Just beyond the Roman Arch on Qeimarieh Street in Damascus's Old City is the tiny Summers Gallery, which showcases and sells signed photographs by British freelance journalist John Wreford. Wreford's outsider's take on the Middle East and especially Syria (where he lives) is totally original, free of cliche and often humorous. Check out his pictures of Damascus's pigeon fanciers.
Summers Gallery, near the Roman Arch (just south of Nofara cafe), Old City Damascus. Call John Wreford's mobile if you can't find it 00963 944 361 947. www.johnwreford.com
With your back to the south entrance of the Umayyad Mosque, walk down the small souk facing you. It's the old Gold Souk, aka souk Al Sagha. Look for a sign to "Papa Joseph's", an antique knick-knack shop on the right-hand side above a perfume shop, and follow the narrow stairs all the way up to the shop. From outside the shop, you can look over the lane into partly-excavated Roman baths not seen from street level. The shop keepers keep their generators in the enclave, but it is still easy to see how the Romans built beautiful baths for the brief time the Umayyad Mosque was a church.
Souq Assagha, just off Souq Al Hamidiyeh
Google map: bit.ly/a8cLU1
Even if it's a Friday and the souks - in whichever country - are closed, it's worth wandering around them to appreciate their architecture. The bustle of shoppers and shopkeepers often means that it's hard to see interesting details. In Damascus, where the souks are not closed off when the shops are shut on Fridays, walkers can glimpse fragments of tiles, amazing ceilings, and shop signs not easy to spot on other days.
Google map: bit.ly/a8cLU1
One family still weaves goat hair Bedouin tents in Damascus, in the heart of the souk where the Bedouin come in from the desert to buy them. You will find them as you go through Bab Al Faraj, one of the Old City's seven gates. Bear left, and look out for the workshop at number 65 on the left-hand side. If Mohammed is there he will gladly show you upstairs how he teases the coarse hair into balls of wool by walking backwards down the length of the room.
Also in Damascus, don't miss the atmospheric saddle souk (Souk Srijeh), where horse and camel saddles and talismanic paraphernalia are still made and sold. To enter it, stand outside the Damascus citadel (facing it) and take the first souk to your left after the little bridge over the river.
Once you have walked through the saddle souk, turn right on to the main road, Malek Al Faisal Street, where you will see, on the left-hand side, the copper souk (Souk Nahassin), consisting of two, dark covered alleys. Inside you will see men making mosque spires and Christian baptismal fonts, door handles, hot water tanks and re-tinning cooking utensils. Fascinating to watch!
Souq al Hamidiyeh
Google map: bit.ly/9FNAil
Bar Saloon is a broom cupboard of a drinking den in the Old City, with just a handful of tables and chairs. The look is - quite by accident I suspect - straight out of the pages of Wallpaper, with exposed fake timbers, dark walls, fairy lights and a couple of topless pin-ups. It’s presided over by a genial, rotund man who sits at a tiny bar under shelves loaded with bottles and boxes of yet more bottles. He fixed my dad a vodka and tonic and brought me an Al-Maza, a crisp Lebanese beer. Staring out into the darkening street, a bowl of nuts on the table, we couldn’t have been happier. And if you think the bar's size is Lilliputian, be sure to check out the loo.
A unique architectural gem, in a city once remarked upon by Mark Twain.
"No recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive news of it ... There was always a Damascus."
One of the best examples of typical Damascene style.
The unique striped stonework, however, is a gem in itself and arguably the most worthwhile reason to visit. The look, or banding technique known as ablaq is achieved by alternating layers of black basalt with limestone and sandstone, and gives this structure a fascinating black and white decorative appearance.
Comprised of several complex buildings, two wings (the harem and salamlik), courtyards and gardens the Palace is an impressive sight to take in, so set aside a few hours to do it justice.
Address: Suq al-Buzuriyya
Opening hours: Wed-Mon, Apr-Sep 9am-5.30pm, Oct-Mar 9am-3.30pm.
Cost: 150 SP
Our offer is unique in Syria: We find you a place to stay in Damascus, pick you up from the airport take you straight to the house you chose when you visited www.yallahouse.com. On the way to your house, accommodation, room, flat, or apartment we give you a general idea about your situation in damascus.
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The special service we offer is, to connect people with Syrian Families. We arrange rooms for tourists where there can "life together" and see
the real syrian way of live. Sometimes they offer to cook, they get invited for weddings... The Families are also happy cause there have a very low budget.
Jebl Qasioun (Mount Qasioun) is the hill pushing up the northern half of Damascus.
Going up there just before sunset gives an incredible view of the whole city. Look straight ahead, and you see the new city, with the imposing Four Seasons hotel. And to the left, the tightly packed streets of the Old City - with the Umayed Mosque at its heart.
