With Syria in the news and events there looking increasingly ugly, I’d like to post a few pictures from my 2008 trip there, just to try to make Syria at least marginally more real and less abstract. I may have posted some of these on one of my prior blogs some time ago, but if so, I think they’re worth posting now.Interior of the Bab Al Hara restaurant in the old city of Damascus. This was formerly a home, and the central courtyard is typical of old Syrian homes. Thick walls help keep the interior cool, and the courtyard functions as an evening living room when the day has cooled (Damascus is situated beside a small mountain, Jebel Qassioun (Mt. Kasoon), and on summer evenings cooler air flows down from the mountain, creating a pleasant breeze that takes the edge off the heat of the day). This is the exterior of the Bab Al Hara restaurant. After a very hot day walking through the Souk al-Hamidiyeh and exploring the old city, it was like spotting an oasis. Since 2008 an increasing number of nice restaurants have opened up in the old city. The economic liberalization under Bashar Al-Assad, if incomplete, has been real. It may even be one of the factors leading to the demands for political liberalization.
A church in Syria (Maronite iirc). About 10% of Syrians are Christians of various denominations, most of which predate Protestantism but are unfamiliar to westerners. Damascus, of course, was fully Christianized before becoming Muslim. It wass on his way to harass Christians in this city that Paul was struck blind, and it was in a house not far from this church where he was converted and baptized. This section of old Damascus is still known as, and still functions as, the Christian Quarter.
This is the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque. No visit to Damascus is complete without a visit here, but it’s a true holy shrine and functioning mosque, not just a tourist attraction. Iranians pilgrimage here in large numbers as the mosque holds the head of Hussein, a Shi’ite martyr. It’s also of interest to Christians as it also claims to have the head of John the Baptist, and one of its minarets is named the Minaret of Jesus. The site of the mosque was originally a shrine to the Aramean god Hadad. During the Roman era this god became Romanized and so the site became a shrine to Jupiter. During the Christian era it was turned into a church, then for a while in the early Muslim era it functioned as both a church and a mosque, before finally becoming solely a mosque. Having been a holy site for all of Damascus’s long recorded history, the mosque has as much cultural significance as religious meaning.
The shrine that (supposedly) contains John the Baptist’s head. Not bad for a homeless guy who ate bugs. (You can find better pictures via Google, but the mosque was very crowded the day I was there, so taking good pictures was difficult.)
Souq (market) al-Hamidiyeh. Again, you can find better pictures on-line, but I didn’t have a flash camera with me so it’s a bit dark. It was a bright day, but the souq is roofed (put on in the 18th century, although the souq itself is hundreds of years older. A great place for tourists (to get fleeced), but in fact the overwhelming majority of shoppers are locals. Many shops are leased by merchants who barely get by, while paying high rents to families that have owned the physical space for generations. The economic liberalization has led to an explosion in the growth of small shops in districts outside the souq’s boundaries where rents are, I think, lower. It will be interesting to see how that affects the souq over time.
A Juice vendor in Damascus. The fresh orange juices and raspberry juices I bought from these vendors were pure ambrosia. They were available when I was there in early June, but not in early November. Plan your trip accordingly.
A typical narrow alley in the old city of Damascus. Real people, real families, still live in these thousand-plus year old houses. Some appear to be fairly poor, but others very wealthy. As far as I can tell (with limited experience to be sure), the area can’t be easily classified socio-economically, other than that those who live in the old city tend to have been born in the old city, as were their parents, grand-parents, and on and on. I think homes tend to be held in families for generation after generation, making it hard for people to move into this area. Homes that do get sold go for a high price so they tend to be turned into restaurants or hotels, rather than remaining as homes.
A small shopping center in Zabadani. It’s natural for the western tourist to take pictures of all the ancient buildings (far older than my own country), but there is a large amount of construction with contemporary (e.g., western) design, too.
Neither ancient nor new, but a beautiful apartment building in Latakia (Christians know it from the Bible as Laodicea, while in Arabic it’s pronounced something like Al-Ladhiqiyah), on the Mediterranean coast. Nearly all apartment buildings have balconies, and most rooftops have awnings–as with the courtyards in the older homes, people gather here in the cooler evenings.
A new building in Latakia. In Syria the basic structure of the building is constructed, then the different apartments are completed as people buy them. This building has people living in the completed upper portion, but the shops on the bottom floor have not been leased/purchased yet, so they remain incomplete.
Sign for a cafe in Latakia. I’m glad Syrians have access to hamburgers, but I didn’t have one. I did smoke a habel-babel while reviewing a chapter for an American Government textbook. I’m not sure about regional variations, but in Damascus the habel-babel seems to more often be called shisha. The tobacco is scented, and being drawn through water is very smooth. Smoking is endemic in Syria in the way it was in the U.S. 50 years ago, and I always carry a pack of cigarettes to offer a smoke to someone as a friendly gesture. But the habel-babel is frequently a social occasion, with a group of friends sharing one for several hours. I’m sure the talk around the habel-babels these days is interesting, if cautious.