DAMASCUS – The oldest city in the world today
Meridijani, October 2009
While on my first visit to Damascus seven years ago, I immediately knew that I would return one day. The first time I went, I had journeyed for five months by bicycle from Zagreb to Damascus just to feel with my legs how far away it is. This time I traveled five hours by plane just to feel how close it actually is. As I exited the airplane, a fresh gust of Levantine wind blew a dry desert scent my way. Even the customs officers are kind here, I thought after the smiling dark-skinned and brown-haired officials stamped my passport and then warmly, without cynicism and with sincerity, welcomed me. Soon after, my friend Ezzat Bagdadi greeted me with arms spread wide, ready for a hug. He reminded me about how his home is now mine, literally, as we sat in his car and headed for the city. Almost everywhere, people are said to be hospitable and dear. In my travels throughout almost one third of the world, I have heard such stories over and over again, and have much less experienced the hospitality of local populations along all meridians. And now I concluded once again: Syrians are truly unsurpassed in their kindness and generosity.
At dawn of the next day, just as I heard the muezzin’s first call to Morning Prayer, I opened my eyes and felt a rush of overwhelming joy for waking in a new, yet old, place. Already I could hear the clinking of glass cups in the living room. Ezzat had already prepared a typical breakfast of unleavened bread hobz, olives, cottage cheese, and a tea unsurpassable in sweetness and flavor. He also expressed concern for my wellbeing as his guest, and while we ate I answered his questions about the comfort of my bed and quality of my rest. As we finished our meal, he discreetly reminded me to hurry so we could embark in time on the small trip we had agreed on earlier. We got into the car and headed for Jebel Quassiounu, a 1200 meter high mountain that stretches along the northwestern edge of the city. The city too had just awakened, and people were already coming out onto the streets. As the morning brightened, the thought crossed my mind about how this city proudly proclaims itself as the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world, and I contemplated about its rich history. Many places in the world that I have visited pride themselves in their rich history, various conquerors, nations and epochs that had thundered through them, but nowhere has there been more of that than in Damascus. What especially interested me upon this return to Damascus was to explore how its rich history affected the character of the city, and to study the present day life of its inhabitants. How much has its ancient history imprinted into the mentality and identity of today’s people of Damascus? I asked Ezzat these questions while we climbed towards the peak in the all-terrain truck. This thirty-two year old merchant and manager that had left school when he was eleven years old, yet continued studying on his own for the rest of his days and nights, dazed at the road in front of us in thought, then exclaimed:
“It’s like driving! In order to drive comfortably and safely, you need to have a rearview mirror. You can do without it, but then it’s harder. And here in Damascus, we have the most far-seeing rearview mirror!”
Upon reaching the peak, I saw how the ancient city spread in all directions beneath us, illuminated by the morning sun as it rose above the eastern horizon and shed its light over the expanse of Syrian Desert. “Legend says Prophet Muhammad stood here!” Ezzat told me, “On his way to Mecca, The Prophet stopped here, in awe of the view. He refused to enter the city because he wanted to go to heaven only once – at death.”
During Muhammad’s time, Damascus was at its peak of fortune, and the scene he could have witnessed then was surely much more impressive than today’s. The Barada River, whose waters once filled gardens and nourished greenery, is today a mere trace of a river filled with waste. Almost all constructions were built just recently without much concern for esthetics of the city as a whole. However, at the center of the panoramic view, the massive walls of the Old City still dominated, hinting at memories of the golden era of Damascus. And with this view of the ancient city walls, we were at least able to imagine who had passed through here in history.
The archeological findings in Tell Ramadu at the city’s edge are proof that people had already inhabited this region 12 000 years ago. But the city developed only after the Aramaeans, Semitic nomads from Mesopotamia, arrived. The first written records come from various archives in Mari, Elba, and Egypt, from the second century before Christ. Israeli king David passed through here, as well as the famous Assyrians and Persians, Babylonian Nabukodonozor, and Alexander the Great of Macedonia. The Greeks and Nabataeans and the Romans fought for it. Saul from Tarsus went to Damascus to persecute the Christians. But instead, upon arrival to the Old City, he converted to Christianity and became known as Paul the Apostle or Saint Paul, one of the most notable early Christian missionaries.
