Ode to Damascus: The Syrian capital reveals its secrets

There are treats at every turn in Damascus, from colourful souqs to dramatic architecture. Christina Patterson indulges her sweet tooth

Saturday 25 October 2008 00:00 BST

We arrived in Damascus in the light of the crescent moon. It seemed appropriate enough. This, after all, is the city Muhammad refused to visit, because he preferred to save paradise for paradise, the city that was conquered by Muslim armies AD635, and that remained under Islamic rule of various kinds until 1918. Even now, with a government fiercely committed to the ideal of the secular state, Syria is largely a Muslim country – but one, you quickly find, in which Muslims, Christians and Jews share the richest of histories.

We were greeted with the blessings of Allah and delicious Syrian sweets. "This," said Abdul, our guide, as we munched the dainty sesame biscuits, "is the cradle of civilisation." At the Four Seasons Hotel, we could only agree. The huge foyer, with its gleaming marble floors, brocade sofas and carved wooden tables, oozed luxury. Businessmen sipping tea or tiny cups of cardamom-infused coffee looked as though they were enjoying a brief respite from the tiring business of ensuring that vast fortunes remained vast. They, no doubt, sink into their giant beds and deep marble baths with a sense that yes, this will do. I, on the other hand, greeted my sumptuous suite, with its fresh roses, mother-of-pearl-inlaid mahogany wash basin stands, gorgeous L'Occitane toiletries and, of course, little sweet treats, with the kind of enthusiasm triggered only by long bus and tube journeys followed by a substantial stint in economy with a plane-load of toddlers whose unremitting screams were clearly the product of torture techniques culled from the Crusades. If freedom of speech is any kind of issue in Syria, the toddlers haven't been told.

Amid the luxury, and the many wardrobes, there was even an extra loo. It could, I suppose, have been there to spare me the five-pace walk to my en-suite bathroom, but it was more likely, I soon realised, to be there for my honoured (and entirely putative) guests. If Muslim cultures are always hot on hospitality then Syria takes the pistachio-encrusted biscuit. Every meeting starts with a blizzard of blessings and welcomes – which are, one can only assume, a little more varied in the Arabic. In Syrian homes, the best room is always reserved for the guests. This, it was instantly evident, was an excellent place to be a guest.

On the bus the next day, Abdul offered us crystallised fruit and snippets of Syrian history. Syria, he said, had the oldest alphabet in the world, and the oldest musical notes, and the oldest stadium, and the oldest minaret, and the oldest agriculture. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Doesn't Islam have anything to say about exaggeration? And isn't it the Americans who always have to be the biggest and the best? They aren't exactly best buddies with Syria right now.

At the National Museum, however, we discovered that it was all true. Behind the magnificent stone gate from the ancient city of Palmyra there was indeed a tiny stone tablet with the oldest alphabet in the world (3,500 years old) and another with the oldest musical notes and the oldest lyrics, and a panoply of brilliantly patterned 4,000-year-old Phoenician glass (not painted, but layered in different colours and fired in a kiln), and 2,000-year-old textiles (yes, still partially preserved after two millennia!), and Roman sarcophagi, and a second-century synagogue, lined with colourful frescoes from the Old Testament, buried under sand for centuries.

It's a truly breathtaking array, but we didn't have time to stick around, because we'd been invited to tea with one of the leading imams in the country, and you don't say no to a man who's had meetings with Prince Charles and the Pope. Sitting on elaborately embroidered sofas in a large, airy room, with a delicately painted ceiling and beautifully carved tables (each bearing boxes of tissues – what is it with the Syrians and tissues?), I felt as though I was waiting for an audience with a Saudi prince, perhaps to plead for clemency for some relative thrown in jail. If this had been Saudi Arabia, however, I, as a woman, wouldn't have been there – and the eminent sheikh, when he arrived, wasn't wearing flowing robes, but a smart black suit.

For nearly an hour, Sheikh Dr Salah Kuftaro, son of the late Grand Mufti of Syria, talked of the need for intelligent dialogue between the major world religions, the urgent need for a Palestinian state, and the dangers of radical Islam. It was all very interesting – really interesting, actually – but when he offered to continue the conversation over dinner that evening we politely declined. World peace is one thing, but we had a country to see. And as Westerners we started, of course, with the shops.

We started, in fact, with the Souq al-Hamidiyya, the ancient market that leads into the heart of the old city. On either side of the cobbled street, studded with tiny shafts of light from the holes in the corrugated-iron roof – bullet-holes made by the machine-gun fire of French planes during the nationalist rebellion of 1925 – there are shops selling embroidered robes, marquetry-inlaid tables, sequined evening dresses, and jewellery. Originally dating back to Roman times, the souq was recently restored to its 19th-century appearance, though much of the merchandise – appliquéd jeans, T-shirts bearing slogans and, not to put too fine a point on it, tat – is conspicuously contemporary. "Very cheap," said Abdul firmly. "Much cheaper than China, and made here."

