived in Damascus after an uncomfortable taxi ride from Irbid in Jordan.
After checking into the hotel we wandered out into the streets of Damascus, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, passing the street vendors with their hand beaten ice cream with pistachios to the old souk of Al Hamidieh.
In Al Hamidieh I was amused to see two women completely covered in their black burqas shopping for lingerie that I would expect to see in a sex shop in Paris or Rome. Farida was totally amazed, not at the women looking at the lingerie, but that they were being served by a man. To her, it seemed a form of contradiction where in a country where women are advised to cover their heads and bodies and yet be allowed to be served by men when buying such intimate and personal apparels and undergarments.
The souk contained everything from everyday items to expensive hand printed cloths, brocades and local silks.
The Umayyad Mosque was the oldest and to me one of the most magnificent mosques I have visited. This 1,200 year-old mosque displays some of the scientific wonders of that time such as the astronomical clock on the Al-Arous minaret and the solar clock on one of the northern columns. The artistic qualities of the mosaics are very intricate and made of small tiles. In Al-Hussein’s hall is the head of St John the Baptist, so the mosque is not only popular with Muslims but Christians as well.
As we walked the narrow streets of the old town we were pleasantly amazed to see a church and mosque having an adjoining wall. The West, for some unknown reason appears to portray Syria as a country full of Islamic fanatics. To us this could not be further from the truth, as the Christians and Muslims live in complete harmony.
We entered the café to have a cup of local coffee, which was coffee with cardamom and another Syrian surprise. Sitting in the café were two young ladies, from the university, dressed in jeans and tops sharing a hookah, also known as hubbly bubbly or shishah in other countries like Egypt. Farida went up to the girls and asked if this was the norm in Damascus and they said that they come once a week to ‘relax’ and that quite a few of the young people from Damascus enjoy going to cafés to relax. However, most cafes are male dominated and few have mixed clienteles.
We finally found an excellent taxi driver in Damascus, Mohamed was taking us for a late afternoon tour of the city before taking us up on the hill overlooking the city.
The views from the hill showed just how spread out Damascus was and it was a popular viewing place amongst the locals. There were stalls selling a variety of food and drinks and the locals brought up their portable music and made an evening picnic to watch the sun set over the city. Whilst I was photographing the scenes over the city Farida was discussing life in Syria with Mohamed.
Farida was concerned that Mohamed appeared to be an old-fashioned Muslim who believed that a wife should be for his eyes only. He told Farida that a wife should stay at home, be fully covered when going out with him and it was not necessary for her to work. It was a husband’s duty to provide everything for the house. Their discussion carried on until we got back to the hotel and continued the next day, however there was time for me to get some information about Damascus and Syria. Mohamed was a knowledgeable Syrian and could answer most of my queries.
Mohamed had offered to take us out of the city the following morning to visit Ma’alula, 60 kilometres north of Damascus. I was pleased to note that he turned up on time and his taxi was in immaculate condition. It was good to get out of the hustle and bustle of the city and into the Syrian countryside. It was a pleasant drive as Mohamed was very knowledgeable and the banter between him and Farida was quite amusing. The scenery was similar to that we had seen in Jordan as we neared the two monasteries at Ma’alula. The houses cling to the limestone hills and the inhabitants of Ma’alula still speak Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ.
We visited the fourth century St Sergius and Bacchus monastery and the St Tecia monastery. Farida was pleasantly surprised that Mohamed followed us into the church, as many Muslims refuse to enter churches as they feel that it against their religion. When Farida mentioned this to Mohamed he replied that he was respecting his Christian friends religion by entering their church and who said that the Syrians were fanatical Muslims, obviously the uneducated and ill informed.