Not only that but I started this quite awhile back (just after the ISIS destruction of Palmyra) and then got waylaid again. And now I am adding a bit more of what I can remember of my experience of living in Damascus.
With all of the news of the destruction in Syria and the latest bombing of the Temple of Baalshamin I decided that I should go through the photos I took while I was in Syria. It was time that I finally took them out of the original envelopes or file folders and put them in albums and some up on the net as well. So far I do have some done and will be putting up more over the next couple of weeks.
During my time in the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT) my second overseas posting was to Damascus, Syria (October 1994 to August 1997) as a Computer Specialist (CS). Because we were responsible for not only maintaining the world wide computer network (WAN), which connected the Missions to headquarters, the local network that interconnected with the WAN but also providing hands on support and user training at the Mission, we were more commonly referred to by ourselves as well as Mission staff as SA’s (Systems Administrator). While I have many work stories and experiences this is more about what we did see of Syria and the sadness that now most of it has been destroyed.
First a little history of Damascus: Founded in the Third millennium BC, Damascus was an important cultural and commercial centre, by virtue of its geographical position at the crossroads of the orient and the Occident, between Africa and Asia. The old city of Damascus is considered to be among the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world Excavations at Tell Ramad on the outskirts of the city have demonstrated that Damascus was inhabited as early as 8,000 to 10,000 BC. It was the capital of an Aramaic kingdom (11th-7th centuries BC), often at war with the kings of Israel and temporarily conquered by King David. After being defeated twice by the Assyrians, it was definitively conquered by Nebuchadnezzar in 600 BC. It fell into Persian hands in 530 BC, and then in 333 BC it was annexed to the empire of Alexander the Great. The two adjoining areas were unified by the Romans, during the reigns of Septimius Severus and his son Caracalla (AD 197-217). The city was enclosed by a single ring of enclosure walls that are still quite visible. In spite of Islam's prevailing influence, traces of earlier cultures particularly the Roman and Byzantine continue to be seen in the city. Thus the city today is based on a Roman plan and maintains the aspect and the orientation of the Greek City, in that all its streets are oriented north-south or east-west and is a key example of urban planning.
The first trip into “Downtown” Damascus can be quite a daunting experience. Downtown Damascus or what in most modern cities would be called ‘the central business district’ is within the old walled area of the city. The old city of Damascus is surrounded by Roman built walls and encloses the various souqs, or shopping streets. Entering through one of the seven gates you are engulfed by people! That is one of things that we will always remember about our time in Damascus is the number of people in the souqs, wandering through the narrow covered alleyways rubbing shoulder to shoulder with, mainly, the local Syrians. The Al-Hamidiyah Souq is the largest of the various souks and is usually casually referred to as the tourism souq. The first several trips through this area can be quite intimidating with local people rushing up with comments such as; come to my uncles shop, my shop has the best prices, first customer today, no bargaining set price, or can I walk with you to practice my English, I will be your tour guide. Usually a no thank you would usually send that person on their way but only to be immediately met by another. If you do make the mistake of entering a shop be prepared for a cup of tea and then the hard sell and heavy bargaining. Shopping in the souqs was not always a quick easy event. Be prepared to spend at least an hour sipping tea and bargaining. Luckily, some fellow Canadians, directed us to several shops where not only was there ‘set prices’ but we also received an automatic discount. Even the set prices were at least 10 to 20 per cent lower than the best price you could get by spending an hour bargaining in the shops on Al-Hamidiyah Souq.
Unlike shopping areas in Western cities with malls and streets hosting a multitude of different stores, the shopping in old cities in the Middle East is within these souqs, and each souq is designated to one specific commodity. Therefore, you get hardware in the hardware souq, candy in the candy souq, coffee in the coffee souq, spices and herbs in that souq and of course gold in the gold souq and the list goes on! It does not take long to find your way through the various souqs to do your shopping. Although we did all of our major grocery shopping in Lebanon!
Strolling through the various souqs and back streets of old Damascus was like walking back in time. You were surrounded by buildings and walls that were built in the time of Jesus Christ and the streets may have been even old than that. When we had visitors, either guests or work colleagues the men would usually go to the Roman hammam and the ladies to the gold souq to all meet up at 11pm or midnight at one of the restaurants in the old section. Imagine wandering through narrow unlit alleyways at that hour and you're only fear was stepping in donkey droppings! Or even thinking of going out for a restaurant meal at midnight and be welcomed? During our time in Damascus we never felt as if we were in any danger. Well, driving was as a different matter.
Whenever we would make a trip to the souks I always found it to be a wonderful adventure. While I did not particularly being bothered by the hawkers wanting me to visit their or their uncle’s shop usually a quick no would suffice. While Wendy would be off shopping, or even just stopping into one of our usual shops to say hello, I would be off wandering some of the narrow side alleyways. Some archeologists suggest that there are actually seven cities built one on top of the other! In one way this can be seen by visiting St. Ananias' Church. St. Ananias' Church is believed to have been built in the 5th or 6th century. At that time the entrance would have been at street level. Now to enter you have to go down a flight of stairs to the main entrance. You can see how the earth has built up around the original structure over the centuries.
At every turn there was immediate evidence of the Roman occupation of the city. Grand columns and gateways as well as the original cobble stone roads were always only a stones throw away. As previously mentioned a trip to the 2nd century Roman hammam (steam bath) was always something to invoke memories of a time long past. The hammam that we visited in the old section of the souks was reportedly built in the 2nd century and restored in the 1920’s. A visit which lasted at least 3 hours included; sauna, cold pool, steam room, soap scrub, and massage cost about the equivalent of $8.00! Much less than the price of a movie ticket.
I made a work trip back to Damascus in 2008 and noticed quite a difference. The old city now had most of the streets with name tags in both Arabic and English. During our time most streets had no street signs, you just learned with street was which. The Umayyad Circle (referred to as the Oh my God circle) which had seven roads merge into two lane circle now had an underpass/tunnel which connected the two main streets. As well there was now, although government controlled, internet access and large grocery stores were making an appearance. When we were there we had to go to Lebanon to do our grocery shopping. The city and country was slowly opening and becoming a bit more Western.
When I think that this part of the city is at least 2,000 years old and has withstood the test of time and previous conflicts it breaks my heart to even think what the city is like today.
Later more on visits to:
Crac des Chevaliers, is a Crusader castle in Syria
Bosra is a town in southern Syria, with a Roman theater
Ma'lula is a town in Syria with one of the oldest surviving monasteries in Syria
Hama a city with a Roman waterwheel