“This is a place I would love to retire,” I once told AdventureMan, as we wandered the streets. “It has all the things I love. Beautiful architecture and a rich history. It’s on a river. It gets cold in the winter. You can walk to local stores.”
Today, with great sadness, I read that Damascus is now rated the #1 Most Unlivable City in the World, beating out Douala, Cameroon; Harare, Zimbabwe; Karachi, Pakistan; Algiers, Algeria; Dhaka, Bangladesh; Lagos, Nigeria; and Tripoli, Libya. This is what the report summarized about Damascus:
Damascus has forgotten more than your city will likely ever know-and it has been a battleground for almost its entire existence. The City of Jasmine is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit, the least livable city in the world-for good reason. More than 13 million Syrians require humanitarian aid, 6.5 million have been displaced, and almost half a million have been killed on all sides of the conflict there-government soldiers, opposition soldiers, and civilians. It’s scores are predictably abysmal, with a 15 (out of 100) for stability at the bottom end and a mere 43.3 for culture and environment at the top end.
This is a city which has been at the crossroads of civilization about as long as civilization has been around. This is a city which was refined, and tolerant, a city which was once full of caravans carrying spices, silks and riches to the West.
We were last there in 2007, and we are so glad we went when we did. Damascus was revitalizing, building up a tourism business with grand hotels, and lovely, intimate boutique hotels.
We stayed at the Talisman. We grieve for the fine people we met there, and for all the losses they have suffered.
AdventureMan said “why don’t you do a photo-share, like you did with Doha?” At first, I didn’t want to, but then, I looked at the photos – and once again, I was smitten. I pray for a miracle for Syria, for new, enlightened, tolerant leadership and opportunities for the good Syrian people. For renewed vigor in churches and mosques and synagogues there. (The Talisman is in the old Jewish quarter, where the Greek Orthodox also have their headquarters.)
This is the majlis – sitting area – at the Talisman.
A restaurant nearby the Talisman:
Breakfast at the Talisman:
The historical nearby Bab, or gate:
A nearby Tabak and the friendly operator:
A courtyard restaurant, with lovely dishes. And note the Christmas tree; Christmas decorations and greenery everywhere!
A Christian Shop near Bab Thoma:
Interior at Umayyad Mosque, all are welcome and abayas provided. You leave your shoes at the door. This is the rear of the Tomb of John the Baptist:
Naranj, our favorite restaurant. I understand branches of Naranj have opened in Gulf Countries, Qatar, Kuwait, as wealthier Syrians take their money out of Syria and wait for more peaceful times. I am betting they will return to Syria as soon as they can.
A merchant in the Souk al Hamidiyya
A courtyard restaurant set up for Christmas dinners:
I’ve never met a Syrian who wasn’t educated and working hard to make a good life for his/her family. We wonder if we will ever be able to visit Syria again in our lifetime?
There is a lot to be said for advertising. As we watch the local news at night, we switch to Mobile after the Pensacola news is finished. Mobile has a town nearby called Pritchard, and we always love to hear what has happened in Pritchard – mysterious murders, drug overdoses, family incest – it’s all there, right in Pritchard.
Between stories are the Mobile ads, and some are hilarious. One, however, for 7 Spice Grocery and Grill caught my eye. They show shelves and shelves of Middle Eastern goods, and mention a restaurant, too.
Time for a field trip to Mobile!
7 Spice Grocery and Grill (FaceBook page)
3762 Airport Blvd, Mobile, AL 36608
This is what 7 Spice looks like from the roadside:
The smells are divine. The smells coming from the kitchen are fresh meat being grilled, lamb, chicken, beef.
And we know we are at home. If you have read Walking Old Damascus, you will know we have loved traveling in Syria, and have loved Damascus for 35 – almost 40 years. Near our table is a hanging of the Roman Arch on The Street Called Straight; the last time we stayed in Damascus, at The Talisman, we stayed near this landmark, near Bab Thoma.
I ordered the appetizer plate; hummous, felafel, tabouli, baba ghannoush, little meat pies, stuffed grape leaves, and olives. Also a wonderful garlic aioli to dip into. AdventureMan shared some chicken with me, and I shared all these delicious tastes with him. They use a really good olive oil; it makes all the difference.
