It was the typical Middle Eastern route consisting of brown surroundings and barren lands, spiced up with mum’s cassette tapes from the early 80s and occasional family bickering.
We had little idea how drastically things would change when we set off on a family trip to Syria during the scorching summer of 2010 – only one year prior to the beginning of the war. Papa was based in the Middle East, giving us the perfect opportunity to explore the region as much as possible. It was not an ambitious itinerary, as a short journey from neighbouring Lebanon brought us to Syrian passport control for the weekend.
Upon entering the country, Damascus suburbs were visible from the distance. It took another 30 minutes for us to make our way to the heart of the city via expansive boulevards, residential complexes, cafés and grocery shops. We drove through the lanes of Damascus to Papa’s friend’s house (our temporary accommodation) and I looked outside. Church spires rose within sight of mosque minarets and the comforting smell of kahwa infiltrated my nose.
The delightful reminiscences of this trip now seem strange given the ongoing battle between the government and rebel-held areas.
However, pre-war Damascus was welcoming and vigorous – bustling with raw energy much like any other capital city. It also looked much more beautiful after sunset – the glorious hues of oranges and blues giving it an island feel.
After a warm welcome, we settled in and helped ourselves to a light supper of Shorbit Adas (lentil soup with lemon) and freshly baked bread on our host’s rooftop. The air was humid and warm, the meal exquisite. For dessert, we decided to head over to the Old City through the Souk Al-Hamadiye entrance. It is, by far, the most magnificent access into Old Damascus.
Turkish-style coffee was incredibly popular amongst Syrians, as they queued outside cafés awaiting their turn. Bakdash, Syria’s oldest ice-cream parlour, overflowed with locals and tourists for a taste of their Bouza Arabiyah ice-cream (a speciality since the 1890s). I settled for the rose and almond flavour which instantly acted as the much-needed cool hug on a warm, muggy day.
We strolled through tapering lanes of the Souk reminiscent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and browsed through jewellery shops and perfume stores. The smell of fresh, handmade soap made me unnecessarily splurge a little. The tall, domed roof sprinkled with gaps was letting in beams of moonlight. It was 10pm, yet the place felt increasingly alive with activity as locals smoked shisha in open, shared spaces.
The next morning, we were welcomed with a hearty breakfast. A capital that is said to be one of the most established and ceaselessly occupied urban communities on Earth, its cooking is a great many years old. When I’d eaten up a fat helping of Fattet Hummus, (a delectable dish made of fried pita, chickpeas and yoghurt) it required some push to physically move. However, our thoughtful hosts had booked mum, my sister and I pampering sessions at the primary women’s hammam, trailed by a visit to Great Umayyad Mosque.
Not only did Great Umayyad lay down the foundation for exceptional work of engineering in Islamic history, it also is a standout amongst the most excellent sights in the Old City. People were seen laughing, feeding pigeons and relaxing in its courtyard. Locals were praying or reading the Quran, the tranquil environment infectious. Walls of the mosque once belonged to the Roman Era. Additionally, it also housed a pagan temple followed by a cathedral. Children ran around gleefully as the limestone flooring of the mosque mirrored the sky above.
Another architecture marvel we visited adjacent to Great Umayyad was (and still is) the Sayyidah Ruqayyah Mosque. It is the masjid containing the grave of Sukaynah; young daughter of Hussain-ibn-Ali (RA). The stunning place of worship was covered with layers of blue ceramic tiles, mirror and gold work and exhibited contemporary Iranian design. A small prayer area adjoined the shrine room, along with a tiny courtyard in front.
Buildings in Syria usually consist of the same architectural elements. Houses and buildings are made out of concrete, as it makes the exterior indestructible and the interior cooler in warmer months.
However, poverty and denseness were evident even in pre-war Syria. We attracted curious stares and unsure smiles from those who could tell we weren’t European tourists, but were foreign enough to look slightly different. Drivers broke traffic signals and exceeded speed limits frequently. Nevertheless, the more I explored Damascus the more it grew on me. It contained unexplainable magic that set it apart from other Middle Eastern cities I’d previously visited.
One main reason for this was the exceptionally strong sense of community. It was impossible to say whether people engrossed in deep conversations belonged to an organised religion or no faith, were Muslim or Christian, Sunni or Shia, Arab or Kurdish. In short, Damascus was peaceful and tolerant.
That wasn’t astonishing; Damascus is home to probably the most exceptional civilisations on the planet. It allowed me the freedom to walk the streets with my camera and photograph to my heart’s content. People came up to ask questions and offered local support, scribbling down directions or information on scraps of paper. To the average person, it might seem odd but Syrian hospitality is renowned for generously welcoming tourists into their homeland.
Our last stop for the day was the most famous sight in Syria – Jebel Qasioun (the mountain to the northwest overlooking the city). It was here that Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) viewed Damascus from atop and refused to descend, saying that man can only enter the gates of paradise once. Mount Qasioun is famous for the immediate acceptance of prayers and rulers of the city pleaded for rain in times of drought. Modern-day Damascus had, of course, grown. The sprawling suburbs had replaced many of the ancient gardens. And as we were seated in one of the hilltop cafés with mint tea, night fell; making the city twinkle with green lights emitting from mosques spread throughout the city.
But Damascus isn’t just olden history, and the next morning, we were invited to an exhibition held at the Jewish Quarter. The quarter had recently risen as an inventive space, where artists had repaired huge numbers of the disintegrating structures as studios. Some of the traditional Arab courtyard houses were also lovingly restored as boutique hotels, which further accentuated Damascus’s modern feel.
My family and I sat outside a nearby restaurant, eating shawarmas and people watching – happy we’d explored a completely different side of the capital. Locals and passersby smiled and waved at us and we waved back.
Later, we ventured over to Ma’loula – one of the few towns where Aramaic, the language of Jesus, is still preserved and widely spoken. The Convent of St. Thecla lies here at an altitude of 1600 meters and is a major place of pilgrimage in Syria. She belonged to a pagan family who fled her hometown after breaking off her engagement – ultimately finding refuge in Ma’loula.
Ma’loula still interests linguistic researchers, whose discoveries have progressed the understanding of Aramaic and its importance in history.
We returned to main Damascus that evening where its inhabitants, sights, locations and smells left a lasting impression. Mum bought a beautiful multi-hued glass lamp from an elderly salesperson. After noticing my admiration for another gold lantern, he offered it to me as a souvenir completely free of charge.
Almost nine years later, I wonder if that man is safe. Lives changed as I moved to another country. However, those lamps remained intact; dangling from the ceilings of our homes in Karachi and London. Our memories, however, are bittersweet – sometimes painful to remember. I always recount my experiences fondly; telling everyone how lovely the country was, full of hospitable people.
Syria has been ruptured with bullet holes, destroying its peaceful lifestyle and historical infrastructure. It once retained incredible religions, individuals and societies – bringing Muslim and Christian families together in mosque yards over suppers at nightfall. I’ve thought about Jebel Qasioun many times, wondering whether a little supplication for refugees who have endured mercilessness since will be acknowledged. The people my family and I befriended and the country that welcomed us with open arms do not deserve such ongoing devastation. And in my heart, I will always be thankful to have met individuals, encounter an empire and make memories in a place that many might potentially never see.