Last week I wrote about my trip to Beirut in Lebanon back in 2003, this week, as promised, I am writing about the day trip I did from there to Damascus in Syria. On the morning I got up very early and took a taxi to the Cola Transport Hub, a major road intersection where you can get buses, taxis or minibuses to destinations in Lebanon and the region. From here I got a bus to Damascus. The bus was just a regular coach and I got myself in the rear entrance and sat in the back row for the whole journey. Travelling through Lebanon we stopped somewhere at a service centre but I didn’t get off the bus, instead the driver brought me a bottle of cold cola.
Shortly after this stop we crossed the border out of Lebanon in to Syria and again I didn’t leave the bus, the driver took my passport and went through the formalities of having it stamped for me. Not long later we arrived in Damascus and I found a taxi to take me to the Street Called Straight. After I got there I wasn’t sure what else to do but on the way there my taxi driver agreed that for US$100 he would give me a day tour of the city. I thought that was a good plan. We parked the car near to Bab Sharqi which is the Eastern Gate at one end of the Street Called Straight.
We decided the first thing to do was to find something to eat so my guide took us to Hanania Street which was just around the corner, here we went to Le Piano. After my guide had a short conversation we then left and found somewhere else where we had bread and cheese with a coffee sitting at a table outside.
When we had finished our early lunch we had a look around the area and I noticed a sign for the House of Ananias, this was one of the two places I was hoping to see on my day trip so told my guide and we went there.
The House of Ananias is supposed to be the remains of the house that Ananias of Damascus lived in. Ananias is the person that restored the sight of Saul (later Paul) when he was struck blind on the road to Damascus. It is below street level and is now a Catholic church. My guide helped me down the steps and then left me there for about 15 minutes before returning to continue our tour of the city.
Our next stop was at the Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus. This is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. It is considered by some Muslims to be the fourth-holiest place in Islam. In the centre is a large courtyard that has in it two domes, The Dome of the Clock that was built in 780 and The Dome of the Treasury that was built in 789. Before we left here I visited the prayer room, something I had not been able to do at mosques in Istanbul where they wouldn’t allow my wheelchair on the carpets.
On leaving the Umayyad Mosque we walked to the nearby Azm Palace. This was built in 1749 for the Governor of Damascus to serve as his residence and guest house. It was renovated during 1945-1961 and now serves as the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions. We spent some time looking around here both in the palace and the courtyard. One thing I remember was there was a room with mannequins wearing old Arabic costumes.
We returned to the area near to the Umayyad Mosque and visited the Al-Hamidiyah Souq where the many vendors tried to sell us their various goods. We just looked around but did buy some sugared almonds. Upon leaving the souk my guide told me that he now had to go and pray at his mosque and so left me for a short while.
I sat with my back towards a wall where some restoration work was being carried out and reviewed the mornings events on my digital camera. Looking through the images I suddenly became aware that it seemed to be ‘snowing’ sawdust and looked up to see a workman above trying to get my attention. He indicated to me to move and once I did began sawing the end of a large beam that then dropped down exactly where I had been sitting!
On his return my guide took me back to his car and asked if there was anywhere else I particularly wanted to see. I told him about the other place on my list to see, the Hejaz Railway station. He seemed a little surprised at this but agreed to take me there. On the Hejaz Railway ran the trains that Lawrence of Arabia is famous for bombing during the Arab Revolt in World War I. For as long as I have known about this and that Thomas Edward Lawrence was born and grew up in Tremadog, here in north Wales, I had wanted to visit the Hejaz.
Now we headed out of the city to Mount Qasioun which gives great panoramic views of the whole of Damascus that we stopped several times to view. On the mountain as we neared the top I thought the taxi was going to break down and when we parked it at a restaurant there was lots of smoke coming from the engine and gearbox, though my driver assured me ‘no problem’…
Returning to the car after our meal it seemed to have cooled down and should be alright now as we would be heading downhill. We went to Saidnaya to visit the Convent of Our Holy Lady of Saidnaya. Parking the car we watched a delivery man struggle with a very big box taking it up four or five flights of stairs to the convent. My guide then said we would go and look inside the convent, I asked if he was sure he wanted to get me up all those stairs to which he replied “I will go and ask for the key for the lift” and then started laughing! The lift was in the tower to the left of the photo above.
In the convent there were many religious icons and frescos. In one room that the nuns took us to they turned off the lights for a short while whilst we prayed. It was now time to start heading back to Damascus for me to get a taxi back to Beirut. On the way we stopped to view the settlement of Maaloula, this to me looked exactly how a Middle Eastern village/town should look. Maaloula and Saidnaya are special as both its Christian and Muslim inhabitants still speak the ancient Aramaic language which Jesus spoke.
Back in Damascus my guide dropped me off at the transport hub where someone arranged for me to get a Service taxi back to Beirut. A Service taxi is a shared taxi that departs when it is full. The driver departed when he had five passengers, my fellow passengers didn’t speak English so I couldn’t speak to them but I did discover at the border crossing back in to Lebanon that one of them was a Palestinian without a passport and travelling on some kind of refugee identity card. Like on the bus this morning, at the border crossing the driver took my passport and dealt with the border formalities without me leaving the vehicle. I was the last passenger to leave the car and he took me all the way to my hotel.
It was not until writing up this blog that I realised just how much I managed to fit in to just one day in Syria! I don’t think I would have the energy to do so much these days. I still have many great memories from this trip and am sad that I cannot travel so far now and that a few short years later Syria descended in to civil war that has been ongoing since 2011. I hope at some time not too far in the future other adventurous travellers can follow in my wheel tracks and visit Syria.