During the time of the Roman Empire, the city prospered because it was situated at the crossing of the Silk Route from China and the caravan routes from South Arabia, Palmira, and Petra. It satisfied Romans’ needs for luxury, exotic goods, and at the same time it flourished with its own wealth. The city reached its climax with the introduction of Islam in the seventh century. The Ummayad Caliphate ruled over the Arabian Empire, thus making Damascus the throne of the greatest country in the world that stretched from Spain to India. From 661 to 750, during the rule of the Ummayad Caliphate, Damascus was the center of the world, and almost everything that had been created earlier was then destroyed and burned. Therefore, relics from history that are visible today were created only during the Ummayad. We stood at the mountain’s peak and noticed how the Ummayad Mosques dominated the Old City’s center. A thousand carvers and artists took ten years to build this mosque with the highest level of splendor and grandeur. Detailed mosaics covered every wall; jewels adorned the mihrabs, or prayer niches, and 600 gold chandeliers hung from the wooden ceiling that was also embroidered with gold. To Muslims, this place took second place in importance, next to only Mecca or Medina. During the “conquer” of Jerusalem by crusaders, the mosque survived due to one of its most famous citizens, Saladin. The renowned Arabic hero Saladin had proclaimed Damascus his throne. As the army’s leader, he fought for Jerusalem against Richard the Lion Hearted. Besides building and expanding the city, he nurtured a fine taste in the arts and sciences, and attracted the intellectual elite of that time from all over the world.
When Egyptian Turks Mamluk ruled the city, the word about goods from Damascus spread throughout the world, attracting many merchants from Europe. This resulted in an even greater increase of wealth in Damascus. However, news about its wealth also attracted the Mongol warriors that robbed and burned the city in the thirteenth century, murdered its citizens, and drove the artists and scientists to exile in Samarkand. The Ummayad Mosque was shaken by Mongols, fires and earthquakes, but what has remained despite all that is evidence enough to serve as witness of how Damascus once was.
After the Mongolian “quake”, Damascus experienced a slight decline. The Ottomans marginalized it during the next four centuries, until only a small provincial center remained. During World War I, the Turks and Germans set bases there. While this was happening, the Arabic peninsula once again brought to consciousness stories about the infamous history and unity of all Arabs, so Saudi Arabian king Feisal and Lawrence of Arabia, in collaboration with the Alliance, freed the city from the Turks. However, instead of receiving the independence that was promised to them, Syria was tricked into signing a secret agreement in which ownership of Syria was handed over to the last conquerors who occupied the city, the French. Inhabitants of the city protested and expressed their dissatisfaction, so in 1925 and 1926, the city was bombed several times with the intention of destroying the resistance. Syria gained independence, and Damascus became its capital city in 1946 after French and British troops retreated completely.
Ezzat and I descended down the mountain and went to the very heart of the Old City, where everything was pulsating with life. All small shops and stands were already opened, and people walked along the narrow streets and about the small squares. The city reminded me of a well established anthill. Oriental lute melodies could be heard playing in some shops, while modern Arabic pop music blasted from others. The overstressed speakers vibrated and groaned a constant background buzz under the strain of this pop music that was always too loud for their capabilities. Muezzins regularly called to prayer, and whenever this would happen, crowds of people would pour towards the nearest mosque just around the corner, while the remainder would just continue with their routine. Church bells rang every so often in the Christian neighborhood, and as we walked we enjoyed the odors of freshly ground coffee, cardamom, and the gentle scents of fruit-tobacco from nearby coffee houses. We also heard the knocking of dice shuffling and falling on wooden backgammon boards along the streets, and in some parts, the strong scent of jasmine would encompass us as it spread from gardens hidden behind thick, high walls that protected homes from the public eye. Ezzat let me lead the way, and laughed every time we would hit the wall at the end of a dead end street. It will take me two weeks to master basic orientation skills here. People passed along the streets: covered women, juice merchants, and delivery boys carrying goods on donkeys. A few trucks would also drive by every so often, which always left me amazed at how they ever managed to probe their way through these narrow passages. Some streets seemed like tunnels as they led under tightly-set rows of homes, and other streets ended in peoples’ yards.
