Hanging out in Syria

The ancient cities of Damascus and Aleppo welcome visitors, even as anger rises against dictators in the run-up to the Arab Spring
The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus
The Umayyad Mosque in Damascus

For someone who works in a school of diplomacy, I got off to an amateurish start. &ldquoI&rsquom sorry I took so long They questioned me so much at immigration. Do you know my housemate was interrogated in Cairo by the Mukhabarat and...ouch&rdquo My friend SK, whom I had travelled to Damascus to visit, pinched me quietly and hard, looking straight ahead as we settled into the backseat of her hired car for the long drive into the city. &ldquoDon&rsquot talk about the Mukhabarat in Syria,&rdquo she said firmly later on, referring to the dreaded intelligence agency that is a standard feature of the political landscape in authoritarian Middle Eastern states. &ldquoI don&rsquot know what my driver&rsquos sympathies are. And don&rsquot use the &lsquoI&rsquo word here.&rdquo &ldquoThe &lsquoI&rsquo word&rdquo I ask puzzled. &ldquoIndia&rdquo SK shakes her head. &ldquoIran Iraq&rdquo SK rolls her eyes, exasperated. &ldquoIsrael, you idiot,&rdquo she hisses. &ldquoHave you ever visited Occupied Palestine&rdquo I recalled my visa form asking, as a penny dropped somewhere in the inner recesses of my na&iumlve brain.

In a few days, I would become good at this, deriving much pleasure in taking caution to ridiculous lengths as SK and I communicated through notes (to evade the bugging equipment in her flat, we told ourselves), making sure that our astute analyses of the day&rsquos events were shredded before they settled into the bottom of her kitchen waste. The truth is that Syria, evil axis membership notwithstanding, is an astonishingly safe and welcoming place &mdash if you have no political agenda.

SK worked her contacts to arrange a guide to help me find my bearings in Damascus. I waited nervously at the rendezvous point, trying hard to look unobtrusive and casual despite the numerous security personnel who I was convinced were glaring at me as they walked past. The trouble is that hanging out in Syria feels a bit like being in a Cold War movie. There is a decidedly Second World feel to the place, evident most particularly in the models of cars on the roads and the big Soviet-style concrete monstrosities that line the main boulevards, many adorned with pictures of the former President Hafez al-Assad or his ophthalmologist son Bashar, the current incumbent.

Every visitor to Damascus is told that it is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world and, because we&rsquore sluts for superlatives, everybody tends to head for the oldest part of this oldest city. The grandest way to enter the old city is via Souk Hamidiye, a two-storey-high covered arcade, whose ceiling is pockmarked with tiny holes. Irregular sunbeams intersect with solid shafts of light streaming in from the upper windows to produce an effect that is very beautiful, but if you look up you will be flattened by the crowds. The souk culminates in a great square, within which stands the magnificent Umayyad mosque, on a site that has been considered sacred for over 3,000 years. One half of a gigantic triangular stone pediment sitting on three columns hints at the presence of the Roman temple to Jupiter that once stood here. The mosque itself is an oasis of calm at the very heart of the otherwise frenzied old city, an architectural symphony of marbled courtyards, Corinthian columns and golden mosaics.

Directly behind the Umayyad, in a line of shops selling carpets, antiques and everything else that people come to Middle Eastern bazaars for, sits Al Nawfara. It calls itself a coffee shop, but Damascenes will tell you that it is a great deal more. Frequented by locals, expats and tourists alike, Nawfara is where you go when you have no plan in the old city. SK has a European diplomat friend, who is something of a fixture in the place (she thinks he is a spy). He either has a lot of time on his hands, or Nawfara is where everything is transacted. The tables are packed close and the walls feature an assortment of kitsch &mdash Arabic calligraphy, David Beckham, Syrian tourism posters, Bashar, and a man in a sombrero serenading a woman in a flouncy tinsel gown. On one of the many evenings I found myself sipping dark Arabic coffee here, a stern-looking storyteller wearing a red fez cap sat on a high chair and read out of a sombre book (the Arabian Nights, I was later told). He raised his voice now and then and suddenly slammed a sword I had not noticed down on the arms of his chair. I didn&rsquot understand a word he said, but he made the children laugh.