Most fascinating, perhaps, among the clothes and furniture and pots, are the old pharmacies selling strange powders and leeches and bits of old bone and dried Damask roses, as well as entire dried crocodiles, and the oldest chocolate shop in Syria – apparently unchanged since 1805 – and the ice-cream shop where young men pound the contents of massive iron pots, as if beating metal into foil, and customers wander out with gargantuan creamy swirls studded with pistachios, like giant peonies swarming with butterflies.

In Straight Street, or the road which, as Mark Twain pointed out, the Bible, in a "fine piece of irony" calls (because it isn't) "the street called straight" – the road to which Saul of Tarsus was instructed to go after seeing the light – we stumbled, amid the spices and the roasting coffee beans, into the courtyard of Khan Suleiman Pasha, a caravanserai built in 1732 and recently restored. Here the light is dramatic indeed – great shafts of it, piercing the shade of the courtyard and sparkling on the fountain.

Our own journey up Straight Street led to a revelation of a different kind – that Syrian food can do for the stomach what the beauty of its traditional interiors does for the spirit. In a beautiful house in an alleyway, built in 1368, restored in 1867 and then again a few years ago, we were led to the guest room – the usual exquisite mix of delicate patterns in paint, wood and marble – and then to a courtyard where birds were singing. This, it turned out, was the Al-Khawali restaurant, where President Assad and his British-born u o wife, Asma, are regular visitors. We could soon see why. Within moments, we were sipping glasses of deliciously refreshing lemon and mint and tucking into a table covered with a panoply of dishes as colourful as the paintwork on the tiles. Here was hummus, yes, but also baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, stuffed vine leaves and an apparently infinite array of savoury pastries and little spicy balls, served with herbs and salads that were tongue-tinglingly, zingily fresh. We were soon full, of course, but not too full for the grilled meats that followed – or, for that matter, for the pistachio ice-cream.

After staggering the short distance to the Umayyad Mosque, all thoughts of our bulging stomachs evaporated at the sight of the courtyard, a vast vista of luminous marble bordered by buildings of breathtaking beauty. This, Abdul explained, had been a place of worship for 3,000 years, first an Aramaean temple to the god Hadad, then a Roman temple to Jupiter, then a Byzantine church dedicated to John the Baptist – whose head, it is claimed, lies in a casket in the main building – and finally, when the Muslims entered Damascus AD635, a mosque. For 70 years, Muslims and Christians worshipped together, until the caliph, Khaled ibn al-Walid, decided that it was time for something a little grander. For 10 years, 1,000 stonemasons and artisans were employed to build the new mosque, lined with rich mosaics and precious stones and with a wooden ceiling inlaid with gold. It is, quite simply, magnificent.

The contrast with the Chapel of Ananias, in the Christian Quarter just off Straight Street (which boasts as wide a variety of Christian churches – Syrian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Greek Catholic, Syrian Catholic and Maronite – as we had just had mezze) couldn't be more marked. The chapel, reputedly the house of Ananias, whose prayers sealed Saul's conversion by healing his blindness, is basically a very old cellar. It's actually rather moving in its simplicity. Moving, too, that this cornerstone of Christian history flourishes alongside so many mosques and even the odd synagogue.

"I am a Muslim, but I am a Christian too," said Abdul, as he leafed through a copy of the Koran in the Umayyad Mosque. His message was echoed that evening over dinner in another magnificently restored house in the old town by Osama, the director of the travel agency who had organised our trip. "I am a Muslim and a Christian and a Jew," he said. "This is a country where Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Druze and Jews live peaceably alongside each other. When the French offered the different ethnic groups separate territory, they refused. In Syria, relations between different ethnic groups and religions are very strong."

Relations between Syrians and the French are, presumably, a little less cordial. Most Syrians, according to Abdul, still prefer not to travel on the perfectly good rail network, because they associate it with French rule. And on the journey to the Christian sights of Maalula and Seidnayya the next morning, he pointed at the arid mountain landscape that separates Syria from Lebanon and sighed. "It was covered in trees," he said. "But the French chopped them down to make furniture. Now look: all brown, all dry."

In the beautiful Byzantine church in the monastery of St Sergius, recently restored to the original exposed stone, a woman recited a prayer in Aramaic, the language spoken by Christ. Maalula, a pretty village perched high on a hill, is one of the last remaining places where this language, once widely spoken in the Middle East, is still in use. Sergius was, apparently, a Roman legionary who converted to Christianity and was executed for his refusal to make sacrifices to Jupiter. The altar in the church is thought to have been used in pagan sacrificial ceremonies. Set against the simple stone, the icons – some dating back to the 13th century – are beautiful. You can tell the ones in the traditional Syrian style because the Biblical characters are decked out in Damask brocade.

