It’s hard to believe that what was once a beautiful, historic country is now deteriorating into a bloody civil war. In February 2010, my neighbors from Canada spent their winter in Syria, in a mountainous area called Bloudan (about 50 km away from Damascus) so my dear friend and colleague, Marianne, and I accepted their kind invitation to spend 4 days with them.
One of my favorite areas in the Old City of Damascus was Souq Al Hamidiyya, buzzing with life. I loved its narrow streets and lively vendors. I found people in general in Syria to be very heart-warming and hospitable. At Souq Al Hamidiyya, you can find anything you’d like such as little lanterns, elegant table and pillow covers, carpets, hookahs, tea sets, sweets, nuts, spices, perfumes, jewellery, you name it! The Umayyad mosque is within Souq Al Hamidiyya. We had to rent a hooded cloak to go inside (even if I was wearing hijab). Inside there was a green-domed, marble-clad shrine of Prophet Yehia (pbuh). During the building of the mosque back in the early 8th century, a casket was discovered buried under the old basilica floor. It contained the Prophet’s head, still with skin and hair intact, and that’s what’s in the shrine which was quite eerie. To the eastern side of the courtyard, there was the shrine of Hussein, son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet (pbuh). He was killed by the Umayyads at Kerbala in Iraq. This shrine attracts a large number of Shiite Muslims and there were many Iranians visiting as well. There was also the mausoleum of Salah ad-Din at the north of the mosque.
We had ice cream at a famous ice cream shop called “Bakdash”, in the Old City. It consists of a pounded ice cream with an elastic texture made of mastic (mistika in Arabic) and sahlab. It was a full and crowded place and I understood why when I tasted this mouth watering ice cream!!
I also visited Azem Palace which has many courtyards and gardens that were built between 1749 and 1752 as a private residence for the governor of Damascus (As’ad Pasha al-Azem). It remained the Azem residence until the beginning of the 20th century, when the family moved outside the Old City and the house was sold to the French to become an Institute of Archaeology and Islamic Art. The palace has a number of luxuriously decorated rooms with wooden panelling, blue tiling and painted ceilings. The rooms contain mannequin displays, each with a different theme (like the wedding, the bride, the mother-in-law, the pilgrimage, etc.). There were displays of costumes, textile and musical instruments.
The next day (our last day), we visited two places near each other called: “Ma’alula and Seidnayya”, two very peaceful places and a change from the bustling streets of Damascus. Seidnayya is high up in the mountains, it’s the Greek Orthodox Convent of Seidnayya. It kind of looks like a Crusader castle but it’s actually a convent. It stands on the site of one of the most important places of Christian pilgrimage in the Middle East, due to the presence of a portrait of the Virgin Mary. We headed to the roof of the convent and there was a beautiful view over the town to the plains beyond. We then visited Maalula (near Seidnayya). It’s in a narrow valley in the foothills of Jebel Libnan ash-Sharqiyya. It’s a little village where there is the Convent of St Thecla. It is tucked snugly against the cliff. Before we visited the convent, we walked in between the mountains (in which there used to be caves) and it was kind of like Petra in Jordan (the further we advanced, the narrower it would get). It gave us the impression of walking through a canyon.
As I look back at this memorable journey, I ask myself if Syria will ever be at peace. I pray for all those in Syria and elsewhere in the world suffering dreadfully under violence; may God grant them strength, trust in You, and relief.