Stroll along the mountain road, or have a coffee in one of the many restaurants or roadside vans selling drinks (all of these places charge a lot more than in the city down below).
Take a taxi up - it's a very very long walk, along an anonymous highway, with no houses.
Taxis cost about 300L from Hamidiyeh, or to save money, take the Bab Touma-Muhajireen serveece bus (10 lira) and get off at Muhajireen. From there a taxi costs 75-100L.
Syria News Wire - newsfromsyria.com
You can buy some interesting-looking Iranian carpets along the main drag of Hammadiya. Forget about the antiquities near the Umayyad Mosque. Most of them are junk or fakes imported from Iran. Some nice knick-knacks and trinkets to be had, but you’ll certainly pay much more than they’re actually worth (about zilch).
Hiking in the countryside around Maaloula/Saidnaya (micro-buses from Zablatani cost approximately 25SL/.25 pence for a 30km journey). It’s possible to stay at the convent at Maaloula for a nominal sum, but be sure to get there early. Also, don’t miss the last buses back to Damascus (about 8 pm, but check on this).
Deir Mar Mousa, near Nabak, 100 kms from Damascus. Hike there from Nabak through some astonishing valleys and landscape (but beware of the local shepherds’ guard dogs). The monastery is presided over by the Italian Father Paulo. He loves an audience. You can stay there but all donations are happily accepted.
Also, walking the disused railway line from the Hijaz railway station out into the Damascus countryside as far as Bloudan (about 6-8 hours of moderate walking) is a great way to get an idea of Damascus’ modern and ancient character. As you get to Wadi Souq al-Barada, after Tel El-‘Awaameedh, you can see carvings on the cliff walls dating back to the beginning of the Christian era, when this area was known as the Tetrarchy of Abilene).
Sorry to be a downer but I was very disappointed. I live in the Middle East and love it but Damascus is not worth visiting compared to, say, all of Jordan for antiquities, Oman for real Arab culture, Istanbul for atmosphere and visible history or even Alex for vibrancy. The historical area is small, not very well looked after, severely compromised by recent modifications. The rest of the city is like Bucharest circa 1987.
I am amazed that other people found it friendly; I found it creepy, sullen and resentful. I speak some Arabic and I am familiar with and respectful of the culture, so it wasn't me! Maybe because I have had much better Arabian experiences elsewhere (including food), that element was completely lacking for me but charmed others.
What didn't help on our first night there was two scary hours of detention by (presumably) the secret police - we never really knew who they were. Our apparent crime was looking at a map (a poor photocopy provided by our hotel, the very unhelpful and mediocre Meridien) to try and find our way back from the old city at night.
A pushy little cigarette seller had a gang of thugs quickly surrounding us when we didn't comply with his instruction to hand over the map. Pleas to passers-by fell on deaf ears as did calls to our hotel. I guess, as another correspondent said, many people are in the pay of the secret police. The fact that my friend was a gulf Arab automatically made us suspicious, apparently, and I guess this guy thought we were his payday.
We were physically restrained on the street, bundled very roughly into a car, brought to a building in an unmarked compound, left in a bare room where various people would wander in and quiz us over an over or just bark at us in English and Arabic without ever telling us who they were or why we were there, then finally turned out on the street after midnight.
Damascus is not without some charms (eg the market by the Ottoman mosque near the National museum, much better than the souq) but there are many other places more worth visiting. In Syria things can go suddenly wrong for no apparent reason and you have no recourse to anyone. Your lack of security is a fact which you can choose to ignore and it may never matter. But it just might.
Another scam that an acquaintance of mine (long-time Syrian expat) experienced in Damascus was with changing money. The official rate is ridiculous so everybody uses the money-changers who hang around the souk. When he did this, he was immediately arrested by 'police' who demanded a hefty payment ($300) to release him because this is offically illegal. The money-changer was not arrested of course.
This place is legendary, in an obscure-as-you-like divey drinking den kind of way. Blink and you could easily miss this bar, it’s so small. Essentially a liquor store with a few tables squeezed in as a mere after thought. Don’t be intimidated by the dark, smoky haze and the seedy pictures on the wall not to mention the resident old timers and their raucous alcoholic chatter. Open the door and go in, the locals will soon make room for you and start pouring out the arak. The beer is also very cheap and the banter top notch.
148 Sharia Bab Sharqi
A Syrian kebab cannot be beaten. They are available in jaaj (chicken) and lahme (lamb) varieties, including the wonderful local garlic mayonnaise.
Also look out for tabbouleh, the wonderful parsley salad, hummus bi lahm (chickpea puree with meat and pinenuts), felafel and labneh (a yogurt dip).
