Photo Essay

Timeless Damascus


In April of this year I flew to Damascus, Syria, to attend a conference, where I was to present my work on signal processing. It was an ideal time to visit the city. Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities - some say the oldest-, spanning at least 7000 years of history and a current population of about 1.5 millions. The city lies on a 680 m (about 2200 ft) plateau. The weather was quite pleasant, hovering around 23 C (73 F) and the Damascenes' energy was aplenty. My plan consisted mainly of visiting the Old City in Damascus and the lovely small town of Maaloula hugged by the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, about an hour or so north of Damascus.

On the way to the Old City from the hotel where I stayed is the Hejaz train station. Built in 1913 by the Ottomans, the purpose of the station was to strengthen the presence of empire in the Arab provinces as well as to serve pilgrims traveling to Medina. A beautiful building, specially at night. My understanding is it is no longer used for railway travelling.

Once in the Old City, the concept of time and its linearity as we know it vanishes. Past and present mingle in the Old City. To me it felt like the concept of time fades out once in the Old City. A main entrance to the Old City is Souq al-Hamidyya, the neighborhood's main market ("souq" is arabic for market), with its brick road dating back to Roman times. In my utterly objective, unbiased, and totally rational opinion, a trip to Damascus just doesn't count without paying a visit to legendary ice cream parlor Bakadesh located in the Souq, serving uniquely ice cream made on premises. It is quite simply heavenly.

At the other end of the Souq lie the remains of 3rd century Roman Jupiter Temple, followed by the splendid Umayyad mosque. The site where the mosque is located went through a number of metamorphoses in nearly 3000 years: It once was an Aramaic temple built for the god Hadad. With the arrival of the Romans the temple became a worship place for Jupiter. As Christianity became the Roman empire's official religion, the temple was replaced by a basilica honoring John the Baptist. The mosque was built around 715. My favorite time to visit the mosque is evening, when lighting gives the mosque fabulous colors. The Old City extends well beyond the mosque, a labyrinth with much to visit and explore.

Having decided to skip a conference day, the plan was to visit Maaloula, the largely christian small town located north of Damascus and at an altitude of 1500 m and population of about 2000. To get there I took a minibus which dropped me at the entrance of town. The town proper has no streets per se. The blue and yellow houses are clustered against the cliff, connected with a network of staircases. It is quite magical to just walk the town and let one's feet lead the way through the lovely houses. Two main roads hug the town and meet up the hill, at St. Sergius monastery overlooking the town, and dating back to the 4th century. Another important church is the Convent of St. Thecla, named after a pupil of St. Paul. For much of the day it rained intermittently.

It was a wonderful trip, and I am looking forward to the next visit to Damascus and its surroundings (note to self: do not forget to enjoy Bakadesh's astounding ice cream while there).

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