The interior of Damascene homes also amazed me. Buildings were arranged such that several of them encircled a central patio, and each house had a wooden balcony facing the patio with a view of the water fountain in its center. The marble and basalt exteriors embroidered with detailed ornaments and adorned with bushes of scented plants would all fall to second plan whenever a local would invite us to join them for tea. Instead of being angered at us for disrupting their peace, they would invite us to sit with them on pillows in the shade of their patio. I had completely forgotten about the history of that city, enchanted by its pulsating present life, until Ezzat reminded me by saying, “When you have history, then you understand civilization. How it disappeared, where it’s headed for, how it will finish, and how it affects people. For example, my great grandfathers built Damascus in a way that suited them. Architecture is a reflection of the state of a society and state of mind! Our streets are narrow because our people wanted to be connected with the people in the streets, they wanted to be close to one another. On the other hand, inside the houses, people wanted their own peace and their own private world. That is why the walls are high, to separate them from the outer world. That is why the homes are comfortable, fresh with marble, and refreshing with plants and fountains.”
We sat at a small, lively, and overcrowded restaurant, and the waiter immediately brought us mezze, several plates with mixtures of various kinds of chickpeas, eggplant, sesame, bulgur, lemon, olive oil and garlic, and of course, the unavoidable hobz and tea. I hadn’t even noticed, and already my first day in Damascus was nearing its end as the sun began setting and Ezzat invited me to rest in one of the well-known coffeehouses Al Nawfar in the very heart of the Old City. We were just enjoying sipping tea, smoking nargeelas, and watching the world pass us by, up and down the street, when Abu Shadi entered. I remembered that face well from seven years ago, because he was one of those people you meet while traveling and never forget. Abu Shadi is the last hakawati, storyteller. Once upon a time, before the time of modern media, people came to coffee houses to listen to the hakawati tell stories. One by one they disappeared as radios and televisions replaced them. But Abu Shadi loved reading and writing ever since an early age, and decided to continue with this profession just when the last hakawati in Damascus had retired.
He climbed onto his storyteller’s throne, like every evening of the past forty years, and began a story. A lot of tourists gathered in the coffeehouse, but still in the first rows sat the regular guests, “local neighbors” sucking on their nargeelas and listening carefully to Abu Shabi’s story. Ezzat explained how they much less know these stories already, because the hakawati often repeated them, but nevertheless, he always brought freshness to them with his gestures and anecdotes from life in modern day Damascus. Sometimes he would startle everyone present by banging his metal cane on the tin armrest of his throne. “Abu Shabi isn’t just a storyteller, he is a performer, an entertainer,” Ezzat explained, “and because of that he captivates the audience.”
Although I knew that Abu Shadi does not talk about Scheherazade, but instead talks about modern heroes and clowns of Damascus, he still successfully brought to life the exotic air from the city of one thousand and one nights of long ago. His expressive Arabic with its harshness, passion, and amplitudes in diction, his storyteller’s costume, the atmosphere of the coffeehouse engulfed in clouds of smoke from nargeelas, and the colossal walls of the Umayyad Mosque that could be seen in the distance through the coffee shop’s hazy glass…unlike Cairo or Bagdad, Damascus with its living hakawati still is the city of a one thousand and one nights.
For three weeks I wandered the streets of the Old City in Damascus. Every morning I entered its labyrinths through one of its seven city doors, then immediately got lost in one of the souqs where the scents of cumin, coffee, and natural perfumes intoxicated me. Gold gleamed from goldsmiths’ shops, and unrecognizable scents emanated from piles of spices set on stands. In workshops along the mosque, calligraphers and sculptors impressed audiences with their skills, and in the smaller workshops along the labyrinths of streets, blacksmiths, bakers, shoemakers, weavers, wood painters, candle-stick makers, and sculptors relentlessly called to passers by, inviting them to in to buy a good or two. Sometimes I would enter some official’s palace that was just a greater and more elaborate version of the structures of typical Damascene houses. Days of walking down these endless streets sometimes ended with a visit to some antique hammam – bath, where regular guests together with the eventual tourist, would subject themselves to water, stone, sponge, brush, steam, heat, and then water once again. Some of these hammams, like the Az-Zahariyya, have been in use continuously since the twelfth century. People have relaxed in them ever since Saladin and Lawrence of Arabia lived in Damascus, when Mongols thundered through the city, or even the Ottomans and French. I found it fascinating how, of all the hundreds of cities that I had visited throughout the world, not one place could compare with the Old City in its wealth of history and present day liveliness.