In Aleppo, I decided to stay at the Baron Hotel, for no other reason than the fact that T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia), Agatha Christie and a string of other celebrities had once been its guests. If hotels had twinning programmes, the Baron&rsquos partner would be a decrepit colonial club in India. It features that deeply familiar combination of lovely dark wood furniture and cheap plastic ketchup bottles and napkin holders. Here, too, the colonials have left behind unpaid bills that the post-colonials have dutifully framed in glass. The staff run the place with an air of deep condescension, as if they were performing a public service. And you will need to take your own 60-watt bulbs. A vintage poster in the corridor outside my room advertises a journey from London to Baghdad in eight days on the Simplon Orient Express & Taurus Express, whose watchwords are, apparently, &lsquoSafety, Rapidity, Economy&rsquo.

If the Umayyad is the centrepiece of Damascus, the citadel is the unmistakable heart of Aleppo. It is a spectacular structure, rising high above the city on a mound, surrounded by a deep moat and impressive fortifications. The drawbridge stands on a series of dizzyingly high, narrow arches of gradually increasing height, and leads into a set of twisting passages fitted with gigantic doors at every turn. This is clever because it means that there is no single door facing the moat that might have presented an easy target for a good battering ram. The citadel contains some impressive sights, the most breathtaking of which is the throne room with its ornate ceiling and inlaid chandeliers set in an octagonal dome with stained glass windows. Don&rsquot miss the holes in the floor, through which soldiers would have been able to pour boiling oil onto invading armies trying to make their way in through the impossible passages below.

The prettiest part of Aleppo is Jdaide, the old Christian and Armenian quarter. Unlike in neighbouring Turkey, the Armenian church here can fearlessly commemorate that community&rsquos genocide. The nearby Maronite church with its distinctive green steeples testifies to the diverse confessional mosaic of this city. Jdaide is also home to Aleppo&rsquos hippest restaurants and boutique hotels. It was while I was walking through its narrow walled streets that I was accosted by Mr Iskender. He appeared quite suddenly as I studied a map, and asked if I needed help. Before I had a chance to refuse he was walking me around Jdaide, pointing out the best places to buy the famed Aleppo sweets and soaps. Round, middle-aged, with a Hercule Poirot moustache, he spoke very good English. He had studied something in Brighton for a couple of months many years ago and was pleased to have encountered in me, a visitor from England. But he had also travelled extensively in Eastern Europe. Learning languages seems to have been something of a hobby, for he spoke Russian and Polish (the latter learnt in two 10-month stints in Poland). And intriguingly, he seemed to want to talk about politics. First he talked about the Americans in Iraq, then the troubles in Lebanon, and slowly, very slowly, as if he were circling cautiously around the difficult subjects that were closest to his heart, testing the waters, seeing how I would react, he began to bemoan the fact that Arab dictators held on to power for too long and only ever handed over to their sons. &ldquoYou know how it is...&rdquo he trailed off vaguely. I was intrigued, but wary. Who was this man Where was his shop Did he have a shop Was he some sort of government minder trying to test me Or a dissident, trying to make conversation with a &lsquosafe&rsquo person I would never know. But SK had trained me well and my paranoia antennae were on full alert. &ldquoWhere do you get your news&rdquo I asked noncommittally. As our little tour came to an end, I was preparing for the inevitable demand for some outlandish fee. But Mr Iskender merely pointed out where the best caf&eacutes were, wished me well with a quick handshake and melted back into the by-lanes of Jdaide.

On my last morning in the Baron, as I breakfasted alone in its gloomy splendour, a man walked up to me and said very confidently, &ldquoI am on page 339 of your guidebook and I can take you to the Dead Cities.&rdquo The excursion proved to be an excellent way to end my trip to Aleppo. The monastery of St Simeon is a perfect ruin &mdash derelict enough to look historically genuine, but preserved enough to give visitors a good sense of what 5th-century Byzantine architecture might have looked like. At its centre stands the rump of what was once a pillar on which, legend has it, the ascetic St Simeon spent the last 42 years of his life. On a clear day, when the sky is an azure blue, you can look out across the dry scrub valleys over a landscape that can only be described as biblical.

