Sipping a Seven-Up on the terrace of a café on Mount Qassioun, some 200 meters above the glittering sprawl of Damascus, Ahmad is halfway through listing the stereotypes Syrians have of other Arabs when he comes to an abrupt halt.

Having learned that all Iraqi women had “weak morals,” all Jordanian men were “rough and without culture,” and all Saudis (gender not specified) were “wealthy but without education,” I am wondering what he might say about the 150,000 American troops stationed in Iraq, Syria’s newest neighbours.

Sensing that he has been a little too candid, especially in front of a foreign journalist, Ahmad backpedals.

“You know that I was only joking, no?” he chuckles, a little uneasily. “Don’t write what I said, okay? It isn’t good. Write that Syrians are very nice people. We like everyone and everyone is welcome in our country.”

That part I already know. Syria has a rather fearsome reputation, thanks to a starring role in President George W. Bush’s Axis of Evil, earned largely for Damascus’ penchant for propping up Palestinian Islamist organisations like Hamas and its brutal 27 year occupation of Lebanon and possible involvement the assassination earlier this year of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri, the event which finally forced Syria’s troops out of its neighbour. But during repeated visits over the course of the last decade from my home base in Beirut, I’d come to appreciate that in a region where people take pride in the warmth of their welcome, Syrians like to think of themselves as setting the standard.

When I’d stopped the previous day for a glass of freshly squeezed, rosewater-laced lemonade, the vendor insisted I have a second glass, free of charge. Later, as I sat sipping espresso-sized cups of cardamom-flavoured Turkish coffee at a sidewalk café, the waiter slipped me a couple of pieces of honey-pistachio baklava. “To make your mouth sweet,” he said, pointing to my empty cup. Even the taxi drivers have been remarkably cordial; on one occasion, late at night in a Damascus suburb where I had become completely disorientated, not only does my cabby plot a direct course to my destination, but he waives the fare with a smile and a “welcome to my country.” Honest.

But then the Damascenes have been at the hospitality game for a while now. For eight, possibly ten, thousand years, this oasis between the last hurrah of the Lebanese mountains and the edge of the Syrian Desert has been continuously inhabited, making it one of the oldest cities on earth. To put another perspective on it, Shem, a grandson of the biblical Noah, is just one of the legendary founders of Damascus.

The “It” city for thousands of years, Damascus was courted and occupied by just about every ancient kingdom east of the Hindu Kush. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Persians succeeded ruled here. So did the Greeks, the Romans, the Ottomans, and finally the French, who were here briefly after World War I during the first Western attempt to redraw the map of the Middle East.

History may not have been kind to Syria, but it has bequeathed her a rich ethnic and archaeological heritage. Like Lebanon, it is home to many different religious communities, among them Shi’ites, Druze, a tiny Jewish community and Christians, who still worship in some of the oldest churches on earth, including the fourth-century monastery of Saints Sergius and Bacchus in the mountain town of Ma’aloula, just outside Damascus. And it is home to so many spectacular ruins—the remains of Roman towns, Crusader fortresses, and caravan cities like Palmyra, romantically located out in the rocky desert a few hours northeast of the capital, which is easily one of the most evocative ruins in the Middle East—that it sometimes feels like a huge outdoor museum.

The present isn’t being especially kind either. When I visited in 2003, as the invasion of Iraq began, I’d found a city heading toward a meltdown. Collective anxiety had set in and most Syrians seemed convinced the Americans would turn west at Baghdad and head straight across their border.

The mood on the streets today is more sanguine despite or possibly precisely because of the fact that everyone knows change has become inevitable.

“There is no other option now,” a Syrian exile friend tells me when I get back to Beirut. “America is in Iraq, we are no longer in Lebanon, our economy is collapsing and no country will help us because the whole world thinks we killed Hariri. Syrians are angry, they’ve had enough of this regime and they want something new.”

Modern Damascus bears little resemblance to the lush oasis described in the Arabic classic The Thousand and One Nights. Instead of a city  “with trees and rivers and fruits and birds as though it were a paradise”—a city of gilded minarets and marbled palaces that the prophet Muhammad, it is said, refused to enter, preferring to save his first glimpse of heaven for the afterlife—Damascus today has the same congested streets and concrete drabness of many a Middle Eastern capital. As it has expanded to accommodate the four (or five, no one is exactly sure) million who now call it home, Paradise in many places has given way to parking lots and crumbling concrete tower blocks – the legacy of Syria’s Cold War flirtation with the Soviet Union – that look every bit as ancient as the old walled citadel in the heart of the capital.

For millennia, the Old City was Damascus. With the exception of a brief foray out of its walls in the 14th Century, Damascenes remained in their maze of twisting alleys and dead-ends until the early 20th century. Consequently, the Old City is stuffed so full of history that getting lost is pleasure that inevitably ends in the discovery of some architectural gem or archaeological remain. There are enough exquisitely decorated Koranic schools, intricately stuccoed mausoleums, ancient sandstone churches, candy-striped mosques, and crumbling mansions packed into the old city to keep the most demanding visitor happy for days.

