Damascus is an ancient city. There are references to it in ancient Egyptian texts. Archeological evidence of human habitation goes back to the 5th century BCE.
It is considered by many to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. For much of its history Damascus was a Roman city. The Romans built eight gates to the city, seven still exist today.
We had been in Damascus for two days and I wanted to get a deeper understanding of the old city with its Muslim, Jewish and Christian quarters. I wanted to explore and get lost.
I thought that navigating the city in search of the seven gates would be a perfect way to do that. My friend Micky and my father wanted to join me on this little adventure.
From our little hotel, which is nestled deep in the Old City, we venture out onto Straight Street. Straight Street skewers the Old City in half running east to west. It is one of the main commercial streets. Much of the street is a covered suq and shops line each side selling everything from dresses to pepper mills to toilet seats. The name has is a Biblical
reference – ‘a street called straight’ was mentioned in the Bible – and reminds
us how old this city actually is. Soon we enter the spice market. On either side are shops with mountains of colorful and fragrant spices, half of which I don’t even know. A cart vendor sells fresh green almonds.
Shortly we come across a man who is tearing down posters of president Bashar with a police man overseeing the work and talking to some passersby. We are not at all sure what
is going on here, although it looks like the posters have been defaced, which is probably why they are being removed. Not knowing the language and wanting to stay out of the trouble that is brewing in this country we move on quickly and don’t take any pictures.
We don’t realize that we’ve passed through Bab al Faraj (gate of joy), our first stop, until we turn around and see it behind us. The city has completely consumed the gates
and walls and so that now the building structures are attached to the walls and
they blend in to the confusion of the suq. The gate has huge doors which, until recent
times were closed at sundown each night.
Leaving Bab al Faraj, we walk right by the Ummayud mosque, the jewel of the Old City. We don’t go in because we’ve seen it already, but instead our attention is drawn instead to
activity around the nearby Sayyida Rouqqaya mosque. This mosque is built in the Iranian style, with a distinctive dome and much more ornate and gaudy interior. It is a Shi’ite mosque built with Iranian money and there is a large group of Iranians in town making pilgrimage to sites and mosques in Damascus. They are probably on their way to Mecca.
We enter the mosque, which houses the holy relics of Rouqqaya, daughter of a Shi’ite martyr. The outside courtyard is similar to what we’ve seen before, a quiet
place for reflection and prayer. However, once we enter the main part of the mosque the decorations — tiles, carpet, chandeliers — are much more ornate and flashy. We almost feel like we’ve stepped into a disco except that all the women are dressed in black hijabs and they are very busy worshiping around the tomb of Rouqqaya. The women’s area is completely separate from the men’s, which we haven’t seen before. Micky fearlessly goes in alone and Dad and I step around to the men’s side and observe.
Very near the Rouqqaya mosque is our second gate – Bab al Faradis (gate of paradise). Again, in this area of the city the walls are a part of the architectural texture of the suq – the general confusion and celebration.
We exit the walls and continue our walk outside the city walls, crossing the Barada river which contains flood water from the Anti-Lebanon mountains. This is the river that once
made Damascus a city of gardens — a paradise. It is said that the prophet Mohammed refused to enter Damascus because he said that he could only enter paradise once and that was during the afterlife.
We come very quickly to Bab al Salaam (gate of peace – gate of the moon to the Romans). This is the first of the gates that is easily findable from outside of the walls and is not
a part of a suq. The neighborhood that it lies in is quieter than what we’ve been through and gives us a chance for a relaxed stroll rather than the hurried walk we’ve been on.
Bab al Touma (Thomas’ gate) is next. But first it’s time for some tea. Stopping for tea is one of the simple pleasures of a trip to the Middle East – an easy way to fortify oneself as
there are many places to caffeinate yourself. Bab al Touma is the main entrance to the Christian Quarter of the old city. The old city was, and still is, divided into quarters – the Muslim Quarter (with a Shia section), the Jewish Quarter (of which there are only a handful of families remaining – most emigrated to the US or Israel) and the Christian Quarter. Syria’s population is 10% Christian – a collection of early Christian sects like Armenian, Maronite, and Syrian Catholic. Contrary to Western stereotypes, religious diversity in Syria is strong. The ruling Ba’ath party is secular – religion is a matter of personal choice. Syrians pride themselves on this religious diversity and freedom.
We walk up Bab al Touma street, which is a busy commercial area with lots of shops – bakeries in particular. We make our way through some of the quieter back streets, coming across many, many churches. The Christian Quarter is the only area where we ran across dead-end streets, therefore it was the only area where we got lost in the slightest. In
the Muslim Quarter all streets connect to other streets, but in the Jewish and Christian quarter there are streets they do not.
We lunch in the Christian Quarter, very near Bab al Sharqi (Eastern gate). The Christian Quarter is the only place where you restaurants can legally sell alcohol and we wanted a
glass of wine with lunch.
Bab al Sharqi is the only remaining Roman gate. Straight Street begins here. It is a lively yet organized neighborhood with several churches nearby.
Next stop is Bab al Kaysan (St. Paul’s gate) We make several failed attempts to find it
and have to ask for directions from a woman who luckily speaks French (because
we of course have no Arabic). The best way to find this gate is to exit the city and walk around. We feel rather rudely ejected into the modern city, walking alongside a busy road.
However the walls are exposed in this section and it’s a very good way to view them without clutter of city life surrounding them.
Bab al Kaysan is right next to St. Paul’s Chapel. It is said that this is where St. Paul, an
early Christian convert, was lowered down in a basket outside of the city walls so that he could escape the Roman soldiers who were pursuing him. This is an important Christian site.
Bab al Saghir (small gate) is our final destination, which we find after a walking through a large food market and a labyrinth of streets on the south side of the city.
We make our way back to the hotel and I feel that my relationship with the city has deepened, become more intimate perhaps. I have definitely become smitten with
Damascus. It is a place I would like to come back to and spend more time.