A Spring break to Syria? Step this way to discover a city of all-dispensing souks, medieval bathhouses and everyday miracles
As the plane touched down I felt as apprehensive as someone about to meet an ex-lover. I was returning to Damascus for a visit, after having lived there for three years. Would my old neighbourhood remember me after an absence of eight months? Would I still find the city as fascinating?
Or would the much-vaunted renovations of the airport and Old City have burst Syria's exotic bubble?
I need not have worried; the digital clock in the shiny new arrivals hall stated that the time was 2.80. (It was, in fact, 3.20pm). I knew immediately that all would be fine and that Damascus would always offer time travel rather than tourism to those who braved its famous road.
Syria is one of those places that still elicits a puzzled reaction from people when you tell them you are going there. Those who haven't been don't know what to make of its reputation as one of the bad boys of the Middle East, a police state run by an ophthalmologist called Bashar. However, I have yet to meet someone who has visited who doesn't rave about it.
The reason? Syria holds something for everyone. History buffs can take their pick - Bronze Age relics, Crusader Castles, Ottoman remnants, some of the best ruins in the Roman empire - plus the lack of ropes or barriers at major sites makes the whole country a living museum. (A friend of ours couldn't even shower in peace - a thick Roman pillar sliced through her bathroom.) For shopping addicts, the main caveat is to pace themselves in the vast, still-authentic souks. The only perceptible tyranny you are likely to experience is that of too much choice, while the only physical danger will be to your waistline. More and more people are cottoning on that Syria is politically stable, safe, inexpensive and close to Europe in both geography and culture. What's not to like?
I was lucky to have so much time to explore Damascus, and to visit and revisit favourite sights, such as Krak des Chevaliers - for spring picnics as well as autumn concerts. The size of the country, however, means any visitor can pack plenty in, be it the main sites in a week or Aleppo for a long weekend.
Once you've spent time in Syria the layers of history start to affect the way you think. I had a baby in Damascus, in the nun-run French Hospital. The day we brought him home, roadworks forced us to enter the city through the monumental Bab Sharqi (the Roman Gate of the East). I remember noting, even in my addled state, that he was entering the city in the same way as Khalid ibn al-Walid and his band of Muslim invaders in AD635.
Four days before we left the city for good, we baptised our son in the Ananias Chapel, a pilgrimage site (50m from home) where Saul converted to Paul after his blinding 'Road to Damascus' moment. I passed it daily on the way to buy the milk. Paul is said to have escaped over the city walls just behind our local pizzeria, before spreading Christianity; it seemed a fitting way for a baby born in the ancient Christian Quarter of the city to start his road from Damascus.
We lived in the Bab Touma area, from where St Thomas, another key early Christian figure, went east to India, and from where I caught the bus into town. Bab Touma is a Christian ghetto only a few streets square where houses precariously overhang the lanes and children play marbles in the street. Horses bedecked with blue beads and ostrich feathers clattered past all day selling heating oil or pyramids of watermelons from wooden carts.
Our house was Arabic style, arranged around a courtyard striped like a humbug with basalt and limestone, at the centre of which was a grapefruit tree, a fountain and jasmine bushes. Bedrooms were upstairs off a wooden gallery painted blue and white like the Virgin Mary's cloak. In summer we spent every waking hour in the courtyard, but the surprisingly harsh winters always made us question the wisdom of living in a house where we had to go outside to get from room to room.
The vast souks a ten-minute walk away from home never failed me for anything, be it cowhide, mulberry syrup, spanners, rose petals, shower heads or dried pomegranate seed. The souk was a society within a society. It had its own laws, and even its own microclimate: in the heat of the day its shady tunnels were always the coolest place in town. Everything was sold by weight, and I loved the fact that rows of shops selling identical things could survive side by side. In fact, if you bought something from a stall, another shopkeeper might give you the change because yours didn't have any.
Our life was coloured by the location of our house, in the Old City. Every time I re-entered the city walls I felt that the stones embraced and closed behind me, shutting off the outside world. The rest of the city, with its Soviet architecture, Suzuki pick-ups and pollution, seemed a world away once I was back in my courtyard listening to church bells and birdsong.
I soon became interested in the life of Christians in Damascus, in particular in the various 'miracles' that had taken place around town. I would bore everyone I met about icons that dripped olive oil and women who sprouted stigmata. I became friends with Myrna Nazzour, a woman who claims to have been visited regularly by the Virgin Mary, received the wounds of Christ on her head, hands and feet, and who is the owner of an icon from which (extra virgin!) olive oil is said to seep (look up 'The Miracle of Damascus' on YouTube). You cannot help but be moved by a visit to her house because of the apparent normality of life there - she was often hanging out her washing when I called - and because of the sense of hope that the icon and Myrna give visitors, many of whom are Iraqi refugees, both Muslim and Christian. Arabs are perhaps sentimental but they are rarely cynical or sarcastic, and watching the power of faith first-hand is pretty awe-inspiring, whatever your religious leanings.
As part of research for a book, I spent many an afternoon 'going to see a man about a god', as I studied the 11 different Churches represented in our compact neighbourhood, and usually came out none the wiser about the fundamental differences in their beliefs. A chance encounter in the queue at the butcher's might lead to an expedition to see a new 'miracle' in an Iraqi family's home - a pregnant Virgin Mary had 'appeared' in soot on the wall, instantly creating yet another pilgrimage site for Muslims and Christians alike.
Like history, religion was so ingrained in daily life that it, too, became no big deal. Allah (which simply means God, for whatever religion) was somehow present in every situation. The oft-vaunted Syrian model of harmonious cohabitation and tolerance between Muslims and Christians was a constantly inspiring one, especially in a country surrounded by neighbours plagued with sectarian violence.
One place to witness this harmony is Deir Mar Musa el Habashi (the monastery of St Moses the Ethiopian). We baptised our elder son in the sixth-century church of the monastery there just after arriving in the country, with the help of Father Paolo, the Italian Jesuit monk who has resurrected the place from a ruin over 25 years. A bear of a man, Father Paolo exudes charisma and is the driving force behind this most unusual place. Perched on top of a steep hill in the desert, the monastery welcomes all who brave the 300-odd steps, and will give them a meal or a bed for the night in return for a bit of help in the kitchen or with the laundry.
A night spent there will start with a service in the church and candle-lit meditation in English, French and Arabic during which all present are invited to take part. At about 9.30pm everyone has dinner together, and this is when you might well be sitting next to someone who is in Syria studying Byzantine songs, or a person who is walking from Auschwitz to Jerusalem in memory of a relative who died in the Holocaust.
For the time I spent in the Old City on my return visit I was warmly welcomed 'home' by neighbours. I found to my delight that nothing had really changed. Taxis still had curious stickers saying 'No My Friend' in dripping bloody letters. Bedouins still thronged the traffic islands in smart neighbourhoods, enjoying the cool grass. A crowd of Druze sheikhs with huge moustaches and white fezzes might still appear around the corner in the souk. The Armenian bishop had a new black Mercedes, the fruit-seller had gone to do his military service, and the souk now sold bags featuring pictures of Munthader al-Zaidi, the much-fêted Iraqi 'George Bush shoe-thrower'. But I noted with satisfaction that everything else remained much as I had left it, and would, forever.