The easiest way in is through the Hamidiyye Souk and so this is where I head early my first morning. The Hamidiyye is the largest of the city’s central bazaars. Call it the Oxford Street or the Orchard Road of Syria, the Hamidiyye is sheer spectacle.

Normally, it’s a sea of chic Sunni housewives, shaven-headed Alawite conscripts and short-skirted Greek Orthodox schoolgirls, with the odd tattooed Bedouin trader thrown in just to remind you, for it seems almost impossible, that the desert plains are not far away. As they mingle under the market’s soaring corrugated-iron roof, a gauntlet of hawkers tout everything from wind-up monkeys and posters of passé film stars to one-size-fits-all plastic dentures and delicate metal devices that simultaneously peel and eviscerate zucchinis. If you’re looking for bootlegged aftershave, glow-in-the-dark underwear, Chinese silk, 70’s Retro clothing or ticky-tacky souvenirs, the Hamidiyye is the place for you.

But on this morning the souk is virtually empty. It’s just after nine o’clock and most of the shops are still shuttered: Damascenes are not early risers, especially during the summer months when they stay awake late to make the most out of the nighttime cool. Not that this is keeping Syria’s most famous ice-cream parlour, Bekdache, from doing a roaring trade: a passel of matrons and their surprisingly ruly kids are congregated at the counter, wolfing down wafer cones stuffed with the pistachio-coated, mastic-scented milk concoction known as bouza. If it seems a little early in the day for ice-cream, consider that the temperature is already nosing past 35 degrees Celsius. 

I emerge blinking into bright sunlight, passing under the Roman gateway at the end of the souk and into the plaza that fronts the massive Bab al-Barid, the western entrance of the Umayyad Mosque. Of all the marvels of Damascus, the 1,300-year-old Umayyad—one of the largest and grandest mosques in the world—is for me one of its most breathtaking.

Perhaps it’s the splendour of the architecture. Perhaps it’s the cumulative effect of thousands of years of prayer, for three millennia a multitude of different gods have been propitiated on this site, each in their time believed to be eternal. Whatever the reason, the Umayyad is one of those places where there is a sizzle in the air.

I’m not sure what I like the most about the mosque, its delicate gold mosaic façade, the work of Byzantine craftsmen, its cavernous, carpet-strewn prayer hall, rebuilt by the Ottomans after a fire in the late 19th century, or the endless flow of pilgrims, who come from all over the Islamic world. But I suspect that one of the reasons that keeps me coming back is the legend that a shrine inside holds the head of John the Baptist.

As the story goes, shortly after the head was presented to Salome on that platter, it was bundled into casket that eventually ended up in the basilica that stood here before the mosque was built in the 7th century. That same casket – in matters of faith, there is no room for skepticism - now sits inside a large silver cage in the centre of the mosque, draped in a green cloth embroidered with Koranic verses. On any given day, a crowd circulates quietly around it, worshippers sometimes stopping to press their faces against the bars or to leave messages of supplication and offerings of money.

After revisiting the mosque, I walk through the small garden that adjoins its northern wall for a look at the tomb of Saladin. It’s a modest affair, a simple whitewashed building topped by a red cupola, with little inside save for an equally unassuming grave. The memorial’s austerity is surprising, given that not only is Saladin one of the greatest heroes of the Islamic world, but he is also one of the few Arab warriors remembered in the West.

As I sit writing in my notebook in the garden outside, wondering whether the tomb’s simplicity reflected an ambivalence towards Saladin—who was Kurdish and not Arab—or whether it was elegantly understated tribute to his renowned humility, I meet Hassan.

“You are a journalist? American?” he asks, extending his hand. Yes, I say, but I’m British. Hassan explains that he is an engineering student and would like to practice his English, if I have the time.

“When are you coming here?”

Assuming that he’s mixed up his tenses, I tell him I arrived the day before.

“No, sorry. I mean when is your army coming here?”

The question catches me off guard. I'm not here to discuss politics and such discussions are sensitive here at the best of times. As I don’t want to get embroiled in controversy, at least not before lunch, I tell him I doubt it would ever happen.

“What about the Americans? When are they coming?” he continues.

“They have a lot of problems in Iraq,” I say, switching to broken Arabic in the hope this might encourage him to change the conversation. “I don’t think they have any plans to make things worse by invading your country.”

I expect him to smile, or perhaps say something about political quagmires and Vietnam. Instead, Hassan looks disappointed.

“I was against the war in Iraq, against America, I always supported my government,”, the quietness of his voice failing to disguise its trace of contempt. “But after the last [Ba’ath] Party conference we all understood that nothing will ever change. We have so many problems, economic, political. Our president said he would change things, but that was [when he came to power] in 2000. Please tell your country they must help us.”

With that, he gets up and leaves. I've had a number of extraordinary conversations in Syria over the years but never have I heard anything like that. Even political dissidents are careful to appear balanced when speaking in public or to the press. For a fleeting moment, paranoia creeps in. I wonder whether I’m being set up, whether Hassan is a member of the secret police and was just trying to draw me out. I flash back to my first visit to the country as an 18 year-old backpacker, when I had a tail all the way from the Jordanian border to Turkey. But I've said nothing untoward, so even if it was a set-up, I've not said anything that could be taken as interference. I go back to making notes and as I do, it occurs to me that perhaps something more remarkable has happened. If Hassan meant what he said then some Syrians at least, are losing their fear of speaking critically in front of foreign journalists. If that's the case, I wonder how long can it be before that turns into something more?

