Destination of the Month – Damascus

With the Arab world in a state of implosion at the moment, it might seem like an odd time to recommend a trip to Damascus, capital of Syria – a country oft at the heart of any turbulence in the region. Surprisingly though, Syria remains one of the very few countries in the Middle East that hasn’t raised any dissenting voices this year. If you’ve had to rethink trips to Egypt or Tunisia because of recent events, I can’t recommend Damascus highly enough. It’s a city with all the history, beauty and fervent urbanity of Cairo but with none of the aggression, agendas or ulterior motives that make Cairo so exhausting.

Now’s the perfect time to think about booking too. The mercury has begun to ascend the thermometer again but is a long way from hitting the dizzying heights of the high thirties that force a parched lethargy on the city in the midsummer months and the recent winter rains have cleared the dust and sand from the air and left the city feeling pleasantly refreshed.

The old town of Damascus is an incredible treasure trove of winding lanes, ornate mosques, bustling market streets and traditional bath houses. The biggest attraction is undoubtedly the Ummayad Mosque – a vast complex, decorated throughout in rich mosaic work. Non Muslims are free to go inside but must remove shoes and be appropriately dressed. Outside, the Souk el Hammidiyeh is simply one of the best markets in the world. Sheltered beneath a vast barrel vault, you can get pretty much anything here – spices, textiles, jewellery – be sure to look out for the pistachio ice cream vendors – a Damascene institution.

Sweet stall in the Damascus Souq by Trilli Bagus

The Azem Palace is a beautiful 18th century complex of striped stonework buildings, leafy gardens and pretty little courtyards. With traditional furniture and decorations, it’s a great insight into the traditional lifestyle of the old town.

The Shrine of Sayidda Zeinab is a Shiite mosque and truly something to behold! In contrast to the dour elegance of the Sunni mosques of Damascus, a visit here feels more like stepping inside an enormous disco ball – gold, lapis lazuli and mirror inlays abound. Again, non Muslims are allowed inside but remember that your attire and behaviour should be appropriate to what is a very holy site.

Interior of the Shrine of Sayidda Zeinab by Shazzakataya

When I passed through Damascus a few years ago, the nightlife section in my guidebook read simply “Dream on”. However, whilst Damascus doesn’t party like its neighbour – Beirut – it still knows how to have a good time and a rich music and entertainment tradition is entwined into the fabric of Damascene life. Be sure to check out the musical and whirling dervish displays at Abu al Azz or the fantastic oud (a traditional Arab string instrument) performances at Beit Geddi. At al Nawfara, you can see folklore and story tellers in the shadow of the Umayyad mosque – performances are in Arabic but the theatricality of these events is as important as the content. For a more familiar form of entertainment, Back Door hosts djs throughout the week playing hip hop infused with Middle Eastern rhythms.

Whilst alcohol is not generally available in Damascus, the restaurants of the Christian quarter serve wine, beer and the delicious (if quite potent) local moonshine – arak.

Azem Palace courtyard by shamsouri
Azem Palace courtyard by shamsouri

There are plenty of old hammams – Turkish baths – in Damascus and they are a real must for any visitor. My favourite, whilst I was there was the Hammam Nureddin which is located just off the spice souq near to the Umayyad Mosque. It has been functioning since the mid 12th century and is worth seeing for its beautiful architecture alone. The steam rooms are bracingly hot and the massages are thorough and vigorous and will leave you feeling completely refreshed. Afterwards you can relax in the gorgeous domed entrance hall with a steaming cup of traditional cardamom coffee. Unfortunately, Hammam Nureddin is male only but there are a number of other great old hammams in the area – Hammam az – Zahariyya, Hammam al Qaimariyya and Hammam Bakri are all fine establishments. It’s worth checking opening hours before setting off as well as admissions policies. Most hammams only admit women at certain times of the day (at which times men will not be allowed in). You needn’t take anything with you, towels, robes and soaps are provided.