Damascus

by:

Capt. W. Patrick Gordon, M.Sc.

April 1997
(Aviation International News acceptd this article but I don't know if they ever printed it.)

Flying over Saudi Arabia at 35,000 feet my flight crew and I were discussing our upcoming, two-day stopover in Damascus, Syria. Damascus isn't a place I visit often but it's a fascinating, history-laden city that's alluring to visit for any length of time. It well should be since it's the world's oldest, continuously inhabited city with influences ranging from its present Arab bias to Byzantine, Roman, Greek and Aramaen. 


Clive, our British Flight Mechanic, had been to Damascus more recently than the rest of us and, while dribbling coffee on my right shirt sleeve, waxed eloquently on an historic site he had visited where it was explained to him that John The Baptist had escaped the Roman soldiers by being lowered over the wall of the city in a basket. I offered the thought that it was probably that very occasion that could have given birth to St. John's name. "He might have originally been called John The Basket.”


Unfortunately, all this academic speculation into religious history came to naught when we later learned that it wasn't John at all. The basket riding escapee was actually Saul, after he converted to Christianity and took the name of Paul. Ergo, the first rule of travel with a flight crew? Unless they're talking about airplanes and aviation; ignore them. 


We received efficient radar vectors for the ILS to RW 23R and slid neatly down the slope to the runway at 2020' Mean Sea Level. It was hot and dry once the Falcon 900 door was opened and the APU struggled to keep the interior cool as we closed down the airplane. 


Our handling agent was Hadid International Services and the actual handling was done by Syrian Airlines. No extra security guards were available to hire for the airplane but it soon became apparent that the Syrian Army had airport security well in hand. 


The Damascus airport is a thirty minute drive from downtown and it was delightfully uneventful. The late evening traffic was light and the lengthening shadows from the setting sun took the bite out of the hot temperature. The lack of air conditioning in the car was hardly noticed. Our driver assured us however, that during the middle of summer, temperatures can range up to 40 to 45 degrees Celsius equaling nearly 115 degrees Fahrenheit. 


The first thing drawing my attention was the large number of extremely old American cars still in service. Fords, Chevrolets, Dodges from the early 1950's are quite common and we even spotted one Hudson that had to date back to the mid 40's. Our driver explained that the required parts are locally manufactured and these vintage automobiles just keep on going. Most of the speedometers have turned over so many times that there is no idea of an automobile's actual mileage. 


There are several 5-Star accommodations in Damascus and our choice was The Meridian Hotel. A new entrance off a back street instead of the main thoroughfare, and extensive redecorating of the lobby since my last visit, made it nearly unrecognizable. The rooms were air conditioned, spacious, well-maintained and comfortable. The only confusion occurred at check-out time. 


The room rates are billed in U.S. dollars and the prices ranged from $165.00 to $240.00 per night. All the extras such as food, drink, dry cleaning, etc., are converted at a rate of 43.5 Syrian Pounds to the Dollar. Being a cashier at the check-out desk in a Damascus hotel must be one of the more challenging jobs in town. The cashier had to explain this exchange rate sorcery on my final bill twice before I understood it. I apologized for my density and he kindly assured me that “everyone has trouble understanding it, but it is a government requirement.” 


Since a credit card company's exchange rate is normally significantly lower than either the hotel or even the airport rate, one can usually get an exchange rate break by using a major credit card to pay a final hotel bill. Sorry folks. Not in Damascus. The final charge to my American Express Card was in U.S. Dollars at the official rate. Again I was told, “Sorry Sir. It is a government requirement.” 


One technique I use to get rid of remaining local currency in most countries is to apply it to the final hotel bill and put the remainder of the bill on my credit card. This is not allowed in Syria, so it's best to balance your purchases against whatever amount of Syrian currency you would like to keep as a souvenir after you leave. 


It seems that layover time in cities gets shorter and shorter as airplanes are utilized with more and more efficiency. With a minimum amount of time to tour a city, I have found that it's best to go through the hotel concierge to rent a car and driver who speaks English well enough to explain the sights. We contacted the concierge, made plans for an early morning pick-up and called it a day. 


Mustafa showed up promptly the next morning with an older but well-maintained Volvo station wagon. After the Salaam Alaykum (good morning), Kief Halkum (how are you all?) and Ahlan Wasalan (welcome), it was easy to determine that he spoke about as much English as I speak Arabic. Which is to say, marginally sufficient fluency to get into trouble but not back out of it again. 


Mustafa felt that our first stop should be the top of Djebel Qassion, the mountain at the edge of the city. Djebel, of course, is Arabic for mountain. From there we had a stunning, early morning view of the Golan Heights, the airport, the new Presidential Palace and the tomb of the Syrian Unknown Soldier, representing all of Syria's wars. Far below, the early morning traffic was still very light but obviously picking up in intensity. Mustafa, explaining the traffic, told us that his unofficial estimate of Damascus' population was 5 million during the day and 4 million at night. The sure sign of urban sprawl was clearly delineated by the grey wave of raw concrete housing scaling the barren slopes around the city.


Our next stop was the National Museum. The rococo columns and arch over the main entrance door transport the imagination to the days of "Arabian Nights.” With just a slight squint to my eyes, I could see Sinbad shinnying down a rope from the window over the gate making his escape from the city. Perhaps an ally of John The Basket ... I mean Paul. 


Like any museum, one can spend days browsing if you're so inclined. Reading neither the French nor the Arabic on the information cards made our junket through the museum exceptionally brief. An ancient mosaic depicting Justice, Education and Philosophy, chain mail suits and swords from the 12th through the 14th centuries excited our interest but next time I would make arrangements for a more linguistically capable tour guide to explain all the wondrous items on display. I would also plan on a minimum of a morning to do the museum and its gardens the justice they deserve.


