06.04.2010 - 07.04.2010 18 °C
My bizzare entrance into Syria begun with a service taxi that was supposed to take me all the way across the Jordanian-Syrian border from Amman to Damascus. The driver turned up at the hostel about an hour late but that's the way things work in the Middle East. I jumped into a large, comfortable air conditioned van which was carring no other passengers. It travelled for about 15 minutes until it stopped on the side of the road where I was told I needed to get off and change to different car with a different driver. This situation felt a little strange but my gut feeling told me this was completely normal. The other car already had two other passengers in it who were either Syrian or Jordanian. They didn't speak English and the new driver only spoke a little, but least they were pleasant enough as they all replied to my badly pronounced, "Salam Alekum"
And so we were off at high speed towards the border. I've been to quite a few countries now, but this was my first land border crossing since I crossed between the Mexico and the US when I was nine years old. The whole process felt rather hectic and convoluted. We first had to stop for passport exit stamps on the Jordanian side where I also made a quick stop at a currency exchange office. As we were about to drive away a man approached the car and a long discussion ensued between him and the driver. At first I had no idea what was going on, but it all soon became clear as the man opened the rear door on my side of the car and I was asked to move over. He was obviously asking for a ride across the border to the Syrian side. The driver then asked for all of us to hand over our passports. I'm always nervous when I'm handing my passport over to someone who's not an immigration officer, but the other passengers did so without hesitation so I complied without making a fuss. At this point it really did start to feel like I was a part of a body smuggling ring, four strangers and a driver crammed in this small car and I couldn't understand anything anyone was saying - in a strange way, it was quite exciting.
Then we made our way through a couple of border gates which were packed full of queued cars and buses. I exaggerate when I use the word queue because it was more like a chaotic traffic jam with cars trying to jump in from every direction (yes, there are even queue jumpers at border crossings). Then I guess we were in that "no mans" land at the border between Jordan and Syria. There was nothing around except for a few small buildings, the large Syrian immigration building and a small duty free shopping complex. We were given our passports back and we all entered the immigration building. I bounced around from counter to counter until I found out I had to pay 4,850 Syrian Pounds (NZ$150) for my visa - which I must admit was a bit of a shock. I didn't know if I was being ripped off or not but I couldn't really argue with them. I was just glad that I was able to obtain a visa at the border which was my biggest concern at the time. I didn't have enough cash on me so I had to walk over to the shopping complex where I luckily found an ATM which accepted my card. Finally I got my visa stamp so I headed back to the car and found all the other passengers there waiting for me.
Once again we drove through a couple more border gates separated by a few hundred meters. I didn't know I was actually in Syria until the driver turned around and said, "Welcome to Syria!". Everyone in the car laughed and I let out a huge sigh of relief.
The last border gate as I entered into Syria (sneaky photo from inside the taxi)
We drove for about ten minutes before the driver stopped by the side of the road behind another car full of people. At this point the driver got out and swapped places with the driver of the other car. I guess we'd been passed over to a Syrian taxi driver and the Jordanian taxi driver could take people across the border in the other direction thus each driver would end up back in their own country. From there we drove all the way to the outskirts of Damascus where I was forced to take a separate taxi to the center of the city (an obvious ploy for them to make more money out of me). Having no idea how far I had to travel in this last taxi nor how much it should cost, I was basically at the mercy of the gang of taxi drivers - all I knew for sure is that they would try to rip me off. Strangely, I came across the first taxi driver who actually ended up haggling himself down. The conversation went something like this:
Driver: To city, 500!
Me: ...How about 400?
Driver: Ok, ok. 300
Finally I had arrived in Damascus, claimed to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world (since about 7000 BC). I didn't have a hotel reservation so I started walking around the area where, according to my Lonely Planet, all the hostels and budget hotels were located. It turns out that the high season had just started and most hotels were full but I was lucky because I had turned up in the evening and I got the last bed in a dorm that had been reserved by somone who didn't show up in time (I felt guilty about taking this other person's bed... for about five seconds).
