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Visiting Damascus, Syria

An evening exploration of the streets of Damascus…

damascus at night

“…no recorded event has occurred in the world but Damascus was in existence to receive news of it. Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus… She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”

Mark Twain
The Innocents Abroad, 1869


Hieroglyphic tablets found in Egypt make reference to “Dimashqa” as one of the cities conquered by the Egyptians in the 15th century BC, but excavations from the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque have yielded finds dating back to the 3rd millenium BC.

In the earliest times it was a prize city, constantly fought over. Early conquerors include the fabled King David of Israel, the Assyrians in 732 BC, Nebuchadnezzar around 600 BC and the Persians in 530 BC. In 333 BC it fell to Alexander the Great. Greek influence was to decline though when the Nabataeans occupied Damascus in 85 BC. However, just 21 years later, Rome’s legions sent the Nabataeans packing and Syria became a Roman province.

Under the Romans, Damascus became a military base for the armies of legionnaires fighting the Persians. Hadrian declared the city a metropolis in the 2nd century AD and during the reign of Alexander Severus it became a formal Roman colony.

With the coming of Islam, Damascus became an important center as the seat of the Umayyad caliphate from 661 to 750. When the Abbasids took over and moved the caliphate to Baghdad, Damascus was plundered once again.

After the occupation of Damascus by the Seljuk Turks in 1076, the Crusaders tried unsuccessfully to take the city. They made a second attempt in 1154; this time a general of Kurdish origin, Nureddin, came to the rescue, occupying Damascus himself and ushering in a brief golden era. During his time business prospered, triggering a corresponding building boom.

A brief occupation by the Mongols separates the successors of Nureddin as rulers from the Mamluks of Egypt, who rose to power in 1260. During the Mamluk period, Damascene goods became famous world-wide and attracted merchants from Europe. This led to the second Mongol invasion under Tamerlane, when the city was flattened and the artisans and scholars were deported to the Mongol capital of Samarkand. The Mamluks returned soon afterwards and proceeded to rebuild the city.

From the time of the Ottoman Turk occupation in 1516, the fortunes of Damascus dwindled and it was reduced to the status of a small provincial capital in a large empire.

The Turkish and German forces used Damascus as their base during World War I. When they were defeated by the Arab Legion and the Allies, a first, short-lived Syrian government was set up in 1918.

The French, having received a mandate from the League of Nations, occupied the city from 1920 to 1945. They met with massive resistance and at one stage in 1925 shelled the city to suppress rioting. French artillery again rained down on the city in the unrest of 1945, which led to full independence a year later when French and British forces were pulled out and Damascus became the capital of an independent Syria.

Civilian rule in Syria was short-lived, and was terminated in 1949 by a series of military coups that brought to power officers with nationalist and socialist leanings. By 1954, the Ba’athists in the army, who had won support among the Alawite and Druze minorities had no real rival.

The Ba’ath takeover of Syria was complete by 1963 and served to propel an air force lieutenant-general, Hafez al-Assad, into the government. During the Black September hostilities in Jordan in 1970, the Jordanian army smashed Syrian-supported Palestinian guerrilla groups who were vying for power in Jordan. At this point Hafez al-Assad who had opposed backing the Palestinians against the Jordanian army seized power in November 1970, ending this volatile chapter of Syrian history that saw dozens of attempted coups over more than 20 years. He was sworn in as president in 1971.

After 30 years of iron-fisted and often bloody presidential rule, Hafez al-Assad died on 10 June 2000, aged 69. His replacement was his son, 34-year-old Bashar al-Assad, for whom the constitution had to be amended to allow the swearing in of a president younger than 40.

It was never meant to happen. Bashar al-Assad, born on 11 September, 1965, was the second son of Hafez al-Assad. But Bashar’s elder brother, Basil, was always groomed for the throne. While Basil was outgoing, Bashar was introspective; while Basil was driving fast cars, Bashar was studying to become a doctor. That all changed in 1994, when Basil was killed in a car accident. “Doctor Bashar”, who was in London studying ophthalmology, came home. With his soft-spoken nature and bookish appearance, the doctor was looking forward to running his own ophthalmologists’ surgery, but instead he entered the military academy at Homs and rose to the rank of colonel in the elite Presidential Guard.