The expatriate grapevine rates the souk in Damascus very near the top of the list. The Old Bazaar or Hamadia, as the covered souk is called in Damascus, is exactly what you would hope for as a visitor in the Middle East. The cool dark interior of the souk stretches for blocks and is laden with an incredibly vast array of products ranging from the common plastic bucket to beautiful, inlaid wood carvings to elaborately embroidered, poofy-sleeved dresses waiting for prom night. 


Wonderful aromas of perfumes and spices fill the air and artifacts from all the ages of Syrian history beckon the adventurous or just the curious. The occasional baroque, wandering tea vendor plies his skill and wares throughout the souk. A question of hygiene put a limit on my desire for an adventurous quaff as I watched him clean the drinking glasses with an amazing amount of flair, cold water and nothing else. The health department would close him down in Omaha but here he was the center of attention, and trade was brisk. I would be bedridden for a week but I’m confident his local customers were protected by generations of immunity. 


It takes a far more discerning eye than mine to determine authentic Palmyra glass from the knock-offs and every shop seems to have a treasure trove of antiquity, or perhaps "antiquity." I finally purchased a small "two thousand year old Roman oil lamp" for the equivalent of twenty four bucks. I proudly carried my little trophy back home to my wife who feigned initial excitement but finally had to ask why, in two thousand years, it had never been darkened by smoke? Being experienced in covering the tracks of my shopping naiveté I explained that the clay it had been made from was two thousand years old but it had only been manufactured two weeks ago in a local, high school shop class. I knew that! I knew it all the time. I did! 


One of the most surprising aspects that I discovered in the Old Bazaar in Damascus was the courtesy of its vendors and shop keepers. In markets throughout the world most merchants find it nearly impossible to accept no as an answer to their repeated invitations to see their wares. In some areas, Casablanca for example, the invitations to enter their shops and browse, stop just short of a mugging. In Damascus, the invitation was persistently made about three times. After my third refusal; made with a smile and the explanation that I had very little time, the entrepreneurs politely thanked me and wished me a pleasant stay in Damascus. 


While the other crew members continued their shopping, I visited the massive Ommayed Mosque which anchors one end of the covered souk and where John the Baptist, revered by both Christians and Moslems, is entombed. In Islam he is known as Yehia Bin Zakariyah. Modest dress is required for men as well as women. Just in case you don’t meet the local dress code, rental robes are available at the ticket seller’s gate in the North wall. The mosque is built on a religious site going back over three thousand years. I am told that no traces of the Aramean temple can be seen but traces of the Roman and Byzantine are still visible. In fact, the street leading to the North entrance gate is lined with a series of Byzantine columns. Inside the mosque high arched ceilings, stained glass windows, innumerable chandeliers and hundreds of oriental carpets greet the faithful with a subdued and soothing blend of splendid colors. It was midday and many people were in the mosque. Some to pray, others visiting one another and still others sleeping; escaping the heat. 


At Mustafa’s insistence and pressed for time, we dashed through the narrow streets of the "Old City," headed for the Church of St. Ananiae. On the way, we speculated how any part of this ancient city could be described as “The Old City." The narrow, one-way streets soon convinced us that this part of the city was indeed, much older than we expected. Pre-Volvo by thousands of years as Mustafa carefully shunted the car back and forth to make it around some of the bends. At the church, a monk kindly explained that it was Paul who made the escape from the city in a basket and even showed us a painting of the incident. We learned that St. Ananiae's claim to fame was that he converted Saul, the soldier, to Christianity and gave him the name of Paul. Sainthood for Paul came later. 


It would be easy to spend several days in Damascus itself. If you were to decide to visit some of the outlying historic sites you could easily spend a week; early morning to late afternoon touring, then a shower and nap before venturing out to dine and visit a limited number of night clubs. Nothing much happens before 10:00 PM so plan on a long nap and late evening start. 


One place to consider visiting outside Damascus is the village of Maaloula, about an hour away from Damascus. Maaloula claims the oldest church in Christendom and local legend tells of the Mother Mary and baby Jesus escaping from Roman Soldiers through a narrow cut in the mountains behind the village. It's a fairly steep walk through the pass and the stones are sometimes slippery. The opportunity to tread a footpath of history or even myth makes the walk rewarding. 


Other day trips out of Damascus might include a visit to the village of Seydnaya which features a monastery which is thought to date back to the Emperor Justinian. The Virgin Mary is said to have appeared to Justinian to request the founding of this monastery. A miraculous icon, said to be painted by St. Luke adorns one wall of the convent of Our Lady of Seydnaya, still a place of veneration for Christians of Syria and Lebanon. 


Prior to visiting Damascus and Syria one might be cautioned to keep a low profile and obey all security and police encountered but let's get real here. Would you do anything else in any other country you were visiting? Common sense, courtesy and a low profile are effective deterrents to trouble just about anywhere. 


Our cost for the lightening like, one day tour of Damascus was ten dollars an hour. Divided among the flight crew the individual cost was negligible. As our corporate jets range out further and the layovers get shorter the chance to really see our destinations rapidly diminish. Flight crews have to be creative to avoid missing the cultural differences we fly over and take for granted. 


One of my fondest memories in aviation concerns the time I spent with a first officer on his initial flight to England and our four hour tour of London. We 'saw' St. Paul's Cathedral and Lawrence of Arabia's tomb, the JFK memorial, Harrods and The Hard Rock Cafe for hamburgers. We had a fast car, a good driver and a first officer with a burning curiosity to be fueled. Ok, so we didn't absorb a lot of culture but it was a wonderful experience and much more rewarding than wondering what we missed, had we stayed in the hotel.