“Damascus is the centre of the world,”

My guide, Abdul, is getting into his stride. “Damascus is the centre of the world,” he says. “Just look at a map! It’s exactly at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. That is why, in the days of the Arab empire, it was the richest city in the world. All the Silk Road traders stopped here. Everyone!” He breaks off as the waiter brings our coffee, and chats briefly to the boy in Arabic (“He’s one of my students from my Heritage Tourism class!”) while I gaze around. I’m in love. Not with Abdul, endearing though he is, and with whom I am sitting in the Damascus National Museum’s open-air café – a vineroofed affair, with tree stumps for table supports, overlooking the museum’s straggly garden filled with ancient statues. A thoroughly knowledgeable guide is the greatest travel luxury – and Abdul is the best in the city, according to the local Madame Fixit.

But it is a place rather than a person that is making my heart race.  Modern Damascus looks very dull – all 1970s apartment blocks and scruffy electrical shops. The Old City, however, the ancient walled enclave around which it has grown, is something else. Dating back more than 4,500 years, it is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It has the only street mentioned by name in the Bible – Straight Street, where Saul of Tarsus went after his famous conversion on the road to Damascus.

It exerts such an irresistible allure, you find yourself stopping every few steps just to drink in your surroundings: its cheerfully mingling Muslims and Christians, its Roman ruins and magnificent Great Umayyad Mosque, its winding alleys and anonymous wooden doors opening on to courtyards of lemon trees, its black-and-white tiled caravanserai inns, its steamy hammams, and its vast souk where men selling rosebuds, spices, silver and brocade stand behind the same wooden counters as their greatgrandfathers did.

It is mesmerizing – and utterly safe, too, at any time of day. There is no irritating hassling from shopkeepers, either (Syrians are far too cool for that). It’s another world – if no longer the cross-roads of the world. And in a few years it will, inevitably, have changed forever.  A decade or so ago, there was nowhere for visitors to stay in the Old City – nowhere with any degree of luxury, anyway. Then, in 2005, five years after President Bashar Al-Assad came to power, extending a newly welcoming hand to tourists, the first boutique hotel opened. Exquisitely converted from a 19th-cen¬tury house by the same Madame Fixit, May Mamarbachi (who now runs the Beroia travel agency), the eight-room Bait Al-Mamlouka, with its courtyard, fountain and enchantingly tiled bedrooms, attracted a stream of eager visitors from the start. Today you have to book months ahead. Of the dozen similar little hotels that have opened, the latest, where I am staying, is the delectable Al Pasha, a palace of birdsong, rosewood furniture with mother-of-pearl inlay, and the constant, cooling sound of trickling water.

Restaurants and cafés now dot Straight Street. Souvenir shops and art galleries   have opened. Syrians who for years worked abroad have begun returning to capitalize on the city’s blossoming as a tourist destination, among them an interior designer who has restored the sprawling Farhi Palace to exactly how it looked when the artist Frederic Leighton painted it in 1874. That will open as a seriously luxurious hotel at the end of next year. And the most useful thing I can tell you is simply – go now, while you can walk streets that still look as they did when Agatha Christie, another eager visitor, stayed in the 1930s.  Flying to Damascus from London isn’t cheap (fares start at about £500 return). If you have time, it would make sense to go for a week and tour the whole of Syria, seeing Aleppo, with its medieval souk, the romantic, ruined desert city of   Palmyra, and the outrageously romantic Krak des Chevaliers, the world’s best-preserved Crusader castle. However, there is plenty in Damascus to fill a long weekend.

The National Museum alone could occupy a day. It is revelatory. There, I discovered whole civilizations I’d never heard of before. In a section about the Eblan, for instance, its entrance marked by an ancient life-size alabaster figure of an indignant-looking pop-eyed man in a woven skirt, are cuneiform tablets dating from 2,250BC. “Excavated in 1975, Ebla’s records rewrote history,” says Abdul proudly. “And they talk about ordinary matters, too. See here: ‘For a long and healthy life, eat olives.’ We in Syria still say olives for breakfast give you energy all day!” We pore over clay models of a house with courtyard and a schoolroom made 4,500 years ago. “I see these a thousand times and never do I tire,” says Abdul, eyes gleaming.

I tear myself away to see the ancient Umayyad Mosque. Shrouded in the obligatory rented abaya (a garment which confers an interestingly self-righteous feeling), I enter a massive marble courtyard where, unexpectedly, people lounge around on the ground and children play. A group of Iraqi refugees, faces etched with trauma, pass. Inside, Muslim worshipers push prayers on slips of paper into the tomb that purportedly holds the head of John the Baptist. Also located here is the Treasury from Damascus’s glory days (“Ah, the third century was our century,” Abdul sighs nostalgically), a windowless room on stilts that could be accessed only by ladder.

Opposite the mosque, a ruined Roman Temple of Jupiter marks the entrance to a warren of shop-lined streets. Every step offers a vignette. Passing a barber’s shop straight out of the 1950s, I see a man turn to his barber with the same pop-eyed gaze I saw on the alabaster figure at the museum. Bad haircut? In the Mustafa Ali art gallery, a cat lolls against an open-air sculpture to wash itself. On Straight Street, I descend to the Chapel of Ananias where Saul Paul miraculously had his sight restored – underground now, but at street level in Roman times. When I pass the altar, I am struck by a force field so strong, so positively magnetic, I am taken aback. From the stairs, a tour-guide friend grins at Abdul, then mock-seriously waves the sign of the cross over him. “Ha ha, I’m a Christian now,” chortles the Muslim Abdul.

En route back to the hotel, I push at a wooden door and find myself in the latest outpost of the Dubai-based high-fashion Villa Moda group. On one floor, the brocade-makers who in 1952 made the fabric for our Queen’s wedding dress have an outlet. “We still make designs we made 200 years ago,” whispers an elderly weaver. Nearby, opposite the HammamAmmouneh (women from 8am to 8pm, men from 8pm to 8am) is a stall piled with rather more affordable olive-oil soaps. “The nicely packaged ones are for tourists, and the plain ones are for locals…much better quality,” murmurs Abdul. Definitely go now.

WHEN TO GO

September to November and April to mid-June are the best months (not too hot). Avoid the Old City on a Friday; it is largely closed.

WHERE TO STAY

The Old City’s dazzling little boutique hotels are all in converted 17th-, 18th- or 19th-century houses, with rooms open¬ing off a central tiled courtyard with a fountain and shaded seating area. Al Pasha, off Straight Street, is a jewel-box of a hotel, made up of three 18th-century houses, two courtyards, corridors hung with coloured-glass chandeliers, and a magnificent little royal suite. Doubles from £127, with breakfast. Recommended alternatives include the 15-room Talisman (the only Old City hotel with a pool), the Shahbandar Palace complex, the six-room Beit Rumman, the 28-room Beit Zaman and the ART House. In modern Damascus, the Four Seasons is conveniently opposite the National Museum. Doubles from £268, room only.

 WHERE TO EAT

One of Syria’s boasts is that, food-wise, it is self-sufficient. Olives, vegetables, fruits, cereals, lamb and beef are all produced with minimal chemical interference, and restaurant meals tend to be robust, healthy and uncomplicated. At the Four Seasons’ Al Halabi (details above), dinner for two costs about £40 and dishes include grilled red peppers with walnuts and pomegranate and celestial lamb with sweet cherries. In the Old City, the best is Old Town where a meal for two costs about £30. Others ‘Men selling rosebuds, spices, silver and brocade stand behind the same wooden counters as their great-grandfathers did’

 

Prepared by :HaifaaMafalani

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