On July 10, 2000, Bashar Al-Asad was “elected” President by referendum in which he ran unopposed, garnering 97.29% of the vote, according to Syrian Government statistics. He was inaugurated into office on July 17, 2000.


The above is a quick and dirty, bare bones history of Damascus… Syria, and especially Damascus, has such a rich history that this would be an impossible forum to try and delve into it in any depth. But, hopefully, the above should provide you with the basics.

I’ll get into current events at the bottom of this post, but to start with, I just want to give you, my dear readers, a taste of what Damascus is like.

There are two distinct parts to Damascus: the Old City and everything else. I’ll start with the Old City…

The Old City is a great place to put away the map and to just wander around and explore. You never know what you might find around the next corner:

damascus syria

Some streets will be completely empty, while others will be so crowded that it is difficult to make your way down them:

damascus syria

damascus syria

This alley runs along the the Umayyad Mosque, which I showed you earlier:

damascus syria

I was rather taken with these houses along a canal running through the Old City:


Ruins left over from one of the many civilizations that conquered Damascus – The Romans in this case:

damascus syria

damascus syria


damascus syria

One place you will want to pull out the map and make sure you find is the covered bazaar of Souk al-Arwam at the heart of the Old City.

Below is an archway leading into the covered bazaar… Cooled by white marble tiles and shaded by Islamic archways, the markets of Damascus are a haven during the hot summer months:


Brassware, tapestries, hand-crafted furniture – whatever you can conceive of can be found in a Damascus souk. But since the outbreak of the “problems” earlier this year, salesmen in this city have done little except play backgammon, drink tea, and fret over lost business:


Markets like these are a vital part of the Damascene economy, but with protests and fighting sweeping much of the country, commerce and tourism have ground to a halt. Adding to the concerns of many residents is the rapidly depreciating value of the Syrian pound. As more and more Syrians convert their savings into foreign currencies, the black-market Syrian pound-to-dollar exchange rate is inching steadily upward and is now at least 10 percent higher than the official rate.

Despite these headaches, the bazaar still offers shoppers anything from spices and textiles to dried snakes and other exotic ingredients for the daring homeopathic medic:


A view down the street from one of the many exits from the covered bazaar:


In contrast to the pictures above, this is what the bazaar looks like on a day of heavy protests and fighting. I’ve described the feel of Damascus at such times before:

damascus syria

As an interesting “oh by the way”, which you know I am fond of, do you see those holes in the roof of the bazaar? Those are not from rust, but are bullet holes from a French fighter plane that strafed the market during an uprising under the period of French occupation briefly described above.

Now, how about the rest of Damascus?

It’s quite different from the Old City:

damascus syria

damascus syria

damascus syria

damascus syria

damascus syria

I was amazed that some of the buildings in Damascus were still standing. Or that people are willing to occupy the ground floor of such places:

damascus syria

A view out over the city to the surrounding mountains:

damascus syria


Believe it or not, it is not difficult to escape the anarchic traffic and crowds that may be implied by some of the pictures above:

damascus syria

Particularly in the wealthy areas, there are many quiet side streets…

A home in one of the more prosperous parts of Damascus – it isn’t Bashar al-Assad’s home though; I’ve already shown you that:


Despite the “troubles” and the downturn in the economy, the elite of Damascus seemed to still be out enjoying themselves thoroughly:

damascus syria

damascus syria

damascus syria

damascus syria

Sort of a contrast to the riot damage in other parts of the city, no?

syria riot damage

As I write this, it is tough to predict how the current Syrian uprising will play out. More and more voices are talking about “civil war” and perhaps they are right.

It is a fact that tyrants fall when their armies change sides or desert en masse. In blood-stained Syria, some army units have recently defected rather than slaughter fellow Syrians on the orders of Bashar al-Assad. And there is good reason.

It goes back to the sometimes vicious split in Islam between the Sunnis and the Shia. Assad and almost all his loyalists, including most of the officer corps, are Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia. The soldiers are overwhelmingly Sunnis.

They are beginning to ask why they should butcher their own on the orders of Alawites. So some are defecting and taking their weapons with them. Hence the increasing ambushes against Assad’s forces.

This is far from over yet…

But the “over” part is a tad more tricky in Syria than in other countries.