As we roll ourselves out of the restaurant, carrying more than enough for our evening meal, we have to walk past all the shelves in the grocery to get to our car. The prices are very reasonable and there are things I really need, like a whole bag of dried mint (have you ever tried making Middle Eastern food without dried mint? you need a LOT!) and chana dal, wonderful legumes, fig preserves, all kinds of little charcoals for braziers and big bags of henna . . .
There are wonderful Middle East restaurants also in Pensacola, but none like this. Worth a drive to Mobile to find this truly excellent restaurant on Airport Boulevard in Mobile.
It is a rainy, chilly morning in Pensacola.
Even as I write those words, I smile. Our grandson inherited my cold genes through his father. By cold genes, I mean we are more comfortable being cool than hot. We sleep cool. We need less clothing to stay warm. He told his Baba, AdventureMan, that “chilly is not cold” because he didn’t want to wear long pants, he prefers shorts.
(There are a lot of images of John the Baptist, but this one made me grin; he looks a little Rastafarian, and I hadn’t thought of him as so long haired and skinny, but he was living in the wilderness and eating locusts and honey . . . )
I can still feel the air grow still as the British Ambassador to Kuwait read a very odd scripture about John the Baptist. It was odd because while it talked about John, it was unfamiliar to me. At the end, he said “A reading from the holy Qu’ran” and I was astonished for two reasons. First, I didn’t know that the Muslims recognized John the Baptist (they do, he is called Yahya Yahanna, and they have a beautiful tomb to him in the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, Syria, where many visit and pray) and second, I didn’t know I belonged to a church that would allow the Qu’ran to be read as Holy Scripture.
Life is long, and full of surprises. I love it. I think the ability to be surprised, and to ponder those quick flickers of perspective keeps us young in heart, and young in spirit.
Today, John speaks to us, each and every one. The true path is coming, the word of God embodied in a human being, born a tiny baby, a human baby, God come down into flesh. (My Muslim friends are quivering with fear at this point, waiting for me to be struck down for such blasphemy. They don’t believe Jesus was the son of God, but that he was a messenger, like Mohammed. They also believe Jesus will be the judge at the end of times.)
Life among the Moslems. Bible study with the Baptist. My very Mormon friends. My own very Episcopalian faith. All these influences – and my Alaskan heritage – mashed together with smatterings of others, have gone into making me a very odd sort of Christian.
I’m OK with that.
3 In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler* of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler* of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler* of Abilene, 2during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. 3He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, 4 as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” ’
7 John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.’
Today the church remembers John of Damascus, our good friend who once was the American Consul in Damascus is visiting with us, and we mourn the loss of peace and security in Damascus, and Syria, and the heartless loss of so many lives, the destruction of beautiful Homs, and so many other villages, named and unnamed, and the use of nerve gas on Syrian people.
I love it that he is most often shown wearing a keffiye
The Liturgical Calendar: The Church Remembers
Today the church remembers John of Damascus, Priest, c. 760.
The son of an important official in the court of the Muslim Caliph of Damascus, John had an easy rapport with the Muslims among whom he was reared, and readily succeeded to his father’s office in the Caliph’s court. Later, he abandoned the wealth and comfort of the fashionable life of Damascus and joined a religious community in Palestine.
As he lived the rigorous life of a monk in the stark wilderness near the Dead Sea, his own strong personality began to emerge. He soon distinguished himself as a theologian and scholar. His chief published work extant is The Fount of Knowledge. He is recognized as a “Doctor of the Universal Church.”
However, John of Damascus is most widely remembered for his contributions to Christian worship. He wrote many fine hymns, including two Easter ones that are still popular today: “Come ye faithful raise the strain…” and “The Day of Resurrection, earth tell it out abroad!” He effectively defended the doctrine of the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the veneration of the Lord’s Mother, and use of icons. He became involved in an international religio-political struggle called the “Icononclastic Controversy” which reached violent proportions and shook the Byzantine world. His life was saved in this controversy by his powerful Muslim friends.
We give thanks for John and for all those who have upheld the truth of our faith and the glory of our worship. Amen.
He is risen!
