Day 1: Amsterdam - Vienna - Damascus

Damascus Travel Blog

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Damascus skyline

 

Warning:
The following blog is a translation of the diary I kept while travelling Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It is impossible to travel through a region with such a turbulent history without forming an opinion. And I happen to be a very opinionated person.
The views reflected in this blog are my own, personal points of view, based on my experiences in these countries. If you are easily offended by other people's views on religion and politics I suggest you stop reading now.


 

4 o'clock alarm clock. All of a sudden an early flight doesn't seem like such a good idea at all...
There are advantages though. No traffic en route to the airport, a quick check-in and despite a slight delay during our change-over in Vienna we were in Damascus by 3 PM.

citadel

All my previous big trips had been transcontinental, so it was quite a nice change reaching my destination in just under 5 hours.

Together with my good mate Derk (relayer on tb) we would set out on a 4-week trip through two of the countries of the Levant: Syria and Jordan.
A first visit to an Islamic country for both of us, and what better introduction than to start in one of the oldest contionuously inhabited cities in the world: Damascus.

We took a taxi from the airport to the centre of Damascus, and both were struggling not to scream in terror because of the traffic. It seems the more sun a country gets, the less traffic rules there are.
The fact that there were six lanes of traffic on a three lane highway didn't bother me that much, I'd seen that before, but the fact that on said highway there are cars driving 30 kilometres and hour and are being overtaken by truck combinations driving at least 100, and then our taxi doing 120 in between, while narrowly avoiding a donkey cart or a cyclist, that did frighten me somewhat.

coffee seller

And you have to know that mirrors and indicators have a solely decorative function on these cars, and all communication between road users is done via intricate horn signals.
Yup, we'd prepared for a culture shock, and we sure got one!

 

Before we left I had found it difficult to imagine what Syria would be like, after all, this was my first visit to an Arab country. I imagined a maze of small, dusty streets, lots of traffic and lots of noise. Well, that part I guessed correctly, but to be honest, the same goes for most Asian or South American countries.
What I had not expected was to find such ugly buildings in this city. I had imagined small square white houses with flat roofs, you know, like you see in all the movies. But no, this was more Soviet building style with huge grey concrete tower blocks.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

After checking in to our hotel we wandered off towards the historic town centre. We had some trouble not being able to read any street sign, and the fact that our hotel was drawn with its entrance facing the wrong way on our map didn't really help us find our way either. We had walked for about two kilometres when we realised that it was remarkably odd to see the sun setting in the east... And so we turned the map upside down, and with the help of a nice student who spoke remarkably good English ("no, no, you canno walk, you need take taxi!") we arrived at the ancient citadel some 20 minutes later.

 

We entered the old city through the Souq al-Hamidiyya - a souq is an Arabian shopping street and this one is the largest in historic Damascus, measuring about the same as the Kalverstraat in Amsterdam, just as wide, just as long, but totally covered and about three times as busy.

Umayyad mosque

Oh, and there are only about 10 types of shops: T-shirts, shoes, jewellery, ice cream... that's about it really.
Anyway, this was as good an introduction to Syria we could have, we were literally thrown in the deep here.

The Umayyad mosque, towering over the old city, is said to be the third most important mosque in the world, after Mecca and Jerusalem. It is said the remains of John the Baptist are buried inside. John the what? Wasn't he from a different book? Sure, but as we soon learnt, a true Muslim respects all three volumes of the biblical story. John the Baptist, Moses, Jesus, Muhammed... all prophets disseminating the word of God and all generally good guys, though obviously Muhammed was the only one who truly understood it all.

 

I have to say this was quite a revelation to me.

inside the Umayyad mosque
Sure, in history class my teacher compared the main religions with detergent commercials, because basically the message is the same, but each claim theirs is the best. But in the media Muslims, and especially the ones living in this country, are portrayed as blood-thirsty lunatics waging a holy war against all infidels. I tell you, we were here three hours and I have never felt more welcome anywhere in my life!
And of course, these idiots do exist, but the majority of the people here respect other people's beliefs and especially those of Christians and Jews, because they 'are the people of the book' and for that they respect them.
I have some friends who are quite strict Christians - I have never heard them use the words 'respect' and 'other religions' in one sentence!

Visiting the mosque was an impressive experience.

Umayyad mosque
Not just for the sheer size of the building, but the way everything is so congenial here. Shoes off, and wandering on our socks over the polished marble inner court... We were genuinely impressed by how lively the inner court was. There were kids running about everywhere and people congregating in the corners... so different from some of the Christian churches I have visited where smiling almost seems a sin as we are in this world to suffer.

Of course I need to nuance a bit. Just like not every Muslim is a terrorist, not every Christian is a mortifying piece of misery. But visiting a mosque for the first time in my life certainly put things a bit in perspective for me. I mean, we saw women walking around in burkas, but none of them was wearing it to hide weapons and bombs...
We also had to give that latter statement to two students who interviewed us for a school project.

Derk savouring the moment at Umayyad Mosque
Since the Internet has become available to the general population in Syria many people have become very concerned about the image of their country. Mr Bush places this country on the axis of evil and has more than once pointed to Syria as a possible next target.
So these guys thought it was great to see Western tourists in their country, and they wanted to know all about us, why we had chosen this country, what we thought of it so far and so on.

People have dinner very late in this country. While a Dutch stomach starts growling around 6, a Syrian restaurant doesn't expect its first patrons until 9. So when we entered a restaurant in the area of our hotel at 7.30 we were friendly, but firmly, requested to come back later.
After walking around for two blocks we finally found a small place where we were welcome at this hour, and when we returned after dinner two hours later that first restaurant was still empty.

Umayyad mosque
...

The food in this country is fabulous! Not only do Syrians eat late, they also eat a lot. A typical meal consists of at least 2 or 3 starters, called 'mezze' and then 1 or 2 main courses, which are usually some kind of kebab.

We ordered some mezze which sounded funny in the English translation (chichen wite meat??) and soon our table was filled with several plates full of food. The art of eating in this country is to scoop up this food from the plates, without cutlery but with the help of thin, pancake like bread. And the stuff we were eating? Well, uhm, we had ordered something which was Hummus with lamb meat and chick peas, and something else, with a completely different name, from a different section of the menu, which was... hummus with lamb meat and chick peas!
We also realised we had only ordered starters.

Umayyad mosque
We had to get used to the Arab menu, where you read right to left, so the right page consisted of starters and the left page were the main courses.

Nonetheless it was a delicious and very filling meal, and a perfect ending to this excellent first day of our adventure.

tjedwards says:
great blog..some good hints/facts-especially the menus! cheers friend ;)
Posted on: Jul 20, 2010
RH122 says:
Very interesting blog.
Informative and nice pics too.
Keep up the good work.
Cheers :)
Posted on: Jul 12, 2009
herman_munster says:
Like reading this. I'm going to Syria-Lebanon this august so thanks a lot for sharing your journey. Great blog
Posted on: May 02, 2009
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Damascus skyline
Damascus skyline
citadel
citadel
coffee seller
coffee seller
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad Mosque, Damascus
Umayyad mosque
Umayyad mosque
inside the Umayyad mosque
inside the Umayyad mosque
Umayyad mosque
Umayyad mosque
Derk savouring the moment at Umayy…
Derk savouring the moment at Umay…
Umayyad mosque
Umayyad mosque
Umayyad mosque
Umayyad mosque
Damascus
photo by: Biedjee