A billboard of Bashar al-Assad:


Through its long reign, the House of Assad has preached a broader identity for the country — an Arab nationalism that could encompass Alawites, Sunnis, Christians and other heterodox sects like Druze and Ismailis. But in reality, the Assads have pitted those sects against one another.

As much as activists we spoke with in Syria talked of unity in the face of government oppression, I often felt that the more people denied their differences, the more apparent they became. For some, there was deep anger at Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite movement that has baldly supported the Syrian regime. That anger had spilled into chauvinism against Shiite Muslims, intensifying the hostility they already felt for Alawites. The activists we spoke with understood the importance of nonviolence, but also reluctantly admitted that if Assad fell, sectarian vendettas would erupt in the countryside. One of the young men warned darkly that events “were headed toward violence”.

And that’s really the crux of matters… The fear of what’s next — what would follow the collapse of the government — is more pronounced in Syria than anywhere else in the Arab world, and Syrian officials cling to a kind of negative legitimacy: us or chaos. The precedents are sobering. Lebanon, the victim of a 15-year-civil war, fed in part by sectarian diversity, sits to Syria’s west. Iraq, still recovering from the carnage of its fratricidal conflict, borders Syria on the east. As cynical as the argument is, it remains compelling to many within Syria and to the countries who have a say here — the United States, its European allies, Saudi Arabia and, perhaps most important, Turkey, which shares a 550-mile border with its Arab neighbor. No one really knows what might arise from the embers of the House of Assad.

Free Syrian Army


7 thoughts on “Visiting Damascus, Syria

  1. Interesting piece from Edward Luttwak…

    Revenge of the Sunnis
    What the Arab Spring is really about.


    The last decade has been marked by the rise of the Shiites in the Middle East. Through the bullet and the ballot box, Shiite parties have risen to power from Baghdad to Beirut — thereby extending Iran’s reach into the heart of the Arab world. Sunni rulers have viewed with much anxiety the new “Shiite crescent” that extends from Iran all the way to Lebanon.

    But as a popular — and now military — uprising in Syria becomes more powerful, the Shiite ascendancy is coming to an end. With every day that passes, President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power seems to weaken: The United Nations assessed on Nov. 1 that Syria had entered a state of civil war and the country’s economy is projected to contract by a disastrous 12 percent to 20 percent this year. And now, the regional Sunni powers are hoping to exploit the turmoil to launch a counteroffensive that could reverse their losses.

    Shiite empowerment in the Middle East began with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which had the perfectly predictable effect of strengthening Iran — not only its ruling theocracy as such, but also its hegemony over “Twelver” Shiites across the Arab world. In Iraq, most importantly, the Shiites have long outnumbered the Sunnis, but were marginalized and persecuted by the Ottoman Empire and then by all subsequent Arab regimes, down to the initially secular Saddam Hussein, who became a Sunni paladin after launching his war against Iran in 1980. Today by contrast, the U.S.-imposed democratic system virtually guarantees a Shiite-dominated government, with a natural affinity for the fellow Shiites of Iran.

    In Lebanon, likewise, the Shiites have long been more numerous than the Christians or the Sunnis, but they were altogether weaker politically — indeed, for most of Lebanon’s history, they were more ignored than opposed. Today, by contrast, it is the emphatically Shiite movement Hezbollah — which modestly calls itself the “Party of God” — that is by far the most powerful party in the current Lebanese government, and its armed militia is stronger than the national army.

    Then there is the very special case of Syria, where the Sunni majority is subjected by a nominally secular regime run by extremely heretical Muslims, chiefly backed by non-Muslim minorities both Christian and Druze.

    The ruling Assad family’s control of Syria has been a strategic boon to Iran due to its readiness to act as if they were fellow Shiites — thereby connecting Iran, Iraq, and southern Lebanon into a contiguous “Shiite crescent,” in the words of an alarmed Jordanian King Abdullah II. That is richly ironic, because President Bashar al-Assad and his inner core of followers who dominate the security forces are Nusayris, only re-branded in the 1920s as Alawites (“followers of Ali”) to better claim a Muslim identity as Shiites (“partisans” of Ali), but whose very un-Islamic doctrines would expose them to murderous repression in Iran — just ask a member of the post-Islamic Bahai community.

