Damascus, Syria

If I thought Amman was different from North America then Damascus was complete culture shock! Damascus was much more traditional and "Arabic" than Amman had been. You could see the western influence in Amman, whereas there was no western influence in Damascus. The calls to prayers, which happened five times a day were a little eerie at first but I soon got used to them. There were loudspeakers everywhere and at various points during the day they would be cranked on and you would get the arabic chanting signifying it was time to pray.

Traffic was incredible in the city. I quickly realized that the reason all the streets were one way was because there were no lanes on the streets and if they tried to have two way traffic there would be accidents everywhere. You could sit and watch the traffic for hours and be entertained. There was the constant blare of horns and I am amazed that there weren't more accidents. If a car had to stop for more than two seconds the horn would honk and crossing the street was the biggest danger I faced on my whole trip. There are no crosswalks and very few lights in Syria so you pretty much just have to jay walk when you get the chance. The locals would take off across three and four lane roads with little concern for their safety just assuming the cars would stop whereas I would spend 5 mins waiting for a break in the traffic until I could safely run across. I soon learned to just follow a large group of locals across figuring that if there was enough of us crossing the cars would probably stop. By the end of my trip I was just like a local having no problems crossing the busy streets and ignoring the honking drivers forced to stop by my crossing.

I spent three days in Damascus and found the city too be very interesting. Damascus claims to be the oldest city in the world dating back to 4000 BC though several other cities in the region make the same claim. It is not a very pretty city but it was very dynamic. The biggest attraction in Damascus is the Souq. Souq's are the markets of the Middle East and the Damascus Souq is one of the largest.

The Souq's are made up of hundreds if not thousands of little cubbyhole shops on narrow maze like streets. The Souq's sell all manner of items from live animals to clothes to jewelry to foodstuffs. It is very interesting to wander around the little alleys watching the coming's and going's of the locals not knowing where the next turn will lead you.

I wish I could have taken more pictures in the Souq but traditional Arabs are not really fond of having their pictures taken so I didn't feel like I could take many photos.

Another interesting experience I had in Damascus was visiting a Hammam. Hammam's are bathhouse's and have been a traditional social gathering point for the men in villages and cities across the Middle East. At the Hammam first you go to the steam room where you sit until you are sufficiently hot. The Hammam I visited had three steam rooms each one progressively hotter than the last one. After the steam I was shown to a small room where I could sluice cold water over myself and wash up. From there it was off to the massage table which was really just a giant slab where I proceeded to have a massage that felt like a dozen buffalo had trampled across my back (though it felt good too). Finally you are swathed in towels and led to a room where you can sit and drink tea and chat with your buddies or fellow "Hammamers". All in all it was a very interesting experience and definitely not one to be missed.

Another stop was the Ummayed Mosque, which is the holiest mosque in all of Syria and one of the holiest in the Muslim world. Non-Muslims are welcome to come into the mosque though you can't take pictures. The Mosque was very beautiful and it was quiet peaceful to sit in the courtyard and watch the people come and go.

I had guidebooks from the Lonely Planet for each of the countries I visited and they were generally quite good however I had a few problems. One was that on the map of a particular city it might show where a store or internet cafe or bus company was located but when I would get there all of the signs would be in arabic so I would still have no idea where the business was. I learned the arabic numerals fairly quickly but never did learn to read any arabic.

My hotel in Damascus was quite good. All the hotels on my trip had at least a double bed, private bath and satellite tv (CNN) which was nice for keeping up on the current situation in the world. My hotel in Damascus was interesting because on the wall they had a picture of a guy praying which was for showing guests which way Mecca was so they would know which way to point their carpets. Their was also a complimentary carpet on top of the fridge in case you hadn't brought one of your own.

I had a couple of good meals in Damascus especially at a place called the Damascus Worker's Club which was right across the street from my hotel. It was quite a large place all open air in a giant courtyard and the park like setting made for quite a nice respite from the traffic, noise and pollution of the rest of the city. They had great kebabs, hummus and falafel and also served the local Syrian beer called Barada, which wasn't bad and was definitely better than Coors!

After three days of touring the Souq's and the rest of Damascus I was ready to head off to Palmyra.

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