I try my best to leave the country whenever there are ritualistic festivities. Last Eid I made it to Sri Lanka, this time I crossed the northern border into Syria. I went with a few friends and from the minute we set off till we came back the hilarity never stopped.
Our journey started off on an interesting note. We were told at the border that our Syrian car could only cross after three in the afternoon! And so after our driver sweet talked the guard and my friend and I joked and flirted (Jordanian style) we were let through with no delay.
We arrived in the early afternoon at my favorite hostel, The Haramain. The Haramain is an old Damascan four storey house. The basement is dedicated to laundry and showers. The first floor is the tiny lobby staffed by a couple of very friendly young men, and once through the lobby you see the small “bahra” a typical fountain found in the center of most of the houses’ courtyards. This foyer is surrounded by 5 small rooms with wrought iron beds and tiled with old beautifully colored tiles. A lopsided wooden staircase creaks as you climb up to the first floor also with 5 rooms each with narrow long windows looking out at the alleys surrounding the hostel. The rooms here are charmingly simple also tiled beautifully and housing big old iron beds. The rooms all open to a small sitting room furnished with brown leather couches and armchairs that make an ideal setting for meeting other travelers passing through the city. This place has charm, and a comfortable energy that is laid back, making you feel you really are at home.
After dumping our stuff in our rooms, we walked out towards the old city, which is a lazy 10 minute walk away. The old city of Damascus is by far the most charismatic place in the city. The streets and alleys are well worn by the feet of the many that have traversed through there. The many souks covered and otherwise are an intricate maze of color, sound and people.
Wherever we went I was struck by the simplicity and the commonness of our surroundings. The people if judged by their dress and outward appearance are conservative, yet they were out in droves at all hours of the day and night walking, playing, loving, living and just being. Men, women, and children, the babes, the young and the old were all out despite the stereotypes in our heads that these conservative societies are closed and hidden. They were enjoying the antiquity of their city and it was a refreshing sight to see.
Also surrounding us was the beautiful old architecture of the Umayyads, Ottomans and many others who have left their imprints in metal work, wood, stone, and masonry. All around us was antiquity in a modern space. Walking the alleys and streets of the old city was like walking through time. There were turns that lead down narrow streets with windows set high and doorways leading to all sorts of lives and pleasures. You never knew what to expect when turning a corner or walking through a door way. I will never forget the tiny door that only showed a baker making delicious pasties and a stairway. Walking up was the marvel of storey after storey of a restaurant. That tiny doorway was an entry way to a restaurant that seated over 250 people without trouble and it was constantly full with a waiting list! That doorway was not the only one of its kind many a marvel waited behind a small wooden door for us to stumble upon it.
Once such doorway led down a staircase into the Umayyad Palace Restaurant. There under beautiful arches and amidst gorgeous collections of antiques, memorabilia, artwork and inlaid furniture we were treated to the beautiful sounds of oud and some exquisite music that relaxed the soul. But it was not just an experience for the eyes and ears ever sense was treated with delicacy. The smell of kina and jasmine floated to us from the burner where the leaves were soaked in water in an old iron engraved pot on top of the burner. The eyes were treated with reverence with the beautiful surroundings and if that wasn’t enough then there was the performance of the twirling dervish, who spun around for us, twice, with such grace and elegance. Our taste buds were also indulged to a culinary feast with a four course buffet laid out before us to choose whatever we fancied. Who knew that such an experience was at the tip of our fingers once we pass through a simple doorway in a simple alleyway off the side of the mosque.
Another doorway led us to a museum called the Azem Palace. This was huge old house with three main areas: The Haramlek, The Khadamlek and the Salamlek. These are the family area, the servants area, and the reception area respectively. The house was a fine example of how families lived with the different quarter clearly defined and separated and non interfered with the day to day life of the family. This stop was also a clear example of how nothing is truly closed! Parts of the museum were “closed” for renovations however, with a kind word and a beaming smile we were let through to the Haramlek which as I mentioned was closed for renovation. We sat in this huge courtyard that had a fountain and a small pool, beautiful citrus trees and a small band of cats. They were following the caretaker around, for he feeds them daily. We were introduced to their names and they played and sat with us for a while. Today they alone are the true inhabitants of the palace.
At complete odds with what it led to was the doorway to Villa Moda, set in the heart of the old city, with a huge old wooden door opens to the most luxurious, most lavish and most expensive designer wear available in the city. It was in such contrast with everything around, meant to shock, awe and intimidate.
Regardless of where the doorways led, they were beautiful. Some were huge with smaller doors within others were just the right size, and others required us to duck down as we walked through them. As I was inspecting one such door I turned around to see a swarm of children who suddenly gained the same interest in the door and about 10 boys wanted to help me peer through and open the door. I was astounded at how fast I went from being alone to being circled by these ever helpful boys, that it was so comical I couldn’t stop laughing for a full 10 minutes.
But not everything we saw was through a doorway. Some of Damascus was laid out before us and for more on the Damascus we experienced read the next post: A Walk Through The Land of The Umayyads.