But what interested me the most were the people. It is always easy to get into a conversation with Damascenes. Just sit in a coffee shop and someone from a neighboring table will start a conversation with you. I often talked with the elderly that spent their retirement days in leisure with a cup of tea and party of chess. Their knowledge of English often astounded me, and later they would reveal how they are retired university professors or talkative taxi drivers that learned English through conversation with the tourists they had driven around town. A retired university professor of electrotechnology, Ali Mohammed, whom I met once while he played chess in a coffee shop in the company of a few friends, bragged about how he had traveled a lot through the world, and that he is happy to live in Damascus. “World civilization has distanced people, made them isolate themselves from one another.” He philosophized. “Over here, thank God, it’s not like that yet. People socialize; they have large families and a lot of friends. It’s nice to spend your old age like that. The worst is to be alone.”
“Actually, materialism is knocking on our door,” he added a bit later, “The young are taken by it more and more, but we elderly don’t allow it to take us,” His friends, who had been silently focused on the game of chess, now laughed, letting it be known that they understand English too.
I talked with a dozen different people in coffee houses. Usually they had approached me with questions about my family or job. Right away I realized that they were most interested in family, for a large and healthy family is believed to be great fortune and a gift from God. But then, whenever they would find out that I don’t have a wife or children, even though I have a good job and am “already” twenty-seven years, they wouldn’t complain. Little by little, and mainly in conversation about politics, I found out that Damascenes are very tolerant; most do not categorize people by nationality or religion. At least not as much as how the average Westerner considers them in the same category as terrorists.
Older people usually sat in the coffeehouses, and I often spent time observing their wrinkles. Those time-lines through the years draw portraits of our characters. I noticed how old Damascenes – more often than the elderly elsewhere – have rays of wrinkles spreading from around their eyes like sunbeams, which means they had laughed a lot in their life.
I decided to find out what the youth of Damascus has to say, so I spent more time in front of the university, where I befriended some interesting people. One meeting left an especially deep impression on my, with a young traditional Muslim girl who was covered of her own free will in a hijab, with only her eyes revealed. Ludzain Kriker, a twenty-two year student of management, willingly, without any sense of discomfort, joined me for a cup of tea. We spent our first meeting talking about family, the beauty and history of Damascus, and the state of society, and then her fiancée Amar Razan, a twenty-eight year old English teacher, joined us. We then covered a topic of great interest, the relationships and status of men and women in their society.
“It is very important to young women in Damascus that they keep to their chastity and virginity!” Ludzain surprised me when she spoke up, “It’s okay for young people to date, but it is not okay to have sexual relations before marriage.” She said how weddings in Damascus look as if the men celebrate separate from the women, and that the bride and groom meet only after the whole event is over. “Sometimes, before the first wedding night, the groom’s mother checks the bride’s virginity!” Amar surprised me. “Sometimes young people sleep together before marriage, but if the man then leaves the woman, she is left in a very bad position. Some decide to have an operation to return their virginity! And sometimes – but that happens more in the villages and only rarely in the city – her family excommunicates her, or even kills her, because she has irreversibly betrayed her family’s honor! But those are just exceptions that just confirm how family here is the most important,” Amar smiled. “Most often, the husband and wife love and respect each other. If the man ever cheats on her or hurts her, she can easily file for divorce and gain ownership of all his property!”
Ludzain said how she will soon be working in a bank. She looks forward to family life with children, but she plans to postpone this for a while. As a true Muslim, she covers herself according to the laws of Shariat, but as Amar explained, she is not a typical believer. For instance, she does not go to the mosque because she prefers to pray in solitude. She added how she actually looks up to Amar because he took good care of himself after he had lost his parents at the age of twelve, and now knows how to take good care of her. Ludzain continued about how she does not believe that Damascenes are repressed, or that she feels underprivileged as a woman. Actually, she feels privileged. “First…” she began naming reasons when I asked her about women’s status in society, “I can stay home with my children for as long as I choose and believe is necessary, which is a great privilege for many women! Second, wherever I go, I am respected. People get up in the buses to let me sit, I am given the advantage when waiting for a taxi or in a restaurant, or anywhere else. If anyone ever says anything offensive to me in public, everyone else immediately jumps to my defense and attacks the wrongdoer.”
