19 January 2005
The old city of Damascus is what, as a younger person, I expected a Middle Eastern city to be like. Crowded, polluted, loud, and maze-like, filled with strange sounds, smells, activities, and ways of dress. It is a Middle Eastern city done up the way a Hollywood set designer would want it. The kind of place where you’d expect a screeching monkey wearing a Fez to jump out of a basket wielding a knife. Real Indiana Jones stuff. Unlike the relaxed atmosphere of Amman, with its slow pace, shining white buildings, and crisp air, Damascus is a real dump. The ancient walls strain to hold in the swollen, animated mass of humanity that hustles and bustles over top of one another on the inside. Imagine New York without any hope, ambition, or clean toilets. That is Damascus.
For being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world—people have been living in Damascus since between 6000 and 8000 B.C.—the capital of modern day Syria has a surprisingly small number of beautiful or historic things at which to look. Most notably is the Umayyad Mosque, which was built in 705 A.D. It has a big dome, three tall minarets, an enormous marble courtyard, and four great halls carpeted with Persian rugs. The tomb of John the Baptist lies inside one of the great halls. Around the corner is a silver box containing the head of the Shi’ia martyr, Hussein, who was killed in Karbala (in modern Iraq), shortly before the mosque was built. (Where they kept his head before the mosque was built, I do not know. Perhaps, conveniently, with John the Baptist’s body.) The Great Umayyad Mosque was erected upon the ruins of the Byzantine Church of St. John, which in turn was built upon the ruins of the Temple of Jupiter, which the Romans had constructed over top of the ruins of some Aramaic deity. This practice of hijacking sacred spots is pretty common throughout the region.
Besides the big mosque, there is Straight Street, which, according to the Biblical story is where a blinded and repentant Saul met up with Ananais, who cured him of his loss of sight, converted him to Christianity, renamed him Paul, and sent him on his way. Paul went on to have a rather successful career as a motivational speaker and best-selling author. Unfortunately, other than being straight, not much if anything remains of the street Paul walked on. In fact, I saw a small internet café, which I’m almost certain was not around during Roman times, but which sure could have saved Paul a lot of traveling.
FROM: Paul, Apostle
SUBJECT: Keep the Faith
CC: Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians
Finally there is the tomb of Salah ad-Din--better known as Saladin to Westerners—next to the Umayyad Mosque. Saladin is the undisputed hero of the Arab world, despite the fact that he was a Kurd. Saladin was the one who led a unified Arabian army in defeating Richard the Lionhearted and his band of Crusaders at Jerusalem in 1192. Saladin was as gracious in victory as he was fierce in battle and his reputation as a noble warrior is what has caused his name to live on in history.
So you have the big mosque, the non-crooked street, and the tomb of an ancient and honorable Kurd. That’s about it. The rest of the old city is a congested beehive of shops, restaurants, cars, pedestrians, street peddlers, pigeons, butchered animal carcasses, and bicycles. The amount of matter squished into that small space is amazing. Imagine sitting alone in your bathroom. That is a normal American city. Now imagine 27 smelly strangers stuffed into your bathroom. The door is locked and you can barely breathe, let alone move. Now imagine a skinned goat dangling from your curtain rod, then someone lights a cigarette, then another person asks you to buy a gold watch at a very special price, just for you. Suddenly a prayer comes blaring out of a hidden speaker. The noise is deafening. The skinned goat falls from the curtain rod. People get angry and start to shout. That is Damascus.
Activity in the old city centers around the Souk al-Hamadiyyah, an enormous covered marketplace where one is confronted by a thousand inputs all at once. As one encounters these stimuli in rapid-fire, discrete packages, I will describe them in the same way.
The severed head of a camel hanging from a beam at a butcher’s shop by way of a hook through its upper lip. Open sacks of nuts, left unattended by a street vendor, being picked at and dug up by hungry pigeons. Moments later the vendor returns to scare away the pigeons and to sell cashews, pistachios, and almonds to tourists none the wiser. Lean, dark-eyed, stubbly-faced craftsmen with determined looks on their faces cutting olive wood into furniture, clocks, and religious icons. Taxi cabs blasting their horns as they zip through the narrow streets. “Why is there a taxi in the middle of the market?” Bicycle riders and scores of pedestrians darting to get out of the way. Men with a variety of postcards unfolded like an accordion before an obvious Westerner who made the mistake of pausing too long for a photograph. Small boys with dirty faces carrying brush and box, ready to shine shoes for small money. A belch of black smoke from a passing old van. "Why is there a van in the middle of the market?" The deafening “Allah” from a loudspeaker on a short minaret during the call to prayer. A young man wearing a Yankees cap with a metal juice press selling plastic cups full of fresh, liquefied pomegranate, grapefruit, and orange. A tiny boy reaching up to hold the hand of his mother, a hejab-wearing young woman who does not make eye contact with anyone as she bobs and weaves through the dense crowd. A disinterested salesman holding a stuffed falcon, smoking a cigarette, chatting loudly with another man, also smoking, grasping a handful of kazoos. A man in a knit-cap squatting over an unrolled small carpet on which are displayed dozens of bootleg DVDs, to include a video of American soldiers getting shot up in Fallujah. Policemen in green, felt uniforms—described by a traveling companion as “Broadway play uniforms”—confront the man and force him to pack up and leave. Old men with hair in their ears and canes in their laps playing backgammon and speaking to each other in French; relics from the colonial era. They barely miss getting coffee spilled on them by an enthusiastic brassiere salesman chasing after a round-eyed, white woman. “Madam, madam, just take one look.” Posters of the Maximum Leader Bashar Assad everywhere. Assad scowling while wearing giant Erik Estrada CHiPs mirrored sunglasses. Assad in military uniform decorated in numerous ribbons earned during exactly what conflicts no one knows. Assad in sporting clothes, again suggesting he is a real man’s man. Quite heroic imagery for a guy who was an ophthalmologist before his father died and only became President because his older brother was killed in a car wreck. Men selling balloons and little helicopter sticks that fly when you spin them real fast in your hands. A lean teenager pushing through the crowd with an old refrigerator on a dolly. “Where on earth is he going?” The determined mother yanks her son’s arm to get him out of the way.
It is pure insanity. Complete sensory overload. Thank goodness there are little pockets of tranquility throughout the madness. Like finding an eddy in a river, one can duck into a quiet restaurant for chicken kebabs and a narghile pipe. One restaurant on Straight Street reminded me of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.” While sipping Lebanese red wine I hammered out a conversation in Arabic and English with two dignified, dark-haired waiters in white shirts, black bow-ties, and red vests. It was mid-afternoon and the place was empty except for us. I was happy to get far away from the maddening crowd and they were happy to chat with a stranger as they cleaned the bar glasses with a soft white cloths.
There are a number of small taverns in the Christian quarter which provide peace and cheap drinks. My favorite was the Cave de Baal with its stone, high-arched interior and incredibly cheap drinks. (Due to the over-abundance of guys in the place, we had a bit of fun with the name.) The Great Mosque is rather relaxed, too. I saw as many people sleeping on the carpets as there were people praying.
But those were the exceptions. Insane crowds, dilapidated buildings, relentless air and noise pollution were the rule. To think that such a dump was once the most important city in the civilized world when it was the capital of the Umayyad Empire stretching across North Africa and Southern Spain is pretty astonishing. To see how far the mighty have fallen is a stern warning for those of us sitting pretty today. It is the duty of every generation of Americans to ensure that our magnificent eagle soaring over the fruited plain never turns into a nasty pigeon squatting in a sack of unattended nuts.