Overland Istanbul to Cairo. Part 3: Damascus and Palmyra, Syria

Syria, Damascus

And so we found ourselves in one of the oldest, continually inhabited cities in the world, Damascus…

Damascus is one of those places which is at the same time both real and mythical.

It is a place which crops up in the Bible as well as often on the global news, it really has been around forever.

I dreamed of losing myself in its labyrinthine ancient streets after seeing it on a tv programme: ‘Around the World in 80 Treasures‘. The treasure was the Souk al-Hamidiyeh; the presenter walked this marvellous covered street, revealing its history until he reached the end where the souk opened out into a square under an ancient Roman arch.

I was hooked! I just had to visit this incredible city.

After arriving, we soon found ourselves walking up the Souk al-Hamidiyeh and it lived up to every one of my expectations.

It was bustling and vibrant with people shopping or using it as a thoroughfare. The lofty arched roof was punctured with small holes though which the sunlight streamed in.

These holes twinkled like constellations above us yet they bear witness to another dramatic point in the history of Damascus: these ‘stars’ are in fact bullet holes.

The souk ends under the Roman remains of the Temple of Jupiter, bringing us out into the middle of the old city and the entrance to the magnificent Umayyad Mosque.

The beautiful Umayyad Mosque

I had to don a robe to enter the mosque, this hooded cloak turned me into an extra for Star Wars!

I shuffled around the tranquil courtyard, under the grand marble arches, taking in the wonderful atmosphere.

The courtyard was being used as by the locals as an escape from the busy city outside its walls. People were relaxed, chatting, or reading, while their children played in the winter sunshine.

The morning sun was illuminating the golden mosaics decorating much of the upper inner walls of the courtyard which depict plants, trees, and townscapes. It was a great place to sit and people-watch.

We had a look inside the mosque, in the sanctuary, it was bright and airy. A highly decorated, domed marble shrine stood inside the prayer hall: beyond its green windows is believed to be the head of John the Baptist.

That evening we met back up with the guys we’d travelled across Turkey with and went for a delicious meal in the old city in a beautifully ornate restaurant. With fully bellies we then took a wander around the streets behind the Umayyad Mosque.

The narrow lanes were strung with twinkling fairy lights and were bustling with people moving from coffee shops and restaurants, the atmosphere was magical.

We picked a coffee shop with tables outside and the boys shared a Nargileh (hookah) while we sipped our strong Syrian coffees.

Another good spot to people watch and a great way to spend a chilly January evening.

The narrow, atmospheric streets of the old city drew us in every day while we were in Damascus. They were wonderful to explore, we always entered through the Souk el-Hamidyeh.

One afternoon we stopped for ice cream at the legendary Bakdash, this place is hard to miss as there is always a crowd of people milling out into the souk.

Inside we ordered two cones. I was much amused (and mildly concerned) as the server scooped out the bright white ice cream into a waffle cone as his lips were pinched around a cigarette, its ash hanging dangerously off the end!

A flurry of nibbed pistachios to finish and we were handed our authentic Damascene dessert.

We visited the Azem Palace, marvelling at its beautiful rooms of inlaid tiles and intricately painted ceilings.

The inner courtyard garden had trees loaded with fat juicy lemons.

Later we wandered up Straight Street to the edge of the Christian Quarter, further marvelling that the street is mentioned in the Bible.

The National Museum had some fascinating artefacts including a small unassuming clay tablet which has cut into its face the worlds first alphabet.

Palmyra

We left Damascus to travel to the Roman ruins of Palmyra.

Three of us took a bus out of the city and east across the desert.

About four hours later we arrived at the small town next to the ruins and checked in to our hotel. There was some confusion to whether they had room for us or not but we mentioned our ‘fixer’ (the ‘tour’ had been booked through a guy from the hotel we’d stayed at in Aleppo) and our rooms magically became available.

There was a typical power cut at the time, the town was in darkness.

Our ‘fixer’ turned up and drove us out to the ruins which despite the power cut were lit up dramatically with floodlights. It was a clear night with an almost full moon, the mighty ruins of Queen Zenobia’s city rose up around us as the stars blinked above us.

Palmyra at sunrise

The following morning we rose before dawn to be richly rewarded with sunrise at the ruins.

We walked to the site from the hotel. It was a clear morning but there was a biting wind that cut to the bone. 

The sun broke over the horizon washing pink light over the ancient columns, their sand coloured stones taking on a rich rose hue.

As the sun rose further the pink faded and they took on the colour of honey.

After breakfast we returned to the site, no longer having the ruins to ourselves as there were a few tourists around.

First stop was the Valley of the Tombs: a necropolis set in a wide sandy valley studded with large stone towers. The towers were tombs, we climbed inside a couple of them.

There were a number of floors within each one, each lined with niches where the coffins would have lain.

From the top were great views out over the site.

The city ruins of Palmyra are vast: the golden columns, arches, and temples rise up from the desert floor.

There is an amphitheatre where we ‘trod the boards’ imagining a Roman audience heckling us. We walked up the main colonnaded street where there would have been shops, their doorways still standing.

