Cart filled with sweets at the Al Hamadiya Souk, inside the old walled city of Damascus. Own photo.
Ever since Cain murdered Abel somewhere on Mount Qassioun, Syria has been associated with biblical events and rival orthodoxies. Here, Saul became Paul, changing forever the course of Christianity; here also, the early Caliphs of Islam held sway. To the call of God were added the enticements of Mammon, with Damascus growing rich thanks to the lucrative caravan routes from the East.
Unable to resist the heady mix of religion and trade, everyone tramped through Syria to stake their claim: Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks, Crusaders, Mongols, Mamelukes, Ottomans and the cast of Lawrence of Arabia have all trod the trail of Alexander’s Greeks, leaving their mark in an astonishing cultural legacy.
The old quarters of Damascus, with its maze of narrow cobbled streets overhung by shuttered wooden balconies, are magical. Souks teem with life, colour and temptation. The abundance of sumptuous hammam, mosques, khans, churches, palaces and madrasas stand testimony to rich and enlightened centres of learning, where "lunatics" (burnt at the stake in Europe at the time) were treated instead with a diet of haute cuisine, poetry and music.
Above: Lily Keen crochet lampshades. The bottom one is a traditional sieve on which crochet work has been fastened to create an interesting lamp. Below: Crochet jewelry, a curtain and more lampshades
Damascus is the world's best kept travel secret - the city is a treasure showcasing authentic and original arts, crafts and trades. It is here where the copper-smith, the potmaker, the embroiderer, the wedding dress designer, the glassblower and more all still rub shoulders in pretty much the same way they have been doing for thousands of years. I have no idea why tourists swamp Marrakesh and pay ridiculous prices for products created mainly for errr tourists when the treasures of Damascus remain a secret. Having been to both destinations, I can vouch that Damascus is by far the superior travel destination. In times of peace anyway. Pliny, the Roman historian, wrote about Phoenician merchants who accidentally discovered glass in Syria about 5000 B.C. when they placed cooking pots on blocks of nitrate. The high temperatures of the fire's heat melted the nitrate, which mixed with sand, formed an opaque liquid and cooled as glass. It is almost impossible to put into words the magical feeling strolling the old parts of this city knowing that it has existed like this for thousands and thousands of years.