In today’s Lectionary readings, Saint John explains the coming of the light (Jesus Christ) into the world. On this day, when we celebrate that he is risen from the dead, it is a most fitting and wonderful verse to read. Below is the tomb of John-the-Baptist (Yahyah,) in the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, one of my favorite cities on earth. On this wonderful day of new beginnings, I pray for the peace and prosperity of Syria and all mankind, that we might set aside all the pettiness and grubbing for small things, and look to the larger and harder issues of how to love one another.
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known.
Older than the pyramids . . . desert find in Syria
A mystery city lies in Syria’s deserts, one older than the pyramids — but the war-torn area is preventing archaeologists from decoding its riddles.
Fragments of stone tools, stone circles and lines on the ground, and even evidence of tombs appear to lie in the desert near the ancient monastery of Deir Mar Musa, 50 miles north of Damascus, archaeologist Robert Mason of the Royal Ontario Museum said. He likened the formations to “Syria’s Stonehenge.”
“What it looked like was a landscape for the dead and not for the living,” Mason said Wednesday during a presentation at Harvard University’s Semitic Museum, according to the University publication the Harvard Gazette.
He made the find during a 2009 trip and is eager to return and further explore the site. But he says regional conflicts make such a return trip nearly impossible.
“It’s something that needs more work and I don’t know if that’s ever going to happen.”
‘What it looked like was a landscape for the dead and not for the living.’
– Archaeologist Robert Mason
The monastery itself, also called the Monastery of Saint Moses the Abyssinian, was built in the late 4th or early 5th century, he said, and contains several frescoes from the 11th and 12th century depicting Christian saints and Judgment Day. He told the audience at Harvard that he believes it was originally a Roman watchtower, partially destroyed by an earthquake and rebuilt.
But the desert puzzle is much older.
Bits of tools Mason found nearby suggest the mystery he discovered in the desert is much older than the monastery. It may date to the Neolithic Period or early Bronze Age, 6,000 to 10,000 years ago, the Gazette said.
Egypt’s oldest pyramid, the Great Pyramid of Giza, was built about 4,500 years ago.
Mason also saw corral-like stone formations called “desert kites,” which would have been used to trap gazelles and other animals. The desert around the monastery is hardly a verdant pasture — “very scenic, if you like rocks,” Mason reportedly said — but was probably greener a few millennia ago, the archaeologist explained.
Like Indiana Jones exploring Italy’s museums in “The Last Crusade,” Mason hopes to return to the monastery to excavate under the church’s main altar — he believes he’ll find an entrance to underground tombs there.
He also hopes to return to strange stone formations he found in the desert, which he dubbed “Syria’s Stonehenge.”
I’ve really saved the best for last. I am about to take you into our very favorite restaurant in Damascus, Naranj. It is very close to The Talisman, at the Roman Arch on the Street called Straight, and just across from the Greek Patriarchate. We were lucky to eat there when we did – and to have a table where we could watch all the high Syrian Poo-Bahs come to dine. The food was – hands down – the best food we ate in Damascus, and we ate some truly fine food there. Unfortunately, we could only eat there once – all the other times, every table was reserved!
We don’t know why, but Naranj was also the only place we saw females working in a restaurant – one as a hostess and one as our waitress and one as the bread girl (bringing around baskets of fragrant freshly baked flat breads). We saw very few women working anywhere, in fact the only other women I can remember were running the ONAT – the very fine handicraft shop down near Bab Sharqi.
In the heavy black stone container (HOT!) is a dish called Hommos wa Burghul, or Garbanzos and Wheat. It must have had a ton of butter in it, to be so rich and so delicious, and with such simple ingredients. If any of you make this dish, I would love the recipe.
Silly me. I love copper and brass, and would have bought more, but I thought we were limited on Jazeera to 20 kg – that’s what the ticket said! It seems everyone else knows that it just isn’t so.
As the street lining the souks at the beginning of the Street Called Straight is under renovation, the shops still open, but people have to negotiate their way up ramps:
This beautiful statue is on the grounds of the Damascus Museum. You can’t take photos inside. We actually like the grounds of the museum better than we like the inside, currently. We think we remember a lot more stuff formerly, but it seems very spare now.
And I saved my very favorite photo for the last – Damascus DOES have modern trucks that deliver fuel in the more modern part of the city, but in the tiny narrow streets of the old city, they still use a cart with a horse, who can get into the smaller spaces. This card delivers fuel oil, and as he goes along, he sounds a two-toned horn – not a loud horn, but a distinctive horn – so that if anyone needs coal oil, they run out and he gives it to them.
