In Damascus 2

March 9 2009

In Damascus

Syria participates less in global culture and international systems than most places do and gets criticised for this. But Damascus is still itself. I am not calling it “quaint”. I used the word “modern” deliberately at one point in the last post, but that was about certain people. The city needs serious investment, but what tourists like about it belongs to the way the world was, not the way it is or is becoming. Damascus is a survival.

Syria is poorer than, for example, Iraq. Damascus, for me, is a more interesting city than Cairo. Perhaps it has more potent local cultural memories.

Pictures taken with my phone on a wintery February afternoon.

There was a good religious atmosphere in the Grand Umayyad mosque. One felt a long way from the dreary and mechanical-seeming Islam we’re getting used to. There was reverence and mystery at the shrine of the heads of those who fell at the Battle of Karbalā.

These images look like Renaissance studies of perspective. Click to enlarge.

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This is one of the most venerable mosques in the world. It was the first ever entered by a pope. It is very different from the cold, expensive, floodlit power-mosques which have been built all over the world recently with Saudi Arabian or other money and which seem always to be there to make a political point and to be the biggest in that city or country or continent. (I remember particularly detesting one in Casablanca built by Hassan II.)

The roof of the Al-Hamadiyah Souk. The holes (I was told) were made by French planes. (“Strafing” was a “humorous adaptation of the German World War I catchphrase Gott strafe England, ‘may God punish England’”.)

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There are over a million Iraqi refugees in Syria, many of them Shiite. The banner in this street of Shiites in the Old City quotes the Quran (roughly, God protects you and purifies your soul). The black commemorates the martyrdom of Husayn bin Ali.


When you buy food on the street in Syria or in a cheap restaurant, it’s always more delicious than you expect it to be. It still tastes of food. Lebanese food gets all the praise, quite undeservedly in my view.

The Bakdash ice-cream shop in the same souk. Nobody noticed the camera or I wouldn’t have photographed.

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For JGD, who requested them, some pictures of the Orient Palace Hotel. This is opposite the old Hejaz railway station, which was closed in 2004 and is now deserted. It is sure to become a hotel. The railway (originally Damascus-Medina) has not gone anywhere near the Hejaz since TE Lawrence blew up a section of it during the First World War. Here is a picture of the station and the space in front of it. The space must have been more imposing when the station was functioning and there was less traffic. There is no “green area in the middle”. Perhaps there used to be. The hotel has sunk fairly low and (according to Lonely Planet) mainly serves Iranian tour groups. Perhaps Agatha Christie stayed there on her way to Palmyra.

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Just as you are convinced Syrians are politically mature because they show backbone on America-Israel (a false inference anyway), you come across the conspiracy theory again.

Why were all the Jews not at work on 9/11? Buildings like the twin towers can’t collapse from the top down, didn’t you see the explosion half way up? Do you really think Osama bin Laden was responsible? (That question at least hints at the germ of a valid one.) Do you really believe that the person found in the cellar was Saddam Hussein? Do you believe that both his sons could have been killed at once? All this is party conversation with foreigners (if you get on to these matters) in the Middle East.

6 Responses to “In Damascus 2”

  1. qunfuz Says:

    excellent post. i agree with everything you say. i heard the bullet holes in the hamidiyyeh are from French (and Senegalese) infantry firing in the air (as well as into bodies).

  2. I stayed at the Orient Palace Hotel (and never was ‘palace’ more a misnomer) about 15 years ago. No Iranian tour groups then but backpackers of all nationalities and all stripes of archaeologists. It was pretty primitive but — shall we say — vibrant. When I returned to Damascus a year later, I’m ashamed to say I went upmarket, to a modern, faceless hotel; bathrooms, you know.

    I agree with you that Damascus is far more interesting as a city than Cairo, although less stimulating intellectually. Perhaps that’s changed now with half the Iraqi middle class living there.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    The low buildings on the barren hills around the city look like lichen.

  4. […] My view of Hassan II is reflected here. […]

  5. davidderrick Says:

    The Oriental Palace. “Perhaps Agatha Christie stayed there on her way to Palmyra.”

    In The Gate of Baghdad in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934), which I have just bought on a pavement in Mumbai:

    “He was standing on the streets of Damascus and drawn up outside the Oriental Hotel he saw one of the huge six-wheeled Pullmans that was to transport him and eleven other people across the desert to Baghdad on the morrow.”

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