Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Damascus 1

Damascus isn't a beautiful city in a conventional sense. Much of its architecture is relatively modern and conforms to an uninspiring concrete vernacular which I suspect owes much to Syria's past ties with Russia. The dominant building colour is grey and dirty, from a combination of dust and pollution. Unfinished building work is everywhere. There's too much litter, traffic and fumes, and too few parks and places to walk.

Despite all that, Damascus has a magical attraction. In the softer light of dawn and dusk the overwhelming grey of the buildings gets washed by pink light. The Old City, split along its length by Straight Street, is a warren of rambling narrow alleys, webbed and festooned with ancient electric cables, offering glimpses into the courtyards round which the traditional Damascus houses were built. Some of the grander houses have been converted into restaurants where one can see the rich interiors restored. The scents of the spice markets fill the nostrils. In the Old City one can see a traditional emphasis on the insides of houses, with the outsides deliberately modest, which may explain in some part why modern buildings seem designed with so little care. In the Old City too can be seen a beautiful design language of pattern, proportion and colour which also seems to be absent from today's equivalents.

The city is overlooked by the face of Mount Qassioun, itself topped with an unsightly array of radio masts. In the evenings this is a place of cool breezes and so hundreds of families drive up here with a picnic, to meet friends, or to eat at one of the many establishments which run along the hillside. And to look at the view, because as the sun goes down the city becomes a shimmering carpet of lights. It's one of the things to show guests, so I've seen it now many times, but it never loses its magic.

The pleasant thing about Damascus compared, say, to the Gulf, is that there is street life, possibly too much of it even. It's teeming with people on foot, shopping, delivering, eating, going to college, wandering, hanging about. It's teeming too with a splendid mix of ancient and modern cars, horse-drawn carts, buzzing mini-trucks, cyclists who seem unable to steer straight, as well as the manic yellow taxis and white service cars. All of this co-exists only by much hooting of horns, which is the leitmotif of Damascus. People come out to eat late, usually after 10pm, and around many restaurants the air fills with the scent from nargilehs, the water-pipes that are smoked here as an accompaniment to the meal.

Things to do in Damascus in the evening are not plentiful (few cinemas, for example), so people gather to eat, drink or just wander. It's a great social gathering, where people just want to enjoy themselves. Because relatively little alcohol is consumed, there is none of the noise and aggro you find late at night in many other cities. There's a lot of tradional Arabic food on offer, usually very good, but plenty of alternatives, especially if you like pizza. I've heard about, but not yet found, a sushi restaurant here - hmm, not sure. As I've said elsewhere, it's a very relaxed atmosphere.


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