I have had responses that tell me Damascus is not for everybody. Even while I was there, I could imagine friends who would not love it as we do, might find it too old-fashioned, maybe too dirty, too inconvenient, lacking in up-to-date conveniences.
We also went knowing that as Americans, we might have problems. We never had a problem. We never met a single Syrian who wasn’t gracious and welcoming, and we were well treated at every turn.
We like adventure. We like history. We like walking, and we like good food. We like architectural details, we like fusion cultures, and we LOVE small, personal, charming hotels like the Talisman, with their excellent service. For us, this trip to Damascus was a supurb vacation.
I can never get enough of Old Damascus, but for those of you who are bored already, I will only do one more after this one. And my friends, I am only skimming the surface – Damascus can keep you busy and happy for a long time. Along one of our favorite streets, Al Qamariyya, we saw a sign that said Calligraphy and Lute instruction, and we looked at each other with a grin – we could be happy for weeks learning lute and calligraphy!
We had met up with an old friend who loves Damascus as we do, and he suggested a walk OUTSIDE the walls, from Bab Thouma (Thomas’ gate) to the Bab Es Salaam, which we did. The Bab Thouma is only a five minute walk from our hotel, straight up al Hijari, crossing Street Called Straight where it becomes Sharia Bab Thouma – how easy can it be?
The walk along the northern outside walls in this section is spectacular. For one thing, look at the differing levels of construction in this, one of the remaining walls of Old Damascus:
From outside the northern wall, looking north toward the mountains:
Then you come to the Gate of Peace/ Bab es Salaam:
There is a whirl of reconstruction going on in the old city. Some fear modernizations which will change the character of the old town, but others say that the restrictions won’t allow that to happen – we shall see:
Here is what we love – in every country, you will find volunteer supervisors where construction or reconstruction are going on:
One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to Ananias’ chapel. This is not the actual spot where Ananias baptized Paul, a mosque has been built over that site (It is called the Jakmak Mosque and you can see it in the long covered souk at the beginning of the Street Called Straight) but this is the church/chapel which commemorates that baptism, and it is very beautiful.
Time for a cup of coffee, and to plan the next walking expedition, and we find this wonderful cafe next to the church at Bab Sharqi:
We think there is a museum for the Hijaz Railway, which fascinates AdventureMan, but this is all we can find:
At our friend’s recommendation, we also try the Old Town restaurant, and we like it so much we go there twice:
Nice to have some pasta for a change, and the pasta here is really good!
Interesting old balcony:
I keep looking for the Issa/Jesus spire of the Umayyad mosque, and I think this might be it, but I am not sure. Legend has it that this is where Jesus will prevail over the forces of darkness and evil on the Last Day.
We are told you MUST make a stop at Leila’s, near the Ummayad Mosque, near the Hamadiyya Souks, and so we do. It is very conveniently located when you are shopping for visiting the mosque:
They had a Baba Ghannoush there unlike any I have had before, but very much like something we used to eat in Tunisia, called mechoia – grilled eggplant and peppers and garlic, with a very smokey taste. Yummmmy!
You know me and light fixtures – this is one of the Leila lamps:
Tomorrow I will take you to our absolute favorite restaurant in Damascus, and finish up the trip, I promise, as much as I hate to leave!
(Happy Islamic New Year!)
You know how it is, when you are flat-out totally in love, you can’t see the flaws. In moments of clarity, I can understand that there could be hardships to living in Damascus. There could be problems meeting the codes for historical preservation while trying to install modern plumbing. There could be bureaucrats to bribe, there could be problems with labor, I don’t know any of this, I am just guessing.
None of it matters to me, I am so head-over-heels happy. Thanks be to God, AdventureMan shares my insanity, and we are having a wonderful time walking, walking, walking. He is SO patient with me, and all the photos I have to stop to take.
Today we visit the Ummayyad Mosque which also contains the tomb of John the Baptist. I think this is one of the reasons we love Damascus so much – the co-existence of Islam and Christianity, and the sharing of sacred spaces.
