From The Age
Back to the beginning
Jon Faine ignores the warnings and embarks on the road to Damascus.
It is as if I am rubbing shoulders with all of humanity. Our path is paved with ancient stones that hosted the Crusaders and little has changed since. We can see the humble tomb of the Islamic warrior Saladin to the side. Before us stand the soaring minarets of the Omayyad mosque, one of Islam's holiest sites.
But the pilgrims capture your attention as much as the building. One ancient woman, who barely reaches my elbows, is bent almost double, walking on cloth-bound feet and leaning heavily on a walking stick carved from a tree branch. Her entire body is cloaked in dark shrouds but she does not wear a burqa. Many do but she has a different arrangement.
Her hair is covered but she allows most of her face to be seen. She has tattoos on her lips. Her eyes burn into mine as she refuses my polite, but misguided, efforts to help her across the knee-high threshold into the mosque. The cultural gap is obvious. To take a helping hand from a male stranger would be unthinkable. My clumsiness is exposed; a simple polite gesture - unremarkable at home - is here in Damascus an affront.
We remove our shoes and squeeze through the crowd. An elderly man seems mesmerised, his toothless mouth agape at the emotion of entering one of the holiest sites in his religion. He carries his slippers across the vast floor and his head sports a variant of a turban of cotton cloth, his trousers joining below the knee in a baggy crotch.
He stoops to kiss the brass fittings on every door. Maybe it is the shrine, the crush of his fellow pilgrims or the sight of Western tourists - he is clearly overwhelmed by it all. So are we.
Standing nearby, just to confound the stereotype, is a tall young local man, baseball cap sitting backwards on his head. He wears a Michael Jordan T-shirt and carries his Nike runners in his hand. His long hair covers his shoulders and even in the mosque he answers his mobile phone.
The domed roof is high above us. The sun filters through thousands of tiny windows set high into the cupola. The floor is flooded with lush carpets and on the opposite wall, kneeling in prayer, long rows of men and boys touch their heads to the floor and chant in unison.
Visiting any place of worship as a tourist is intrusive, walking around a mosque during prayers more so than most. But we are invited to make our way to the ornate gilded cage that entombs John the Baptist. What is a Christian saint's tomb doing in a mosque?
We discover John the Baptist is also revered in Islam. This mosque, as with so many religious buildings around the world, is built on the ruins of a church and, before that, a Roman shrine.
A mesh screen keeps men and women apart and inadequately covered tourists must hire a full length cloak with pointy hood to avoid offence. Looking like a tall Jawa from Star Wars is a small price to pay to join the worshipping crowds.
We have come to Damascus despite many warnings. Syria has a special reputation. Iraq is just over the mountains and the country is often named as a source of terrorism. We shrug off the concerns of well-meaning friends and relatives, treated the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade warning as a guide only and fly via Dubai to Amman in Jordan.
A few days in Amman leave us unenthusiastic for more. In this mostly modern city with few attractions, accommodation is either Western chains at ridiculous prices or, at the other extreme, grubby, noisy holes. The car horns do stop - about three in the morning. Then they start again about four. Sleepless nights and dodgy plumbing make for a bad start to any holiday.
Huge military cargo planes fly every half hour over the city, landing at a big US base on the outskirts of town. It is not until we are leaving that I buy an English-language paper and read about a Muslim fanatic charged with the stabbing murder of a British tourist at the Roman amphitheatre we had visited the day before.
So we haggle for a driver to take us to Damascus, stopping en route at the wonderfully intact ruins in Jerash, where we pretend we are in our own Ben Hur. Earthquakes over the centuries have taken their toll but huge triumphal arches and row upon row of colonnaded streets still stand. Our next stop is the border.
Our driver assures us he knows how to work the system and we
will want to reward him well for avoiding long delays. Visas had to be obtained before leaving Australia and I had insisted on declaring my occupation as journalist, a spanner in the works he had not anticipated. The crossing takes hours and tests our patience to the limit but eventually we enter Syria.
The change in surrounds is immediate. What had seemed impoverished in Jordan now looks luxurious. Syria is visibly poorer, cars and trucks are decrepit and exhaust fumes are stifling. The houses are smaller, older and in greater disrepair. The little infrastructure that is visible suffers from neglect. Light poles are toppling and wires are entangled. Roads have potholes, drains are non-existent and pollution is everywhere.
Our driver dodges motorbikes, donkeys, buses and trucks until he reaches the bus station in Damascus. He explains we need to change taxis to get to our hotel - a Jordanian taxi is not allowed within the Syrian capital. He drops us at the side of the road on a busy intersection. We stand bewildered in this cyclone of activity. But like a seagull spying a stray chip, a local taxi swoops and scoops us up. He has never heard of the hotel we booked over the internet, so we dread what awaits us.
He crawls through ever-narrowing alleyways, one hand on the horn. Any moment I expect casualties. The walls are so close the door handles need new chrome. Pedestrians have to flatten themselves within doorways for us to pass. Upper stories of houses extend over the street forming a roof over the cobbles.
Shops spill onto the street through open fronts. Pastries, felafels, sweets, juices, clothes, phones, barbers, chemists, spices and other foods compete for our senses as young Damascenes perform a Syrian passeggiata.
Dusk approaching, exhausted, we stop outside the hammam - the public baths. Our driver mimes for us to get out and to pay. Panic threatening, we have no idea where to turn. Out of the staring crowd a young woman steps forward and welcomes us in perfect English. We are ushered around a corner to a gigantic wooden double door big enough for a chariot to pass through - and a few probably have. Inside we enter another world.