The great pillared Temple of Bel sat within a huge open courtyard, dating from AD32 it must have been awe-inspiring in its day.

The Roman amphitheatre, Palmyra

The Roman amphitheatre, Palmyra

One of the Tower Tombs at Palmyra

One of the Tower Tombs at Palmyra

Palmyra // Temple of Bel

From the ruins we were driven to the other side of the modern town where we were introduced to our camels: we were to visit a Bedouin camp.

Our guides – two young local men – lead the camels out of the town and we set off into the desert.

We plodded slowly along, stopping once for a break. One of the guides showed us how fast the camels really could go and gave us an example of how he raced them.

That was pretty cool!

After about two hours we spied a Bedouin camp: a rectangular tent in the distance, smoke rising from it. One of the guides sped off to see if it was the right one.

No! We were directed across the plain to another.

Our guides had simply been instructed by our fixer to take us to a specific camp where we would be welcomed, fed, and possibly able to stay the night.

When we arrived it seemed that the Bedouin family had not been filled in on any of these details and were not expecting us at all!

Mobile phones were produced and calls were made.

Syria

In many ways this was a better scenario. We experienced Bedouin hospitality in a truer form.

We were made to feel very welcome and were shown into the reception tent where we were seated around a stove.

The women and children remained outside except the matriarch who came in with us and stayed for a little while. The lower half of her face was decorated with an intricate faded tattoos.

The inside of the tent was decorated with embroidered wall hangings. The young girls had embroidered wonderful images of everyday Bedouin life: there were camels, mosques, and palm trees, along side petrol stations and trucks.

The camel guides stayed and acted as translators: this family farmed sheep and camels, moving every few months to find fresh grass.

They had no boundaries and moved between Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Delicious tea was brewed on the stove and served in little glasses, which were never allowed to become empty.

After a while a tray of food was brought in and we were instructed to sit around and tuck in. There was a large dish of some very flavoursome potato which we scooped up with flatbread, and bowls of cold cabbage soup which was surprisingly tasty, subtle, and refreshing.

I was so relieved there was no meat! Had our arrival been planned I’m sure there would have been.

The guides left and our fixer Faust arrived: the family couldn’t put us up for the night.

After a few more cups of tea we said our goodbyes as the sun was setting. Faust took us back to Palmyra town and up to the Citadel on the hill.

This was supposed to be for watching the sunset but instead we admired the full moon illuminating the Roman ruins below.

On the bus back to Damascus we got caught in a sandstorm, then we realised it wasn’t sand: it was snow!

Big wet snowflakes were falling on Damascus that evening – not for the last time on this trip through the Middle East – snow here felt very surreal.

Our hotel manager in Damascus arranged us some bus tickets for our onward journey into Jordan. We spent our last evening in modern Damascus treating ourselves to cake for our dinner, feeling very somber at the thought of leaving this magical city.

By the following evening we were sipping fresh orange and carrot juice on the busy streets of Amman…

Thoughts

One of my good friends, Dave of Globalculturetravel.com asked if we had any indication of the civil war while we were travelling though Syria. I have to say, on the whole no. Although it was obvious that the country was run in a dominant way. The large billboards showing President Assad were everywhere and his face was plastered over everything, the idea being that people felt they should show outward support for the government whether they agreed or not. There were even Assad face decals on the back windows of cars. As with the locals, our movements were monitored, we regularly were parted with our passports and every bus had a passenger list. We knew about the regime and the ‘secret police’ before we arrived.

No one that we spoke to complained or mentioned the government, however we never pressed for information either. All the Syrian people we spoke to on the street {i.e. not in the tourist industry or taxi drivers} were super friendly, welcoming us into their country, a country they were very proud of. They seemed thrilled that we had chosen to come to Syria and wished the west saw how wonderful it was. Like any place, people were just like ourselves, going about their daily lives, we had so much in common with them. They wanted to discuss football, movies and where we were from.

Travelling through a country, visiting its towns, speaking to its people, riding its public transport transforms it from a vague foreign location to a real place, with real people. I truly breaks my heart to see it caught in a brutal, devastating civil war. The people caught in the middle are everyday people like you and me.

All of the photographs in this post were taken by Chris Hodgson, except the interior shot of the bedouin tent which was by me and also the one of the Temple of Bel.

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By Rachel Davis

6 Responses

  1. Dave Rowley says:

    Wonderful posting. I especially like the part about the Souk al-Hamidiyeh and Umayyad Mosque. The mosque picture is stunning! And I would have loved to see your Star Wars costume while you walked around. I would have been just like you, visiting the Souk every day. Love it! And I loved the description of visiting the Bedouin family, with the embroidered depictions of every day life, and especially the woman with tattooed face. So sad what’s happened in Syria these past two years. I hope they can find a way to resolve it, but it seems more and more like they will fight until they can’t fight any more.

  2. Sarah says:

    Another great post. This sounds like such an amazing trip, it’s fantastic seeing the pictures and hearing about your experience. I’m green with envy.

  3. What a great story and photos! At least you got to explore Syria a bit before things got really bad. I feel horrible for the local people and what they are going through now.

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