Last July, my relatives in the United States were mortified when I announced that I was crossing the border of Lebanon into Syria. I was learning Arabic at the American University of Beirut and heard that Damascus was a war-free zone. Jackpot! it was my chance to visit a place I had not been to in 20 years.
It was indeed adequately safe for an American citizen, but unsafe to tout one’s citizenship. Here’s some key things to know:
- Cross the border early in the morning. Syrian taxis can’t wander around Lebanon during twilight and the border gets packed with people going on pilgrimage to Sayyida Zaynab Mosque.
- Get a SIM card. Although all signals for communication are blocked while passing by the residence of the President of Syria, it becomes useful in other locations.
- Never stop being cautious. While I was excited, I never stopped being edgy, a kind of a bittersweet mawkishness that served as a companion until the next day upon my return to Beirut. Yet, almost two days were not enough to enjoy the quixotic romantic landscapes of a post-war city and centuries of history embodied in the edifices. But be aware that Americans are always treated as spies.
- Don’t take pictures without asking. Neither tourists nor residents can photograph governmental buildings, checkpoints or the military — (clear my throat) Syrian or Russian.
A walking tour
Outside of the Tekkiyeh Al-Sulaymaniyah Mosque, couples were playing the conquer ritual. It pleased me to see guys courting girls publicly. Watching them was a distraction as the entrance to the mosque is restricted given the current state of the dome which seems to be at imminent risk of falling. Nonetheless the Koranic ambiance and the old hue lured young couples to vow eternal love to each other.
At the National Museum, a new display called the visitors’ attention. While in the past, a replica of the Lion of Al-Lat was exhibited, the original piece was rescued and restored after the Islamic State of Iraq controlled Palmyra and left it damaged due to the enduring war. This 4-meter, 15-ton limestone statue was recently shielded with metal plate and it will be preserved at the National Museum until it is safe for their historic remnants to be returned to the city where they belong. It is pretentious to tour it in eight hours because of the extensive rooms dedicated to each epoch of Syrian territory.
En route to Midhat Pasha Souq (Market) the curbsides overflowed with Syrian sweets for sale. I stopped for a traditional and heavenly piece of kunefe (my favorite Arabian sweet prepared with semolina and served warm with un-aged and stretchy melted mozzarella covered with hyper-sweet caramel made of rose water). Not far from that street side, I got fatti (a traditional Syrian yogurt soup with chickpeas, chicken, pine nuts and fried pitta). Subsequently, a shot of Arabic espresso at Al-Nofara Café (the oldest coffee shop in Damascus).
The linchpin of my day was Sayyidah Ruqayya Mosque. Of all the mosques I have visited throughout several Islamic countries, this was the most contemporary, luxurious structure that shines in the interior with its mirror and gold finished ceilings.
On the Christian side of Damascus two humble nooks: The House of Saint Ananias and Al Zeitoun Church. The latter was rebuilt in 1860 reusing basalt pillars and its dome highlights the church with its colorful image of Jesus contrasting the white background with the dark-stone columns.
After a 10-hour walking tour, it was time to watch the sunset at the Stou7 de Marine rooftop. The waiter suggested — in his broken English and his strong Arabic phonetics — to add the core ingredients of a “Mexican style” beer — which I fiercely declined. And for dinner, a mind-blowing Syrian chicken shawarma sandwich 12-inch long accompanied with spicy garlic sauce.
I was picked up at 1 a.m. and dropped off at 4 a.m. in Beirut. The whole day in Damascus was entertaining and I am looking forward to a food tour in Aleppo sometime soon.
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