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
The souks (undercover markets) of Aleppo are truly magical. Colourful soap stalls sit next to huge sacks of coffee and walnuts. There are delicious sweet treats to sample and fine fabrics to marvel at. Unforgettable.
In the centre of Aleppo by the Great Mosque.
Google map: bit.ly/gAaD3H
My daughter and I reached Aleppo's souk by bus from Damascus, then by walking through progressively narrower streets, pretty much following the throng.
It was pistachio season and photogenic trays of nuts were on sale right and left. But the souk is great for not bring a tourists' pastiche. It has many rope stalls, plenty of domestic items - much like a UK everyday market with added panache and intimacy.
We ate rich, hot foule (beans with tahini and oil) in a cramped servery with men having their lunch break; then chatted to a young jeweller - I wear his earrings, inlaid with tiny dots of silver, back home in the Midlands. He then recommended a fabric shop and my front door now has a curtain embroidered with pomegranates.
The souk isn't enormous, but is a working place shot through with the skills and traditions of an ancient city.
To top it all you can climb up the ancient settlement and look out over the city, or just meander back to the bus chewing apricots, munching pistachios or pondering more textile purchases in the less atmospheric shops. Syria's many things, including tough for many, but here's a trip in which the old Middle East abuts the new and for that it sticks always in the mind.
Easy from arrival in Aleppo.
Google map: bit.ly/95ynN8
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
The best coffee I had in the whole of Syria was from a hole in the wall at the entrance of Khan al Gumruk, deep inside the Aleppo souk. The man in charge dispenses tight espressos for pennies.
Tucked into alcove just outside the entrance to the Khan Al Jumruq, Aleppo souq
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
Last November I went on a photography holiday to Syria with a company called Frui holidays. It was a fantastic trip because I was able to practice my photography in some truly amazing locations such as Palmyra, Krak des Chevaliers and Aleppo. I was also looked after from start to finish by the tutors and guides so I'd also like to recommend Frui holidays.
The old town was badly damaged when the Assad regime put down the uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, but what is left of it still retains plenty of charm. The noria are large waterwheels that used to lift water from the Orontes River into a system of aqueducts that supplied the city and adjacent farmland. The wheels themselves have been restored, even if the (now thoroughly cleaned up) remaining sections of aqueduct are no longer in use. They are very impressive, and there are lots of pleasant gardens where you can sit close to them and have a coffee or snack. All in all, a fascinating and unexpectedly beautiful sight.
Just head for the town centre.
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.
There’s a forgotten train ride through the middle east that no-one mentions or goes on; it lasts from 8am on Sunday to 8pm Sunday and goes through two vast countries. This train departs Istanbul and arrives in Damascus and on-route it meanders its way through the interior of Turkey bordering mountain ranges and plains and going through medieval cities such as Konya and the rarely visited town of Antep. You then you enter Syria and immediately hit the mecca that is Aleppo, with its bustling streets and many souqs and then you travel through Syria and finally end up in the oldest continually habited city on Earth, in one of the greatest cities in the middle east, Damascus… and all of this for £50.
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
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