I asked if there was ever violence in the family. “Very little! Society condemns it!” She answered, “When the word would spread that someone beats his wife, then no one would talk with that person any more. Not even vendors in stores, or clerks behind counters, or even his family…That’s a matter of public shame! The Prophet Muhammad said that women are weaker and they need to be cared for and protected. The entire Ku’ran talks about how wonderful women are, and most people here stick to that.” Ludzain concluded.
Another interesting new friend, twenty-six year old graphic designer Housam Nasrallah, accompanied me during my last few days in Damascus. He showed me the Damascus that lived outside the walls of the Old City, where there were shopping centers packed with rich Saudi Arabians, lounge bars where crowds of the “golden youth” gathered, and disco clubs filled with girls and boys dancing all dressed-up. We went to a night club where young, educated Muslims drank alcohol and danced to Arabic pop music. Housam explained that almost no one gets carried away, and added how it would be hard to see someone drunk and teetering around. “Foreigners think that there’s no alcohol here!” He said, “But it’s everywhere, it’s legal, it can be bought at stores, but most people don’t drink. And if you drink, no one would complain. Unlike in other Arabic countries, here no one would complain even if you drank alcohol on the street during Bajram!”
He told me the story of a relationship with a girl that had also accompanied us – Maria, an architect. Housam has six brothers and three sisters, and Maria has two brothers. He comes from a Muslim family, and she comes from a Christian family. Christians in Damascus are much more traditional than the Muslims. They are direct descendents of the Christians that had never converted to Islam from the time of Jesus Christ. During Saladin’s time, the ratio of Christians to Muslims was 50 – 50 %. Nowadays, 75 % of the population is Muslim and 10 % is Christian, because the Christians are much more closed and have fewer children. To both of them, the family is a blessing, but Muslims are allowed to marry Christians, while Christians are not allowed to marry Muslims. Housam and Maria had been truly in love, they both admitted. They had been engaged and wanted to marry, but their parents disapproved. “We could have gotten married despite our parents and lived our own life, because we both earn well,” Housam explained without any note of bitterness, “But then we would have had to go against our parents, and we didn’t want to do that. We respect them too much! Although our parents are completely disoriented in this new world and don’t even know how to turn a computer on, we respect them because that is what is most important in this world!”
Housam said how half of the young, mainly those without a higher education, marry in the traditional way – their parents arrange their marriage. The educated and more modern find their partners themselves, and some even change partners several times before marriage, but they never engage in premarital sex. For this reason the young in Damascus do not have problems with sexually transmitted diseases, or with unwanted pregnancies. Both the young and the elders equally agree that the two most important factors in choosing a partner are chastity and belonging to a good family. Families build their honor for generations, and for this reason the young prefer not to disagree with their parents.
My last day in Damascus I returned to Jebel Quassioun, but this time with Housam. He drove me in his large new automobile, and talked about how Damascenes like to import everything from the world – cars, cellular phones, technology – and they produce nothing themselves. Most people live from day to day, he said. They work as craftsmen or tradesmen, and spend their entire days in their workshops building what they sell immediately on the spot, and they earn just enough to feed themselves and their families the next day. “They have no perspective, no future!” He told me.
“We young people are stuck,” Housam admitted. Deep in thought, he glanced every so often at the rear view mirror of his expensive automobile. “During the last few centuries, things had changed slowly. Then these past few years, things started changing too quickly. Mainly because of education, internet, and satellite programs. We say that satellites are raising our children. While parents are at work, children change programs and see the world on the small screen. Then they get out onto the streets, the souq, where everything has been the same for centuries and is nothing like the world that they see on television.”
Housam felt the ancient history of his city deep in his blood, he said to me as we reached the peak of Jebel and watched the sun set beyond the city’s horizon. He came from a family of many generations of Damascenes, and he felt himself deeply rooted here. Although he had traveled the world and had a five-year visa for America in his passport, he knew he would never leave his city. For he explained: Damascus has that something special, all nations at some time in history had wanted to conquer it.
“I feel that I belong to that history too,” He said as the first evening lights lit in the city. “But I’m not sure it prepared me for today’s world. I feel my deep roots keep me from moving on.”
We remained sitting in silence as night fell over the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world and with its darkness hid the visible border between the old and new. Only the numerous city lights remained. No one can say for sure where Damascus is headed for, I thought, nor what will be with it. But one thing is for sure – Damascus today, is where it had always been.