    For ultra-Sunni Saudi Arabia, as well as its smaller neighbors — Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates — the Shiite advance has been most unwelcome. Religious differences have greatly widened in recent years: Shiite devotions, particularly in Iran, have increasingly focused on the hidden Twelfth Imam, whose actively implored world-ending return leaves Muhammad himself by the wayside. Equally, Shiite pilgrimages to the Hassan and Hussein shrines in Iraq — idolatrous for rigorous Sunnis — inherently compete with the Mecca pilgrimage.

    Least important doctrinally, but perhaps most important in reality, has been the greater visibility of practices and rituals that are suspect or even disgusting to Sunnis. These include the dubious “temporary marriage,” invented by Iran’s clerics, who use it liberally in lieu of prostitution; the rhythmic Shiite prayer drill that seems un-Islamic and downright menacing to Sunnis; and the more extreme Ashura rituals. They are far from new, but it is only now that many Sunnis are exposed to the spectacle of processions of self-flagellators over pavements slippery with their blood and of Shiite mothers proudly cutting their babies’ foreheads with razor-blades to bleed them in memory of the martyrdom of Hassan and Hussein.

    It is, however, the crescent’s potential to extend southward that has transformed it into a strategic threat to Saudi Arabia and Sunni neighbors. Shiites outnumber Sunnis not only in Bahrain and Kuwait, but also — and most importantly — in Saudi Arabia’s oil-producing Eastern Province, where the money comes from. New protests have broken out in the region in recent weeks, resulting in the deaths of several protesters.

    From the Saudi point of view, the damage inflicted by the United States in 2003 by destroying Saddam’s military strength was compounded by the failure to defend deposed President Hosni Mubarak’s government in Cairo. The Egyptian regime had other merits for the Al Saud family, including a respectable rate of economic growth, which is now a receding memory. Its chief virtue in Saudi eyes, however, was Mubarak’s systematic opposition to Iran and its allies, and even the Shiites as such. Egypt’s post-Mubarak rulers are hardly likely to embrace either Iran or its doctrine — the country is solidly Sunni — but there is no guarantee that they will emulate Mubarak’s very active anti-Iran policy, which was strengthened by pragmatic cooperation with Israel. Indeed, the first act of the post-Mubarak interim regime was to call for the restoration of diplomatic relations with Iran — even if to no great effect so far.

    But having greatly damaged the Sunni front by sweeping away Mubarak, the “Arab Spring” is now greatly helping it by weakening the Assad regime in Syria. The rulers of Qatar and of Saudi Arabia are untroubled by the obvious contradictions in their policy toward this year’s Arab revolts: They are defending Bahrain’s ruling family against the majority Shiite population while loudly criticizing and sanctioning the Assad regime for oppressing its own majority Sunni population. And they are demanding democratic rule in Syria while accepting none of it at home.

    Qatar’s Al Jazeera television channels have, from the start, sided with Assad’s Sunni Arab enemies. But Qatari policy has followed the more cautious Saudi lead. The Saudi and Qatari rulers only demanded action by the Arab League after months of bloody repression in Syria — when the death toll exceeded 3,500 — and even then delayed their actions in light of Assad’s “promise” to stop using force against his own population.

    That was a trap, of course. Assad was left with only two choices: Stop using force, lose control, and at best flee the country; or else suppress the opposition with lethal force, losing Arab League support and provoking increasingly severe sanctions. The latter option was Assad’s preference, and the Saudi and Qatari rulers duly reacted by calling for Arab and international sanctions, while probably supplying money to Syrian resisters who happen to be almost entirely Sunni.

    It is obvious that the Gulf monarchies of absolute rulers are not in the fight for the sake of a future Syrian democracy. For Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies, the purpose of overthrowing Assad is to break the “Shiite crescent”: bringing Damascus under Sunni rule, repudiating its alliance with Iran, and cutting off Hezbollah from its logistic base in Syria, thereby allowing Lebanon’s Sunnis to regain power along with their Christian allies. A further aim is to provide backing for Iraq’s outnumbered Sunnis, just across the border. A broader goal to be achieved by denying Tehran its only Arab ally is to reduce Iran’s acceptability to Arab populations everywhere.

    Achieving these aims would add up to a winning “knight’s move,” restoring the Sunni ascendancy after the setbacks of recent years. And as Assad does not have the mettle of his father — who silenced his own Sunni-Islamist opponents by massacre — it is easy enough to predict the victor. Democracy may not be the winner, but the Sunnis certainly will be.

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