The following afternoon I leave the glossy marble interior of Le Meridien and return to the Old City. As I walk toward Bab Touma – one of the seven gates of the old city - I start to notice all the posters of President Bashar al-Assad. During the reign of his late father, posters and pictures of Assad Sr. were so ubiquitous that they took on totemic overtones.

One of the new president's first acts was to remove the posters and ban all public images of himself. At the time, this was presented as proof that Syria was changing and that reform was on its way. But five years on, Syria has seen little real change. And the poster blitz seems to be making a comeback.

That's not to say Syria hasn't changed. As a journalist, it is now far easier for me to visit and there are fewer restrictions on who I can speak to, officially. Another visible change, apart from the proliferation of modern cafes and the arrival of the internet, is that tourism is on the rise. Visitor numbers have increased sharply in the last three years, thanks both to an easing of visa restrictions and to an influx of Gulf Arab tourists, for whom Europe is no longer perceived to be as welcoming. Adding to the crowds are the many Iraqis, who regularly drive here for weekend respite from the horror of life back home.

The boom has been good to Damascus. Some of the older hotels have redecorated, a huge new Four Seasons is rising along Shukri Kuwatly on the opposite side of the street to the treasure trove that is the National Museum. And with the recent transformation of an old 17th Century courtyard house in the Old City’s Christian Quarter, Damascus has its first boutique hotel, the al-Mamlouka.

As I reach Bab Touma, the posters give way to signs for a slew of new restaurants. Seven or eight years ago, eating out in Damascus meant making do with falafel or shawarma, at least outside of hotel restaurants. Now there’s Chinese and sushi, Mexican and Italian, and, of course, lashings of Lebanese.

One of the best places for a long lunch of mezze (assorted plates of appetizers and dips) and maybe a kebab or two, is the Elissar. Together with Beit Jabri down by the Umayyad Mosque, it is one of the oldest restaurants in the Old City. I’m relieved to see that despite the competition, it’s still doing brisk business.

Snagging a table in the courtyard, I survey the scene. At lunchtime, it’s mostly families and tourists with a couple of old men drinking coffee and playing backgammon in the corner but at night it’s a more up-market scene. Then it’s all smartly-dressed couples and groups of friends holding court over tables groaning under dozens of dishes and drinking Lebanese wine by candlelight.

Less crowded than other parts of the Old City, by day the Christian Quarter is mostly full of old ladies shopping for groceries and the occasional tourist browsing through the antique shops near Bab Sharqi. But after dark, as the rest of the Old City beds down for the night, the Christian Quarter flowers, turning into one of the hottest neighborhoods in town.

That’s when modish establishments like Casablanca, Arabesque and Oxygen come into their own, their tables taken by well-heeled Damascenes, many of whom are still amused by the gentrification of a part of the city none of them would have been caught dead visiting a decade ago.

Later still, sometime around midnight, Syria’s gilded youth, fresh from their pre-club naps, come out to play. As the old timers are finishing their meals and thinking about the drive home, their children are making their way to MarMar or the Piano Bar, or perhaps Underground over in Abou Rummaneh, places so dark and where the music is so loud and insistent that the sun could rise, set and rise again without anyone inside being any wiser.

One evening, make it either your first or your last evening in Damascus, take a cab to the top of Mount Qassioun. As the road climbs and the city falls away, the air freshens. You begin to see people walking, even jogging, along the pavement. Drawn by the string of cafés and impromptu picnic spots that have sprung up along the road in the last few years, this is where Damascenes come to cool off on summer nights.

It’s a family-oriented scene, at least until after dark. Then, once the parents and children have packed up, after the candy-floss vendors and the balloon-sellers in pink bunny suits have gone home for the night, the mountain riddled with the tombs of Byzantine saints and Muslim martyrs becomes a Lover’s Lane.

But before that happens, there is a moment of magic. As the light softens, the heat haze begins to subside and Damascus emerges from its perpetual shroud of dust. First, you notice the belt of orchards protecting the city from the surrounding desert. Then emerges the flow of individual cars along Al-Jala’a Street, the ziggurat-like profile of the soon-to-open Four Seasons, and finally the Technicolor stained glass and concrete monument known as the Sword of the Umayyads.

As the sun sets over Lebanon, minarets flicker into neon-green life, as do smaller blood-red crosses on church domes in the Christian Quarter. The call to prayer rises from the Old City and one by one, loudspeakers all over Damascus join in the refrain, sending waves of devotion washing up the slopes of Qassioun.

God is eternal, the muezzins remind you and so, it seems, is this hoary old city already ancient when Djoser built that first pyramid in Saqqara. Then your eyes alight on the leviathan portrait of Hafez al-Assad that dominates the facade of the Officers Club. The call to prayer fades to a whisper and you ask yourself, does anything really last forever?


Originally published in 2005 in DestinAsian

Photos © Jason Michael Lang