Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Damascus, Syria: Middle East luxury special

Damascus is the centre of the world. Just look at a map! It's exactly at the crossroads of Asia and Europe. That is why, in the days of the Arab empire, it was the richest city in the world. All the Silk Road traders stopped here. Everyone!
Modern Damascus looks very dull – all 1970s apartment blocks and scruffy electrical shops. The Old City, however, the ancient walled enclave around which it has grown, is something else. Dating back more than 4,500 years, it is the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. It has the only street mentioned by name in the Bible – Straight Street, where Saul of Tarsus went after his famous conversion on the road to Damascus.

It exerts such an irresistible allure, you find yourself stopping every few steps just to drink in your surroundings: its cheerfully mingling Muslims and Christians, its Roman ruins and magnificent Great Umayyad Mosque, its winding alleys and anonymous wooden doors opening on to courtyards of lemon trees, its black-and-white tiled caravanserai inns, its steamy hammams, and its vast souk where men selling rosebuds, spices, silver and brocade stand behind the same wooden counters as their great-grandfathers did. It is mesmerising – and utterly safe, too, at any time of day. There is no irritating hassling from shopkeepers. It's another world – if no longer the crossroads of the world. And in  a few years it will, inevitably, have changed for ever.

A decade or so ago, there was nowhere for visitors to stay in the Old City – nowhere with any degree of luxury, anyway. Then, in 2005, five years after President Bashar al-Assad  came to power, extending a newly welcoming hand to tourists, the first boutique hotel opened. Exquisitely converted from a 19th-century house by the same Madame Fixit, May Mamarbachi, the eight-room Bait Al-Mamlouka, with its courtyard, fountain and enchantingly tiled bedrooms, attracted a stream of eager visitors from the start. Today you have to book months ahead. Of the dozen similar little hotels that have opened, the latest, where I am staying, is the delectable Al Pasha, a palace of birdsong, rosewood furniture with mother-of-pearl inlay, and the constant, cooling sound of trickling water.

Restaurants and cafés now dot Straight Street. Souvenir shops and art galleries have opened. Syrians who for years worked abroad have begun returning to capitalise on the city's blossoming as a tourist destination, among them an interior designer who has restored the sprawling Farhi palace to exactly how it looked when the artist Frederic Leighton painted it in 1874. That will open as a seriously luxurious hotel at the end of next year. And the most useful thing I can tell you is simply – go now, while you can walk streets that still look as they did when Agatha Christie, another eager visitor, stayed in the 1930s.

The National Museum alone could occupy a day. It is revelatory. There, I discovered whole civilisations I'd never heard of before. In a section about the Eblan, for instance, its entrance marked by an ancient life-size alabaster figure of an indignant-looking pop-eyed man in a woven skirt, are cuneiform tablets dating from 2,250BC.

I tear myself away to see the ancient Umayyad Mosque. Shrouded in the obligatory rented abaya (a garment which confers an interestingly self-righteous feeling), I enter a massive marble courtyard where, unexpectedly, people lounge around on the ground and children play. A group of Iraqi refugees, faces etched with trauma, pass. Inside, Muslim worshippers push prayers on slips of paper into the tomb that purportedly holds the head of John the Baptist. Also located here is the Treasury from Damascus's glory days a windowless room on stilts that could be accessed only by ladder.
Opposite the mosque, a ruined Roman Temple of Jupiter marks the entrance to a warren of shop-lined streets. Every step offers a vignette. Passing a barber's shop straight out of the 1950s, I see a man turn to his barber with the same pop-eyed gaze I saw on the alabaster figure at the museum. Bad haircut? In the Mustafa Ali art gallery, a cat lolls against an open-air sculpture to wash itself. On Straight Street, I descend to the Chapel of Ananias where Saul/Paul miraculously had his sight restored – underground now, but at street level in Roman times.
En route back to the hotel, I push at a wooden door and find myself in the latest outpost of the Dubai-based high-fashion Villa Moda group. On one floor, the brocade-makers who in 1952 made the fabric for our Queen's wedding dress have an outlet. "We still make designs we made 200 years ago," whispers an elderly weaver. Nearby, opposite the Hammam Ammouneh (women from 8am to 8pm, men from 8pm to 8am) is a stall piled with rather more affordable olive-oil soaps. Definitely go now.

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