The world's oldest city

Trip Start Oct 21, 2006
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Trip End Mar 21, 2008


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Flag of Syria  ,
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Jane, Fadi and I join up with Yoshi, a quiet but happy Japanese guy who we had first met in Petra.  The four of us decide to share a taxi up to Damascus, supposedly the best way to get there.  Everyone is anxious about crossing the border because none of us have Syrian visas and Syria is notoriously difficult to get into if you don't get your visa in advance.  Things at the border aren't looking so great when a stern-looking guard instructs our driver to park the car off to the side of the road.  He parks and we wait while he has a long and animated discussion with the border guard.
 
"Okay," says our driver after a while, "you must cross the border in that car."  He points towards a taxi.
 
"Why?"
 
"That car has Jordan licence plate.  My car has Syria licence plate."
 
It doesn't make much sense but we keep everyone happy and get into the Jordanian car so he can drive us across the border.  Inside the immigration office, everything goes okay and we all get our visas with only a minimum of confusion and hassle.  The official line is that you can get a visa at the border if your country of residence doesn't have a Syrian Embassy.  Canada does have an Embassy and we have both been travelling on our Canadian passports. Accordingly, we pull out our New Zealand and Slovak passports as neither country has Syrian representation.  The immigration guy takes a quick look at our documents and says, "Canadian passport, please".  We have no idea how he knows we have Canadian citizenship - we hadn't said anything but he doesn't seem to concerned with our dual citizenship and gives us the visa anyway.
 
We switch back into the Syrian car and continue on to Damascus.  In terms of wealth, friendliness, infrastructure and organisation, Syria seems at first look to be somewhere between Egypt and Jordan.  The cars are Skodas and Peugots instead of the BMWs and Mercedes of Jordan, the houses are smaller, the stores are less shiny and the roads are bumpier.  
 
Everywhere we look, and I mean everywhere, are photos of the Syrian President, Bashir Al-Assad.  His father Hafeez siezed power in 1970 and rules with an iron fist until he died in 2000, whereupon Bashir assumed the position.  Both Hafeez and Bashir have tended to receive anywhere from 99.8 to 99.9 percent of the votes cast in any 'election', which probably causes them to feel very pleased with themselves.  However, when you consider that there are never any other options on the ballot, it makes you wonder how they can seriously claim 'victory'.  I take an instant dislike to Bashi and his ubiquitous likeness, with his stupid little moustache and smug grin.  His photo is plastered on every storefront, on billboards, highway overpasses and basically any piece of wall that does not already feature a photo of him. 
 
The proliferation of photos has, we are sure, no correlation to his actual popularity or the happiness with his rule of the people who display them, any more than the situation would have been with Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  We reckon that shopkeepers only hang Bashir's condescending visage in their stores to ward off unwanted attention from government-hired goons who troll the streets looking for insurgents and dissenters.  This is not to say that the average Syrian on the street is unhappy with Bashir, we don't know, but there is certainly no space for opposition parties or public anti-government sentiment in the current Syrian set up.
 
Tired as I am of the President's ugly mug, that doesn't weigh too heavily on my mind as we enter Damascus.  A truly historical city, Damascus is generally recognised as the oldest continually inhabited city in the world.  People have lived here since 5000 BC, a fact that I find quite amazing.  Of course it is very developed now, a crowded, noisy, smoggy city of six million sour-faced Syrians who drive like lunatics.  One of them drives us in his taxi to our hotel, a beautifully restored old house with a charming central courtyard and high-ceilinged rooms.
 
We stroll around the souqs of old Damascus, alleys lined with sellers of all kinds of goods, none of which are specifically directed at tourists, mercifully.  The goods are mostly junk though: plastic toys, cheap t-shirts, knock-off watches and the like, and the alleys are crammed with people.  Escaping out into the street is a relief but then you have the traffic and narrow sidewalks to deal with. 
 
Overall, our first impressions of Damascus are not overly positive.  Our landlord back in Canada, Joe, is from Syria and he gave us the address of his brother here in Damascus.  We sent Joe an e-mail a few weeks ago asking him to let his brother know we are coming, as we didn't feel comfortable just knocking on his door.  Unfortunately, Joe (well, his son actually) didn't write back so we don't end up making the connection.
 
Old Damascus is actually a rather large area that contains a Christian Quarter and, interestingly, a Jewish Quarter too.  The Christian Quarter is very obviously liberal - the women wear western clothing, alcohol is served and there is a much more relaxed vibe to the place.  We pause for an expensive and all-too brief beer on the patio of an Italian restaurant, then wind our way back through the atmospheric residential alleys where shadowy figures shuffle to and fro, children scuttle from nook to cranny and crumbling facades give only the tiniest hint of what traditional Syrian family life hides behind them.
 
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