From the Travel section in today’s Guardian newspaper (UK):
Withstanding winds of change
Historian Hywel Williams explores the many ages of Damascus, a bustling oasis surrounded by deserts and turmoil
Wednesday January 18, 2006
There are many roads that lead to Damascus. There’s the one from Jordan to the south, which passes near Ezra – whose sixth-century Church of St George contains the supposed remains of that obscure Roman soldier, Christian martyr and patron saint of an England he never knew. Then there’s the road from the north-west that goes down from Beirut and the eastern Mediterranean coast and then through the anti-Lebanon mountain range. Nearby lie the summer resorts of Bloudane and Zabadani – convenient places of refuge in the months when Damascene lungs struggle for fresh air.
The mountains where Syria, Lebanon and Israel meet and compete along their borders seem a natural boundary. But, for the great majority of Syrians, those lands to the west – the old Palestine – remain what they were before the cartographers of the great powers drew their lines in the sands and across the mountains in 1919. This for them is still the greater Syria.
But it’s the road to the east – the one linking Damascus with Baghdad – which provides the most revealing prospect of Syria then and now because it’s the one that gets you inside the skin of that old Middle Eastern condition – the relationship between the desert and the city, between ancient solitudes and civic bustle.
Nowadays, that road is a busy one – a real military highway crowded with grinning Syrian soldiery packed tightly into trucks and jeeps that speed their way to and from the border with Brittanic-American-occupied Iraq. Syria is one of the most militarist societies in the world; most of the country’s GNP is spent on the army. But the militarism goes deep into this sand and soil. Turn left, head north, and you’ll find yourself in the ruins of Palmyra – whose ruling Queen, Zenobia, gave the Roman army a run for its money in 268-272 before the emperor Aurelian got to grips with the threat and crushed her army.
The straight and ugly highways that cut their way with brutal efficiency through this desert landscape started as trade routes, and there’s still a need for water supplies to be driven along here in the summer months. Leave Damascus some two hours before sunrise, drive as furiously as the desert wind itself for two hours, and then there’s a chance to catch for a few minutes the dislocating vision of the rising sun contained in one disc of fire hovering over the desert scene. But loiter too long and there’ll be an investigative motorbike on its way with some soldiers from the nearest concealed watchtower. My own detention at the military base lasted at most two hours: the guards were both amiable and bored as they got up from their fly-infested beds to make the phone call to the Ministry of the Interior which would establish my innocence. But it was a reminder that in this society the desert is not an escape from the city – it is and always has been a part of its structures of power.
Most journeys from Britain to Damascus will start in the chaos and delays of the airport, where Saudi businessmen display a cheerful contempt for queuing before heaving their huge frames into the waiting Merc. With formalities eventually over, in less opulent and bribable instances, the jump into a cab or bus will get you into the outskirts of what claims to be the earth’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Jericho and Aleppo make their counterclaims, but since we’re talking about origins lost in 6,000 years of history the debate is one that’s unlikely to be resolved. Besides which, of these three cities, Damascus is clearly the place that still matters most. The mixture of Jews, Christians and Muslims has been the deepest here and the whirl of Greek, Roman , Persian, Byzantine, Arab and finally French cultural tides has been almost as dizzying in its effect as the revolving dances of those dervishes who were once so important in Syrian culture.
The drive into Damascus reveals a scene much like that of any other large Middle Eastern city – dust and smog in the summer, but a chilling wind in the winter; cafes full of men smoking, ugly high-rise developments, carts full of fruit and vegetables threading their way through gas-guzzling cars, the gesticulation of haggling shopkeepers, a lot of animation. But also in this instance, an underlying listlessness and a wariness. Stuff happens in the New City – the area developed in the late 19th century during the Turkish colonial period – because this is where the rural population has migrated in huge numbers as the country’s birth rate has continued to soar. Around Yousef al-Azmeh Square, and especially after sunset, the scene is alive with Syrians smartly dressed for the evening display.
But the New City also contains the offices of the government bureaucracy, that elite which is now taking the measure of its new and untried leader Bashar Al-Assad, whose weak-chinned presidential features stare blankly out of the photo frames that hang in the shops of the souks, in restaurants and above desks. An ancient society like this one is well versed in the cynicism of power and its shifting cycles.
And when you get finally inside the old city, there’s a real sense of how and why Damascus has been able to survive by adapting itself to all those shifts of revolving time. At the centre, there’s the Umayyad Mosque, one of Islam’s great architectural glories. It may be bit tatty at the edges, following the restoration needed after a 19th-century fire, but this is substantially the same building that was raised in the early eighth century when, suddenly, Damascus shot to greatness as the seat of power for a world made by the followers of the Prophet. Mohammed had been a man of the desert but the Umayyad dynasty centred in Damascus established a cosmopolitan cultural style across the lands they had conquered, including Persia to the east.
Just to the side of the mosque is the tomb of Saladin, chivalrous conqueror of the Crusaders, who died here in Damascus in 1193. But turn back to the mosque and look at its lower walls, and it’s clear that the stones here are different from the ones in the rest of the building. For these are the remains of the Romans’ temple of Jupiter, a compound that was turned into a Christian church sometime in the late fourth century but then handed over to Islam by the eighth century. And if you look at the mosque’s mosaics, it’s clear that it was craftsmen from Greek-Catholic Byzantium who were imported to do the job of decorating to the glory of Allah.
There are distractions as you journey along these cultural sights, and a lot of jostling from sharp-elbowed Shiite women who now arrive in their busloads from Iran as well as from Iraq. The head of Hussein, son of the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, and founding martyr of Shiite Islam, is in a tomb inside the mosque and attracts a lot of jabbering onlookers. And another head, that of St John the Baptist, seems quite popular too, judging by the money and pleading notes left by the side of the monument.
But money changes at an even greater speed in the surrounding souks, especially in the Hamidiye Souk, which was originally a Roman road but, having been recreated only in the 1870s, now parades a rather fake antiquity. There’s a more genuine feel to Straight Street (Madhat Basha Street), which lies to the south of the mosque and is crowded with shops, both touristy and more unusual. It started life as a Greek road before being turned by the Romans into their Via Recta and it’s along here that the blinded Paul found lodging at the house of Judas, before escaping in that famous basket lowered down the city walls when his gospelling got too vigorous and angered the local Jews.