Damascus is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited city, and, apart from the arrival of the honking motorcar, little seems to have changed. In the 18th century the city prospered under the Azem family and rich people built themselves ornate houses. Many survive today – visiting them provides a genuine trip back in time.
Start at the Azem Palace, where the governor lived, which is now a museum. You can see displays in the richly decorated rooms showing how men, women and servants lived, each with their own area of the house.
At the ticket booth buy a Damascene Houses map, detailing nearly 80 buildings. Along from Azem Palace, past the pastry shops along Mu’awiyya St, you’ll find the Azem family house, now home to some sleepy souvenir sellers and a mosque.
Walk left down Souq Khayyatin, with its vibrant textile stalls, then turn left on Straight Street, then right down another narrow souq. You’re looking for the Danish Institute in Aqqad House (there’s a plaque on the wall on the left). It’s one of the best-restored houses, with painted panelled interiors depicting scenes of
18th-century life and a tranquil courtyard with a fountain.
Back on Straight Street, turn right down Nasif Pasha Street for Nizam house. This was once the British consulate and has two beautiful iwans (seating areas with ornate carved ceilings). Return to Straight Street, left and then right down Souq al-Bzouriyya, with its noisy spice merchants, and you’re back where you started.
Top tip: Don’t be afraid to be nosy. You may have to push doors or ring bells. Places that look closed often aren’t.
Many of the houses have been converted into buzzing restaurants – Beit Jabri and Narcissus Palace are good examples. Step inside and order a mezze (a spread of dips, salad and nibbles). These places are great for people-watching and you’ll struggle to spend more than £5 per person.
Top tip: Most restaurants don’t serve alcohol, but Opaline (which is slightly more upmarket) does.
After lunch, dive into the buzzing souqs. These old, shady, stall-filled passageways are the soul of the city. They have retained their unique identities, each offering different trades – clothes, spices, copperware, kitchenware and more. Interesting, cheap buys include herbs and spices, antiques and pungent coffee ground with cardamom.
Look for the remains of the Roman temple of Jupiter at the entrance to the Souq al-Hamidiyya. These old pillars and huge pediment have been amalgamated into the fabric of modern buildings. The contrast between old and new is either remarkable or horrific, depending on your reverence for ancient remains.
Top tip: Stop at Bakdach in the main Souq al-Hamidiyya and try Arabic ice cream sprinkled with pistachio nuts.
Finish off with the most traditional of entertainments: storytelling. Before the days of TV, storytellers were employed to recount tales of adventure to rapt audiences. Damascus’s one remaining taleteller, Rashid al-Hallak, reads from battered books at An-Nofara café near the east gate of Umayyad Mosque from 5pm most evenings. It’s in Arabic, so you may not follow the story, but 55-year-old Rashid is a brilliant raconteur.
Order a Turkish coffee and a nargileh (water pipe) and enjoy the atmosphere. The pipes aren’t narcotic, but the high nicotine content may make you light-headed. One between several is ample!
Top tip: Pipe tobacco flavours include apple, strawberry and house specials.
The Umayyad Mosque is one of the Muslim world’s most spectacular buildings. Tourists enter to the side of the west entrance. Spend time just soaking up the atmosphere, wandering the shady colonnades of ancient pillars – many ransacked from the Roman temples that stood here previously. The smooth marble floor of the courtyard shimmers like a lake, offering all sorts of reflections for interesting photos.
The golden mosaics on the Dome of the Clocks are particularly ornate, sparkling in the sunlight. This small domed pavilion was the mosque stronghold, housing the clocks for fixing times of prayer. Look up at the old wooden door and you see four hand-crafted wooden locks. The key to each was held by a different person, so all four had to be present to open it.
Non-Muslims are allowed inside the prayer hall. You can even visit when prayers are taking place – they happen fives times a day. The marble mausoleum inside is said to contain the head of John the Baptist.
Top tip: Take off your shoes when you enter the courtyard. Take a bag to carry them around in. Ladies need to cover up – pick up a free robe at the entrance.
In the Old Town you can still see artisans at work using skills handed down from yesteryear. On the corner of Souq al-Bzouriyya and Mu’awiyya Street, Mohammed al-Ghabra has been mixing perfumes for more than 40 years. He can knock up imitations of all the big brand names or recommend something just for you. He takes a bottle of base solvent and adds squirts of different fragrances to it. Personal perfumes cost around £2.
Leaving a trail of scent behind you, walk east down Straight Street into the Christian quarter. You’re looking for Lazaristes Street, near Bab Touma (Thomas’s Gate) at the far side of the quarter, and the Sleiman family’s woodworking shop. Old George uses slivers of wood and mother of pearl to create tables and backgammon sets. He’ll happily show you how it’s done.
Finally, go back to Straight Street, out of Bab ash-Sharqi (East Gate). Cross the main road using the underpass, go left for 50m, then right to find the Abou Ahmed glass factory down a small alleyway. Here you can see glass being blown by hand.
Top tip: Don’t be afraid to bargain. Prices for more expensive items are often quoted in dollars but you can
pay in Syrian pounds too.
At over three hours each way, Palmyra is a longish day trip from Damascus, but it’s worth the trek. Getting out of the city is a good way to see the real Syria, too.
Stop for a coffee at the Baghdad Café 66, owned by a friendly Bedouin family. In the summer they live in tents made from goat hair and in adobe ‘beehive’ houses – and they will happily show you around.
Top tip: Look out for eagles and falcons swooping down by the roadside.
Palmyra appears suddenly, a blob of oasis green in the desert. The main site is free, but go first to the Archaeological Museum next to the main roundabout in town and buy tickets for the ancient burial tombs. Many visitors don’t see these fascinating sites. Several storeys high, they held the sarcophagi of rich families. You can climb up inside several of them.
Above ground, Palmyra is particularly impressive. You are free to wander old streets lined with columns and to climb over tumbledown buildings. The theatre has been well restored, as have the lofty pillars of the tetrapylon. Glowering over the ruins you can see the ancient citadel high on a steep hillside. If you don’t mind getting back to Damascus late, go up there for sunset views across the ruins, the oasis and out into the desert
– a perfect way to end the day.
Top tip: The ruins are fantastically free from souvenir sellers; take plenty of water, sunscreen and camera film.
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