The information


Getting there

Kuwait Airways has the lowest fares for a round-trip economy ticket between Delhi and Damascus Rs 22,780, if you book at www.kuwait-airways.com. Round-trip fares from Mumbai also cost about Rs 22,000. Other airlines that fly from India include Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad.

Where to stay

For five-star comfort, the Four Seasons Hotel (from $250 doubles 963-11-339-1000, www.fourseasons.com) is ideally located within walking distance of the old city as well as sights in modern Damascus. The Talisman Hotel (from $225 541-5379, www.hoteltalisman.net) is a high-end boutique hotel located inside the hotel city. Other atmospheric and comfortable old city options include Beit Zaman (from $145 543-5380, www.beit-zaman.com), the Old Vine Hotel (from $120 545-0164, www.oldvinehotel.com) and Beit Rumman (from $225 545-1092, www.bietrumman.com).

What to see & do

The old city is a rambler&rsquos paradise, packed with architectural, gastronomic and artisanal treasures. There are a number of interesting buildings in the vicinity of the Umayyad. To the northwest are the Madrassa Zahiriyeh and the Madrassa Adiliyeh standing across from one another on a narrow street.

To the south is the Azem Palace, reportedly the largest and most impressive of the Ottoman palaces in Damascus, and reached by walking through the gold and jewellery souk. Although it now claims to house the &lsquoMuseum of Popular Tradition&rsquo, there is nothing plebeian about its lavishly decorated rooms arranged around tranquil courtyards with pools and fountains.

Some of the best shopping areas are in the streets south and east of the Umayyad. Continuing east past Al Nawfara, the shops are particularly good for rugs, carpets and art.

Also worth visiting in the old city is the relatively new Saida Ruqqiyeh mosque. There is something almost glitzy about its interiors, which are in stark contrast to the groups of sombre pilgrims engaged in ritual mourning. The entire place has an air of deep piety about it, but on the street outside you will find burqa-clad women buying risqué lingerie from carts pushed around by men.

Outside the old city, the Tekkiyeh as-Suleimaniyeh complex houses a mosque built by Sinan, the great Ottoman architect, featuring a set of very distinctive pointed Turkish minarets. The mosque is surrounded by artisanal warehouses and shops. It is particularly fun to watch the glassblowers at work.

Next to the complex is the National Museum. The undoubted highlights here are a reassembled synagogue dating from the 2nd century AD, recovered from the town of Dura-Europos, and a reconstruction of tombs discovered in the desert city of Palmyra.

Palestine is everywhere in Damascus. Every now and then you will see a string of Palestinian flags or a poster of Arafat &mdash a sexy youthful one here in designer stubble and dark glasses at the height of his powers a greyer, more tired one elsewhere, post-Oslo perhaps. Outside the walls of the old city, a statue of the medieval warrior Saladin commemorates the liberation of Jerusalem. It is a new statue commemorating an old event (the date on the inscription is 1184), but there is an urgency here that seems to gesture to contemporary realities. More than 100,000 Palestinian refugees live in the area known as Yarmouk.

For a good English-speaking guide to Damascus, contact Raeda (roodamk@yahoo.com).

Where to eat

The old city has excellent restaurants, many in restored Damascene mansions. Most serve traditional fare, which features a variety of mezze and kebabs. Beit Jabri (www.jabrihouse.com) is affordable and lovely with its vast central hall, fountains and ornamental trees. Leila&rsquos, at the southeast corner of the Umayyad, is much loved for its delicious food and roof terrace overlooking the mosque. For a more Continental menu, go to Arabesque (next to the large Greek Orthodox church off Via Recta, in the Christian quarter).


Flights from Damascus to Aleppo are frequent ($60). For all its gloominess, the Baron Hotel ($29 doubles 21-210-880) is clean, quiet and comfortable. You can arrange tours to the Dead Cities with Walid Mallahk and his son at the reception of the hotel. For a more picturesque and cheerful alternative, try one of the boutique hotels such as Beit Wakil (from $95 21-211-7083, www.beitwakil.com).

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