Non-Muslims have to go to the entrance where you can rent an abaya with a hood, so that you can visit the mosque. All visitors are welcome; entire tour groups are going through, French, German. You also have to take off your shoes, and the beautiful marble flooring is VERY cold! In some places, there is carpeting.
Once inside the Ummayad Mosque, they have that in-floor heating, so you can warm your tootsies back up while experiencing the magnificence of the mosque interior (please note the horseshoe arches):
A funny story: as we are leaving the Mosque, AdventureMan says “where is this tomb of John the Baptist you wanted to visit?” and I looked at his in puzzlement. We had finished touring the whole mosque, and I had photographed the tomb.
“We already visited it!” I told him.
“When?” he asked.
“It was that beautiful tomb in the main mosque area surrounded by people praying!” I replied.
“No, that was somebody named Yahyah,” he corrected me.
“Yahyah is the name for John the Baptist,” I told him. Guess he would have appreciated it more if he had known at the time. I just assumed he knew.
I must have been a magpie in another life. I don’t know why, but I love these glittery Chinese decorations. AdventureMan bought one for me, a golden crown with big red “jewels”. The shops always catch my eye:
I don’t know if you could find a truly bad meal in Damascus. I think you would really have to try! We found this wonderful restaurant, Al Kawali, not too far from our hotel, and we loved their food and we loved the atmosphere, and we loved having the bread baked right under our noses:
And last, but not least – we find the food so fabulous that we are eating too much. Our first time at Al Kawali, we order just some favorite mezze dishes and soup. When the tastes are so perfect, it takes less to fill you up, and this food is perfection.
We arrive in Damascus, and are eager to walk. Something has happened, though, and on our first walk I discover my knee is killing me. We find a pharmacy, I down some aspirin with a freshly squeezed orange juice and we carry on. I tell myself that the latest in therapy is “motion is lotion” because I don’t want to waste a minute while we are in Damascus, and with the help of the aspirin, and the distraction of the sheer beauty and treasures of Damascus, we continue walking.
In our days there, we developed a routine. Get up, eat breakfast, head out. Walk and walk and walk. Stop after a couple hours for coffee (no matter where you are, there is a coffee or tea place nearby.) Walk some more. Stop for lunch. Walk some more, head back to the hotel and get a little rest. Go out walking, find a place for dinner. Two of our days there, we met up with an old friend, and spent time in the afternoon and evening visiting with him.
Knowing how my blogging friend Kinan told us to watch for treasures, i.e. remnants of olden times incorporated into more modern structures, we were continually delighted. AdventureMan has a particularly keen eye and can spot an old hewn granite stone in the foundation, remnants of arches, remnants of old pillars – it was a treasure hunt every day.
There are still some of the old mashrabiya balconies remaining, and near our hotel we also found a woodworker who specializes in mashrabiya:
There are many restaurants which have been created in the old open courtyards of the old Damascus houses. This is one where we had coffee, Dar al Bandar, at the beginning (or end!) of Sharia (street) Qamariya, which will soon also open with hotel rooms. These courtyards are entirely covered over in the winter time. I think some of them can be opened, and maybe they open them in the summers, but the summers are as hot as the winters are cold, so maybe they only open them in the springs and autumns.
The Beit al Chami is the closest restaurant to the Talisman, and also built in a courtyard. There is another level of dining high above the courtyards, and we saw both couples and families heading up for the quieter, more private dining rooms above. This is the entrance to the Beit al Chami:
This is the ceiling of the Beit Chami reception hall near the entry:
We saw people eating something we had never seen before. It looked like a mezze, but not like any mezze we knew. AdventureMan asked the waiter, and they brought us one at the end of the meal and would not let us pay for it. We ran across this kind of generousity and graciousness daily during our time in Syria. This was indeed a mezze of sorts, but a jam mezze, or dessert mezze, and you eat all these sweet things with bread. The one in the middle is a kind of thickened cream, the others were fruits and preserves and jams. Fascinating and delicious!
This is a man in a little street Tabak who would only speak French to us, never Arabic. He acted like he didn’t understand Arabic. AdventureMan thinks when we finally settle back in the US, he will open a little corner Tabak like this and spend his days sitting and selling small things. (I think he is kidding.) This man would call out “bonjour!” whenever he would see us.
Just a few more random shots:
And, my friends, this is just the beginning!