Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Old Town

Damascus is often touted as the worlld's oldest continually inhabited city. Although it's a hard claim to prove (or disprove) history certainly permeates the narrow, windy lanes of the walled old town; and nowhere is this more apparent than at the spectacularUmayyad mosque, constructed when Damascus was perhaps the most important city in the world as the capital of the first Muslim empire that, at its peak, stretched from Spain to India. Built on the site of a former Byzantine cathedral, which itself was built on the site of a temple of zeus, which in turn was built on a temple of Hadad (an Aramaean deity), the mosque incorporates many pre-Islamic features. The central nave looks unmistakably like a church, the walls and columns include recycled Roman masonry and the walls are covered with golden, Greek-style, mosaics. There is even a shrine to John the Baptist, supposedly containing his head, within the main hall of the mosque making it a very important pilgrimage site for Christians, and Shi'ites, not to be outdone, come flocking to the shrine of Imam Hussein tucked away in a corner of the courtyard. A truly ecumenical place of worship, which captures the spirit of the old town where the Christian community is very visible and well-integrated, accounting for about a third of the population, and there is at least one church for every denomination (Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Apostolic, Syrian Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Roman Catholic, Anglican ...).

The old town souq is also regarded as one of the best in the Middle East, but I find it difficult to view shopping as a leisure activity. I try to only enter shops when I have something specific to buy, and then it's only a quick in-and-out affair, hopefully before any assistants can notice me and try and ensorcel me into buying crap I don't need (though I do make an exception for bookshops where I could happily spend a whole day leafing through musty tomes). Instead I preferred to winkle out the hidden architectural gems such as the Ottoman khans (travellers inns) with their characteristic balck and white banding, or ornately carved wooden balconies that span entire alleyways, or the tranquil courtyard of an old Damascene house with its shady orange trees, or even the odd Roman column that has made its way into a shop front. And so I stand contemplating for a while until a near-miss from a murderous taxi breaks the reverie and hauls me back to the present and the imminent task of surviving the lethal Syrian traffic.

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