Just down the road, we walked through a gorge – which, according to legend, appeared when St Thecla, a pupil of St Paul, prayed for help to escape from the soldiers sent to execute her – to the shrine and convent of St Thecla. The shrine, in a room off a cave, is the usual slightly creepy mix of icons, offerings and the odd discarded crutch, and the convent, squarely modern, is entirely unremarkable. Abdul showed us the dripping rock, which are meant to be the tears of the mountain weeping for St Thecla's pain, but we were irritatingly unmoved – just as we were unmoved later by the spot of "miraculous" oil on the steps of the Convent of Our Lady at Seidnayya. Tourists from Italy and Spain would weep, Abdul told us, a touch disappointedly, but we were Brits – stolidly unsuperstitious and more moved by Islamic delicacy than Catholic kitsch.

We were surprised, too, to be told that Seidnayya was not just a place of pilgrimage for Christians around the world, but a hot spot for summer holidays for Arabs from other countries. The architecture, in Western eyes, was pretty hideous: grey breeze-block boxes, many unpainted, unfinished and crowned with spikes and wires for further storeys that may or may not be built. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and apparently it's cool in summer – but give me a shady courtyard in Damascus any day.

After our own Christian pilgrimage, we were more than ready for a little retail therapy and a trip to the hotel spa. Back at the Souq al-Hamidiyya, I splashed out on some traditional hand-painted pictures for friends, and a couple of Iranian kilims for me. The resultant financial anxieties were soothed away with a fabulous "Ytsara yothai" facial in the Four Seasons' Balloran spa ("stimulating blend of pandan leaf and pink lotus extract to alleviate fine lines and assist cell renewal") and dinner at the Ahla Talieh restaurant on Kassioun mountain, at a table with spectacular views of Damascus, old and new. Mezze and meatballs. We were getting quite used to mezze and meatballs.

On our final day in Syria, we drove through flatter, more fertile countryside to Bosra, a city of black basalt stone first mentioned in Egyptian records in 1300BC, which in the first century AD became the capital of the Nabataean kingdom. When the Romans invaded Syria, it became capital of the province of Arabia and garrison for a Roman legion, later raised to the status of metropolis when a local boy, Philip, became emperor of Rome. During the Byzantine era, it had the largest cathedral in the region, and on the Muslim conquest, one of the world's first mosques. And when the Crusaders attacked in the 12th century, the amphitheatre – reputedly the oldest in the world – was fortified and made into a citadel. It is, in short, astonishing. Much of it is extremely well preserved and, amazingly, it's still partly inhabited. Among the ancient ruins, women in loose robes and headscarves scuttle into ramshackle homes.

On our last night in Syria, we drank cocktails and delicious Lebanese wine in the hotel's gentleman's club-like XO bar. As Abdul explained: "The Koran doesn't say don't drink – it says it's better not to drink." The Koran doesn't say anything about eating Italian food, but the delicious "wine dinner" at the hotel's Il Circo restaurant was, after repeated servings of mezze and grilled meats, more than welcome. The wonderful variety in Syrian culture doesn't quite extend to its cuisine.

It does, however, extend to its sweets: tiny mouthfuls of flaky pastry, studded with pistachios, or cashews, or almonds, or pine-nuts. I think I'm addicted to Syrian sweets. I think I'm addicted to Syria.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Damascus is served from Heathrow by BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.co.uk) and Syrian Arab Airlines (020-7631 3511; syrianairlines.co.uk ).

The writer travelled with Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2213; abercrombiekent.co.uk), which offers four nights at the Four Seasons Hotel Damascus from £1,670 per person. The price includes return BMI flights from Heathrow, transfers and accommodation with breakfast. Abercrombie and Kent also offers the seven-night 'The Road to Aleppo' itinerary from £2,458 per person.

The price includes return BMI flights, transfers, three nights at the Four Seasons Damascus, one night at the Palmyra Cham Palace, one night at the Apamean Cham Hotel in Hama and two nights at Chahba Cham Palace Hotel in Aleppo.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel ).

Staying there

Four Seasons Hotel Damascus, Shukri Al Quatli Street, Damascus, Syria (00 963 11 339 1000; fourseasons.com/damascus ).

Eating & drinking there

Al-Khawali restaurant, off Straight Street, Maazanet al-Shahim, Damascus Souq (00 963 11 222 5808).

Red tape & more details

The Foreign Office (0845 850 2829; fco.gov.uk ) warns: "There is a general threat from terrorism. Attacks cannot be ruled out and could be indiscriminate, including in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers."

British passport-holders require a visa to visit Syria. These can be obtained from the Syrian Embassy, 8 Belgrave Square, London SW1X 8PH (020-7245 9012; syremb.com ) and cost £32. Passports bearing an Israeli stamp are not permitted for entry into Syria.

Syria Tourism: 00 963 11 221 0122; syriatourism.org

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