Then here we were on “the road to Damascus” – quite a surreal feeling! Some believe Damascus was the original Garden of Eden and Cain slew Abel on these slopes. Moses, Lot and even Christ himself are said to have traversed Qassioun (a mountain so integral to history, it appears in the Book of Genesis).
The Talisman Hotel sent their ‘golf cart’ to collect us (roads too narrow for cars) and we were taken into the old city. The hotel door opened into an old house refurbished as a 5-star boutique hotel – just gorgeous; 17 rooms all furnished differently in local design. We found it hard to leave each day after breakfast around the pool.
No matter where we were or whom we encountered, local greetings were never long in coming. Ahlan wa sahlan bi Sham: Welcome to Damascus. So walking around the old city was easy and safe visiting:
- Umayyad Mosque – it ranks second with Jerusalem’s Dome of the rock while in sanctity; it’s second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. It possesses a history unequalled by all three. Worship on the site dates back to the 9th century BC. Campbell had to wear a long skirt to cover his legs as he had shorts on! I had to put on a burqa.
- Straight Street or the Soug al-Hamidiyya (the souq’s were a treat in themselves with no one trying to hassel us to buy) – Hamidiyeh is a true working market used by locals as a source of everything from meat and spices to cleaning products and children’s toys. Stalls stocked with toiletries and cheap kitchenware fill laneways only metres from brilliantly lit shops selling silk brocades, inlaid chess sets and olive-wood carvings. Faces with Aramean, Hittite, Mongol, Turkish, Bedouin and Arab origins, among many others, surround me in the world’s original melting pot of cultures.
Syria has a history of being attacked and conquered; it has been razed, emptied of its people, burnt and plundered so many times. The Ottoman Turks ruled the city from the 16th to early 20th centuries, and then the French oversaw a few troubled decades until Syria gained its independence in 1946.
With the country in crisis, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is one of the worst humanitarian crises of our generation. I have read that two million Syrians have fled the country including more than one million children.
I fervently hope that the smiling school kids I met at Saint Simeon have found safe refuge with their families and can look forward to an end to the civil war in their country.