No one should visit Damascus and miss having an ice cream at Bakdash Ice Cream parlour in the Souk Hamidiyeh. (There is an imitator, so beware). Bakdash has mountains of white ice cream in the window, chandeliers, and lots of customers at all hours of the day. You buy a token for 25 Syrian pounds (about 20p) and exchange it for an enormous cone of ice cream that is rolled in pistachio nuts. Yum!
Bang in the middle of the Souk Hamidiyeh. Ask anyone - everyone knows it
Syria is the most beautiful civilised country, with a real family atmosphere. I would move there tomorrow. Loved it... great people, the best food I have ever had and the most incredible culture and sites. Ignore all the rubbish and go. I travelled with my Mum - so it's very very safe. Far better than anywhere else I have been.
It only costs £3 and you can stay from morning until midnight, hang out, talk rubbish with your mates and get really clean.
Our Dave, Nigel and I were sweaty and touristed-out and entered this splendid old hamman, which is located in the souk somewhere between the Omayyad Mosque and the Biblical Street Called Straight (any other directions are meaningless in the convolutions of a bazaar).
The old guy behind the desk takes your money, your wallet and locks them safely away. You're given three towels each and taken to a dry steam room. It's hot- nostrils are incinerated and then it's time for a scrub. It's all very homoerotic and Dave got weirded out by men gleefully lathering up their pals in an empty marble room. But what the hey-ho ... no one's taking pictures (I don't think).
Then you're led to a second large, empty marble room with a cloud of steam descending to about four feet off the floor. All you see are men's torsos - very stark and eerie. Here you swill off your lather (expertly- and rather tenderly I must add - applied by your mates) and get scrubbed by each other.
It's at this point that a baleful Damascus masseur points to one of us at a time and beckons us to his antechamber, where you are laid on the marble floor like a chunk of meat (Halal meat, I should point out) and you are twisted, pummelled and pulled. Then he motions you to lie on your stomach. Our Dave thought he was to enjoy forbidden pleasures at this point- he's old public school and taken with these fantasies- but Big Nigel expressed the view you were not in a strong position to argue with anyone at this point. Anyway, there were no shenanigans, but more pulling, twisting and deep muscle tweaking.
Then it was back to the steam room and a gentler massage and then a cold shower.
That took about 40 minutes and at every confusing turn of events, Damascene bathers or hamman workers were happy to help you along. It was all very matey. They seemed intrigued we were there - confused, European, pale. It was akin to someone slightly exotic coming into your local and you showing him just how to down a pint of Old Skunktongue.
After getting scrubbed clean through, we were jettisoned to a large open mezzanine where all the lads were bundled in towels, hanging out, drinking sweet tea, having a fag, taking pictures with their mobiles and probably talking about ... what else … footy.
Time rolls on, the hours are punctuated by prayers and more tea and the sound of the souk outside.
Women are allowed on Friday nights. The bazaar has some pretty lively restaurants for a good old nosh after bathtime and prices are about £3 or £4 pp for a blow out.
Damascus as a city is laid back. Folks leave you alone- probably because a good chunk of the population probably works for the secret services or the military.
But, really, who knows who anyone is in the hamman when your clothes are on a peg and you're getting all in a lather.
Hamman Nureddin; Between the Omayyad Mosque and the Street Called Straight(near the spice stalls),
Damascus has its own character and style. It is cheap and has many great things to see. People are very friendly and warm. They will go out of their way to show me my way.
There are hundreds to monuments to visit. After all it is the oldest capital in the world.
The part I recommend most is Souk Al Hamideah (Al Hamidea Bazar). It was built during the Ottoman Empire.
Al Hamidea Bazar - very famous, can easily be found if you ask anyone in Damascus
Backpackers hotel in the centre of the new city, but just 5 mins walk from the old city. A reasonably well maintained hotel in a centuries-old Damascene 'Arabic House'. It's courtyard will transport you back through the ages - the ivy sheltering you from the sun, and the sound of car horns a couple of blocks away. Some rooms have en-suite facilities. Most rooms are double, but there are one or two dorms for the really tight-fisted. Prices are about Â£2-Â£3 per room per night. Yes, that is two pounds I've typed. Welcome to Syria! If you want something a bit higher standard, the nearby Al-Majed hotel is a world apart. Definately not for backpackers, this one. It's lobby and rooms feel like a three/four star hotel in Britain. Price per room is Â£15 per night.
Al-Rabie and Al-Majed are in Souq Saroujah - very close to Merjeh Square (the centre of the new city). Most taxi drivers know Al-Rabie (pronounced Rab-ee-ah) in Souq Saroujah - they might have more difficulty finding the Majed. saroujah.blogspot.com
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