The hostel had lots of character, with a large central courtyard that had a fountain in the middle, trees and plants everywhere and a glass ceiling. People sat around the edges drinking tea, talking, reading and smoking sheesha pipes.
The central courtyard at the hostel in Damascus
I was only going to stay in Damascus for a couple of nights so I made the most of my only full day there getting up early and visiting the main attractions which are mostly all located within the Old City. The Old City is surrounded by an old Roman Wall and is split into several sections; half of it is the Muslim area where a citadel, palaces, souqs (markets), and mosques are located. The other half is made up of a the Christian and Jewish Quarters. The main entrance to the Old City is via the main market, Souq al-Hamidiyya. This souq is long, wide and covered by a huge corrugated-iron roof which blocks all sun light except for the few rays which pass through bullet holes left by the machine-gun fire of French planes during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
The Souq Al-Hamidiyya with its large bullet-ridden corrugated-iron roof
Having no desire to do any shopping, it was just a nice walk through the crowded souq where I could smell the spices and absorb the atmosphere. Best of all, because it isn't just a tourist market, I had noone shouting at me or trying to drag me into their stores. At the end of the Souq Al-Hamidiyya, you reach the remains of the western gate of the 3rd-century Roman Temple of Jupiter.
The western temple gate of the 3rd-century Roman Temple of Jupiter
The western temple gate viewed from inside Souq Al-Hamidiyya, the large dome of Umayyad Mosque is in the background
Just past this temple gate is the Umayyad Mosque which is supposed to be the most beautiful mosque in Syria and one of the holiest in the world for Muslims. I was there early so the crowds weren't too bad but in the middle of the day it was crammed full of poeple, both tourists and worshippers alike.
The central courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque
The huge prayer hall of the Umayyad Mosque
Inside the prayer hall there was a large marble-clad shrine of John the Baptist (Prophet Yehia to Muslims). A steady stream of worshippers waded their way around it, looking inside the shrine which is supposed to hold the head of the man himself. The mosque was separated into two parts by a chain cordon, the left reserved for men and the right for women (though women tourists were never stopped from entering the male side).
Woman inside prayer hall of Umayyad Mosque
After the mosque it was time for a coffee and a quick bite at one of the several coffee shops dotted within the Old City. Then I walked around randomly until I ended up in the Christian Quarter and the difference was quite striking - from the more ancient and historical surroundings of the Muslim area everything suddently changed to a more modern and touristy suburb.
Some Roman arches at the start of the Christian quarter
After the Christian quarter, I stopped by Azem Palace which was built in 1750 as a residence for the Ottoman governor of Damascus, As'ad Pasha al-Azm. It is now a museum with a peaceful garden and several rooms with displays depicting typical life of Damascenes at the time. Most of them had scary looking mannequins arranged in somewhat awkward poses.
The main garden fountain in Azem Palace in Damascus
Some scary looking mannequins in one of the museum rooms at Azem Palace - I suspect they ran out of female mannequins and had to resort to the male versions
After Azem Palace, I headed outside the Old City (getting a bit lost in the small side streets in the process) and headed towards the National Museum. I must say that although I didn't know what to expect of Damascus, I was surprised to find what looked like a modern city with decent roads, manicured gardens and clean footpaths. I had a somewhat naiive expectation that it would be a dusty, monochromatic skyline much like Cairo, but in the newer central part of the city, it would have been hard for me to pick that I was in the Middle East if it weren't for all the burkha wearing women and the odd mosque minaret poking out in the background.
The Takiyya as-Suleimaniyya Mosque near the National Museum in Damascus
The entrance to the main building at the National Museum in Damascus (no photos allowed inside...)
The museum was quite large and worth the visit, but I never got a "wow" factor out of it - perhaps I'd been spoiled so far in this trip with museums so the displays here just couldn't grab my attention. More likely, it was all the walking around that I'd already done that day and for some reason my legs hurt the most when I walk around in museums.
After the museum, it was back to the hostel for my last night in Damascus before heading east where I'd visit some truly impressive Roman Ruins in Palmyra.
All in all, Damascus was a very nice city and a great introduction to Syria.
That's it for this installment, next one coming very soon (I'm trying my best to catch up!)