Damas and Lebanon
21.08.2009 - 24.08.2009
Stepping off the coach to Damascus, fighting through the rediculous taxi touts, we got to the flat of a friend of mine, Benjy, currently studying Arabic and Persian in Damascus and very familiar with the city. He had kindly put us up for a night in his flat (in the 'Notting Hill of Damascus'), fed us and gave us some tips about town.
Our time in town we mostly spent looking around the old town of one of the most ancient cities in the world, consistently inhabited for the past 6000 years (although flattened in the 15th century by Timur). This still has atmopheric charm, complete with small winding streets, mosques and churches and big souqs.
I liked Damascus. Sure, we had arived out of the desert to by far the biggest and shiniest city we've been to since Kiev, but it definitely is a nice place to spend some time. A faster pace of life, generally marked by the crazy traffic, constant honking and people milling about, although energy levels were visible low because of Ramadan. The Christian quarter was still business as usual though, with it's cafes and kebabis wide open. It's definitely not the most developed city around, but that is part of the charm, with the street sellers hawking prickly pears, socks and other random objects in loud arabic along the big streets in town. Damascus has managed to to accumulate some very nice things over it's history. These included the Umayyad mosque, a large working mosque in black and white smooth marble and well as nice painted designs on the bit where it was built over a Roman temple. This contained the remains of John the Baptist (considered a prophet in Islam), and a shrine to a Imam Hussien (the glass around it filled with Iranian money). Next to this building, the mausoleum of Salah Ad-Din. With the ancient baths and caravanserais and religious monuments, not a bad collection.
We had a relatively hedonistic time, using Benji's knowledge, checking out the best juice bars and ice cream places in town, as well as a very enjoyable hot and scrapy hammam, that cleaned us up nicely. The 'Notting Hill' of Damascus was filled with Syrian playboys driving around in circles in their nice cars, showing off small rims, blaring pop music alond with Europeans chilling in the cafes. Muslim vaules put to once side, hijab factor low, as well as unmarried couples holdings hands, unlike most of the rest of the city, where Ramadan had closed down most of the stores.
Anyway, after a few day trips to christian monasteries nearby, we hit the road again and got on a bus to Lebanon, which we eventually got to, but not before the Syrian sytem bit us by charging 500SYP (10$) for having to leave the country, a system most likely designed to make it prohibitively expensive for many Syrians to go abroad. Anyway, entered we more green and mountainous terrain, with a troubled history....