Syria: Page 1 | Page 2

In total, I spent four weeks in Syria, mainly in Damascus. I lived near Bab Touma, one of the former gates to the old city. There, in the Christian quarter, life was noticeably different from the rest of Damascus. Women walked around in western clothing (or at least what they thought was western fashion), liquor was sold and life was a bit more open. Yet, five minutes walk reveals men in jalabas and veiled women. Granted, there wasn't much conservative Muslim fashion (i.e. jalabas and hijabs) in Damascus compared to the rest of the country. Nevertheless, the cultural divide within the same country between the same people, based only on religion was a great one.

Damascus sprawls out into rather depressing suburbs, has around 20,000 taxis clogging the streets (and the not so occasional horse or donkey), and suffers from a great deal of pollution. A short trip out to a suburb will work wonders for the lungs. The first few days indeed took some getting used to. Rules of the road were here merely suggestions that no one followed. Damacus is a prime example of the beauty of self-organizing chaos. Though there are usually no lanes, lights or signs, traffic somehow moves. Nevermind the man riding the mule during rush hour downtown or the thousands of near miss collisions. The streets are full of life like nowhere in the west. People peddle every imaginable thing, anything that can possibly be sold. The souqs, most of all, are a window back into ancient life. The predecessors of modern malls, the seemingly endless souqs twist and turn for what seems to be miles with shops stuck into every hole in the wall, some just a meter long and even more people standing around selling seemingly random things like stuffed birds (real ones, not toys) or the ugliest table clothes you can imagine. Think you're good at big city competitive walking? Think again.

While Turkey's mix of western and eastern lures the visitor yet leaves him still somewhat at home, Syria is a world of its own. Culturally and economically isolated, western business, culture and influence is uncommon. After my trip to Lebanon, Israel and my short stay in Amman, I realized how authentic and untouched Syria still remains. The question is only for how much longer.

Perhaps the most famous landmark in Damascus and one of the oldest mosques in the world, the Umayyad Mosque contains the body of Salah ad-Din (Saladin) and supposedly the head of John the Baptist.

Despite Syria's long history, fabulous culture and plethora of sites to see, perhaps the most gratifying experience was the many culinary delights which Syria had to offer. One of Chirol's many hobbies happens to be cooking and especially Middle Eastern cuisine. In the picture, you see hummus, moutabal (eggplant dip), Fatoush (salad) and dolma (stuffed wine leaves). I ate at countless restaurants, at least two or three times a week. A three course meal at a nice restaurant usually runs between 4 to 6 dollars. Although I enjoyed every bite of every meal in Turkey last year, Syrian food can be described with nothing but superlatives. Mmmmmm....

And as if the restaurant food wasn't enough, the streets were filled with various sweet shops. Hama was especially packed with them as it is famous for its sweets.

One of the many drink sellers found on the streets of the Middle East.

Below is the Roman amphitheater in Bosra, near the border with Jordan. It's the largest and best preserved in the world. As usual, nothing would be worthwhile in Syria without a nice photo of everyone's favorite dictator, Bashar Assad. I have to admit, it was my first personality cult and it turned out to be just as fun as infamous. Inside every store, on most buildings, on most cars etc was a picture of Assad. Often, there were posters of his father Hafez and sometimes with his late Brother Basil too. My favorite is the shot of Hafez, Bashar and the leader of Hizballah. Nothing like advertising your support of terrorism on cars and shops! After spending the weekend in Lebanon once, I actually felt something was missing in life, namely Assad. Though it sounds funny, it really did somehow belong to everyday life was strange to not see anymore.

Another example of decorated third world motor vehicles.

Apamea was a treasure city of the Seleucid kings and annexed to the Roman empire in 64 BC. The current site is still being excavated by a Belgian team who's been working there for the last few decades. The main street of the city is largely reconstructed and spans about 2 miles long. While I've seen many a Roman ruin in places like Spain, Croatia and Turkey, Apamea was like nothing I've ever experienced. You can't visit the site without being frozen in awe for the first few minutes before walking into it.

I blogged this museum, which was dedicated to the October 1973 (or Yom Kippur) war against Israel.

Syria: Page 1 | Page 2

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