Saturday, April 11, 2009
Damascus, the capital of Syria, lies to the south of the country and is considered to be one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. I have visited the city three times, but it was only during my most recent visit that I actually toured Damascus properly. I saw it through the eyes of a fascinated tourist, albeit one who apparently looked like a native, rather than the eyes of a religious pilgrim. Not knowing the language of the place you are visiting can be a great hindrance, and this time I was grateful to have my sister as a translator as I toured the streets of Sham. Not only did it help me discover more about my surroundings, but her haggling skills also prevented me from having to pay the foreigner’s price in the souqs (markets).
The most obvious places to visit in Damascus from a personal perspective are the holy shrines of Syeda Zainab and Syeda Ruqayya. When I stepped into the mosques this time, I glanced upwards and looked away as I had done on previous visits. But suddenly, I had to look again when I realised that what I have always taken for granted is in fact a work of architectural and artistic brilliance. Arabic designs cover the ceilings, each one intricately intertwined with the next. Glittering chandeliers illuminate the shrine, their light reflected and enhanced by the mosaic mirrors which border the walls. In Syeda Ruqayya, the designs are somewhat simpler, yet still have a tranquil beauty about them.
I found Damascus to be a city of paradoxes where old and new, rich and poor, and religious and secular all came together in an absurd but intriguing clash. The area around Syeda Ruqayya is generally disorderly; you step out of the mosque and immediately find yourself in Souq Hamidiyya, an open-air bazaar. Every other shop sells the same products and it is not infrequent to find one shop-owner persuading you to buy his friend’s goods. For the most part, the shop-keepers stand outside their shops talking, laughing and watching the crowds but as soon as they hear you speaking English they will welcome you into their shops with broken English, wide smiles and high prices. Just a short taxi ride away from this chaos is Bab Tuma. This is the Christian area of Damascus, and also the more uncluttered part, where you will find designer shops, high-quality goods and fixed prices.
Perhaps the biggest eye-opener on my trip was my visit to Ardh Saeeda, literally translated as Happyland. A much-diluted version of Alton Towers, Happyland is the only theme park in Damascus, and also seemed like the most popular hang-out for youths. The crowd there is so different to that of Syeda Zainab, it is difficult to believe you are still in the same city, or even country. The atmosphere is much more relaxed: women without hijab are a common sight whilst boys and girls hold hands in a ring as they dance to the latest Arabic hit singles. As for the safety of the rides, it’s enough to say that I saw my life flash before me a few times!
Bab Tuma is situated relatively close to Syeda Ruqayya, but despite their proximity, the two areas harbour completely different cultures. Whilst the Muslims in Syeda Ruqayya flock to the holy shrine daily, and the adhan is called out five times a day, the Christians in Bab Tuma visit Church on Sunday and spill onto the streets at times like Christmas and Easter, commemorating the birth and death of Christ. Also next door to the shrine of Syeda Ruqayya is the Umayyad mosque, a place of importance for Christians, Sunnis and Shias alike. That these three separate faiths can live together peacefully and co-operatively was the one thing that struck me as most weird, yet wonderful, about Damascus and should be a lesson to the rest of the world.