A fountain splashes on a mosaic floor, cushioned benches and chairs invite us. Mint tea is offered on a brass tray. The noise from the street is replaced by the trickle of water and the foul fumes of the alley by the perfumed cloves pressed in oranges in the fountain. The courtyard of Beit Al Mamlouka is a sanctuary, a touch of Middle Eastern luxury. Beautifully and authentically restored but equipped with the very latest in European bathrooms, this mansion serves as a boutique hotel. We feel the tension flow from our bodies.
We are staying in the Christian quarter of supposedly the oldest continuously occupied city in the world. Biblical sites abound and we spend days just wandering, following walks suggested by the hotel's enthusiastic staff.
Breakfast is a highlight - honey-pickled walnuts, almond- and cinnamon-laced semolina pudding, fresh chocolate bread and homemade jams. Wherever we go, the food is fabulous, regardless of whether it comes from a roadside grill or swish city restaurant. We amuse locals in a club as we try the hubble-bubble water-pipe with strawberry flavour. Wandering the streets of the old city at night, we feel as safe as we would in an Australian city.
We are told that hotel occupancy rates in central Damascus can fall as low as 20 per cent and "why are you not afraid?" is a common question. Souvenirs include magnificent tablecloths, scarves and, of course, damask bed covers.
Almost every shop is adorned with a flag, poster or portrait of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, often brandishing a machine gun. Many posters also show the president in tandem with Hezbollah leader Sheik Nasrallah. Most shopkeepers quietly tell us it is a display that is required, a kind of protection racket to keep "them" happy. Or are they placating a puzzled western tourist?
Each day we find a new way to get lost in the souk, the old city's main market with its bullet-holed roof, shot through by invaders and locals, celebrating victory or defeat in various conflicts. Despite our best efforts, large sections of the souk remain unexplored. The sweets shops, glazed fruits and the spice markets overwhelm the senses and wherever we go we are offered tastings and advice on which sack of produce is fresher, cheaper or better than others.
There are some peculiarities to get used to when travelling in an Arab nation. We giggle watching Arab TV chat shows, where a burqa-clad host interviews a burqa-clad guest, testing TV's role as a visual medium.
In public, men vastly outnumber women, yet some girls wear tight jeans, sprout piercings and wear close-fitting Western tops, which no one seems to mind. G-strings and flimsy underwear are sold alongside scarves and burqas in the market. In restaurants, a menu is offered to my wife without prices. Despite the widespread poverty, there is no shortage of German luxury limousines zipping along the potholed streets.
On the Al Jazeera TV network, we see US President Bush and then British prime minister Tony Blair talking about tackling the isolationism of Syria. We feel like sending them a postcard from Damascus.
Night driving is to be avoided, as lights for local cars, trucks and motorbikes seem to be optional. In the pitch black, goats, donkeys with carts and three boys on a minibike all just appear in the illuminated patch in front of our minibus. And when we think it could not get worse, an old ute appears driving towards us in the divided highway's emergency lane.
We spend two days on side-trips, visiting empty tourist attractions that in any other country would be crowded. Palmyra is nearly three hours' drive from Damascus. The Iraq border is just across the ridge, so we share the road with convoys of new, heavily laden Chevrolets, without number plates and filled to the brim with consumer goods and electronic gadgetry new in boxes. Smugglers, no doubt, and a booming trade.
The overwhelming Palmyra is an entire Roman city that is still to be excavated. A Japanese expedition had discovered a new site the month before our visit - for once, grave robbers had failed to deny the archaeologists their prize.
A few days later, we head north towards the Lebanese border, a trip to the Crusader castle that enthralled T.E. Lawrence as a student and helped shape his Lawrence of Arabia persona. Krak des Chevaliers does not disappoint. It guards the valley that gave traders from time immemorial the best path from the Mediterranean to the Silk Road.
Lunch at the family restaurant that overlooks the amazingly intact castle remains memorable. The mezze platters consist of 16 different dips and nibbles, then comes the chicken, then the lamb. Hatem, our host, is relieved to see a tour van. His father started the business years ago but now he has few customers. "No one comes since 9/11," he laments.
We stop off in the village at the Monastery of St George, where the very tall albino caretaker unlocks the huge door to a long passage carved from rock. It leads to a deep underground chapel and a 900-year-old ornate wooden carved church partition and frescos that adorn an even older Roman site of worship. It could be straight from the Da Vinci Code.
We prepare to leave Damascus after a thoroughly memorable trip. We hail a taxi to Amman - "the capital of boredom" our driver tells us. On the way out, someone asks our impression of Syria. I confess to earlier anxieties and admit to worrying about terrorism. "But no, we have no terrorism in Syria," says this local. "We only export terrorism."
There are a numerous ways to get to Damascus. Emirates flies to Damascus or Amman from $2084 via Dubai. They also allow you to fly into Amman and out of Damascus and vice versa. Royal Jordanian has a fare with Thai Airlines for $1843, but not great connections. If you fly Turkish Airlines and partner airlines you can combine Syria and Jordan with a visit to Turkey.
Visas are required for Syria and Jordan. You can get a Jordanian visa here or on arrival in Amman but this takes time. Note DFAT's advice on Syria: "We advise you to reconsider your need to travel to Syria because of the high threat of terrorist attack and volatile security environment."