Syria’s ancient trading capital has seen it all. Recognized by UNESCO in 1979 as one of the world’s oldest cities; it was a key stop on the Silk Road carrying goods between China and Europe.
While its antiquity still stands, Damascus has been through a lot since war broke out in 2011. Thousands fled the city, particularly the young, along with the swarms of visitors so important to the city’s economy, taking with them the exuberance and optimism that had defined it. So yes, it certainly lost some of its charm at least for now.
It’s been nearly seven years now since I was in Damascus, the city where my family has lived for generations. As a student in Beirut, I used to travel regularly between the two cities, and always felt overjoyed when I saw the sign welcoming visitors to the ancient city.
In the fall of 2014, when I left Damascus not knowing it would be the last time for many years, in spite of all, the city was full of hope, and the scent of jasmine filling the back alleys was refreshing. Public resilience overcoming the despair of war was impossible to ignore. And perhaps it was this spirit that help give me the courage to leave.
A 2016 Reuters special report described the return of nightlife after years of hibernation. During a recent phone call, a friend described how the ancient ‘Straight Street’ turns from a lively market into a packed pub district filled with bars and nightclubs. Yet it would be another two years at least before visitors would again risk the journey, according to British travel blogger Jord Simons, who visited Damascus in 2019, and left visibly moved both by the friendliness and by how normal it all felt. His word: “surreal”.
Outside the Old City, though the scars of war are ugly and raw, the current hyperinflation – with the Syrian pound now at 3500 SYP to the USD, up from 50 to 1 in 2009, and 350 to 1 in 2014 – and precarious rule of law, even a glorious city like Damascus is for many unlivable. But let us not open fresh wounds.
Even with the war, there was and is an incomparable allure to Damascus that’s unlike any other place in the world. A city as ancient as history itself, Damascus was fought over by nearly every great historical power from Hittites to Romans all the way to the French. This foreign contact and trade enriched the civilization, making it a melting pot of cultures, heritages, and religions.
Modern-day Damascus shows this in its architecture. In one city quarter, the French were keen to apply their ideas of city planning, with the narrow streets, three-story residential blocks, and a small green park surrounded by restaurants and cafes. In other areas, there are high-rise apartment buildings and shopping malls, along wide streets filled with trees.
But the Spark of It All Is the Old City.
Over 2000 years ago, not far from where I grew up, lived Ananias, an overlooked saint. As told in the bible’s book of Acts, God said to Ananias “Get up and go to the street called Straight” urging him to meet Paul, baptize him, and give him his eyesight back. This holy city is where St. Paul first embarked on his mission to spread Christianity all over the world.
While strolling through the alleyways, the great mosque of the Umayyads appears over the small artisanal shops. On its left side stands the nearby Roman gate of Jupiter. This sacred spot has hosted an Aramaean temple, from Roman times, and a cathedral, before becoming a mosque in the 8th century. Its courtyard bursts with Islamic art dating back to the Caliphate. Adjoining is the tomb of Saladin, the great Muslim leader who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
Inside the large prayer hall of the Great Mosque, one of the oldest and surely the most beautiful in the world, completed in 715 by Umayyad Caliph al-Walīd I, lays the only surviving Christian monument: the tomb of John the Baptist, a testament to the shared history of Christians and Muslims in Damascus.
Today, about 85 percent of Damascenes are Muslim, and the rest Christians, from many sects, some going back to the first Christians of the early centuries before the schism. Many practice Orthodox traditions similar to the Greeks.
Courtyard of Nassan Palace
I was lucky to grow up in a decorated Damascene house, where our family has lived for more than 200 years. Up until the war, the ground floor was open to tourists, worth visiting both for its interior and exterior: Ottoman and French infused architecture. Thankfully, by some act of grace, neither house nor family were harmed during the war; and visiting may “legally” soon be possible again.
The Old Covered Hamidieh Souk
The marketplace in old Damascus is a labyrinth: Imagine walking near the covered old souk of Medhat Basha and inhaling the scent of spices. Small alleyways flank it on both sides with shops selling everything from handcrafted local specialties, perfumes and Syrian baklava to every single kind of candy imaginable. With the roof partially damaged in the war, the main street is now sheltered und a huge canopy in the colors of the Syrian flag, which fascinated visitors capture on their cellphone cameras.
Damascus is a phenomenal journey from the present all the way back to antiquity. Beside a Roman wall, ancient mosques and churches rub shoulders with each other. In Damascus, there is an unbreakable bond between Islam and Christianity, engraved into the culture. But nothing beats sitting outside at a pub beside the Eastern Gate, smoking shisha and drinking beer with good people.