From the dazzling color of its markets in the old city to its bustling downtown, Damascus is an ancient city of contrasts

WANDERING down the tangle of narrow and winding streets of the souks (markets) in the old city of Damascus is an experience that rapidly transports the visitor to a time gone by.

The rich and pungent aroma of spices, the dazzling color of the silks and hand-woven rugs, the crowded thoroughfares and absence of any motorized traffic evoke a sense of timelessness.

Arguably the world's oldest continuously inhabited city, Damascus is a mix of influences left behind by many conquerors over a period of at least four millennia. They range from King David of Israel to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon; from the Persians to Alexander the Great; from Romans to the Ottoman Turks.

Much evidence still remains of the Roman period, when Damascus served as a military base for the combined forces fighting the Persians. The old city is surrounded by what was originally a Roman wall. The Romans are responsible for the only straight road in the old city, and there are some well-preserved Corinthian columns supporting a decorated lintel near Omayyad Mosque.

After the founding of Islam in the 7th century AD, Damascus became an important center under the Omayyad Caliphate from AD 661 to 750. Close to the majestic Omayyad Mosque is the tomb of Saladin, the revered Muslim leader who defeated the Crusaders in the 12th century. From Damascus, he ruled a territory ranging from what is now Syria to Egypt.

Outside the old city, the contrasts are striking. Modern Damascus comes rapidly into focus with a cacophony of sounds: frenetic traffic, blaring music from stores selling cassette tapes, and the amplified sound of muezzins calling the faithful to prayer through loudspeakers in mosques. People in Western clothes mingle with women wearing the hijab (Islamic veil) and men in traditional robes and kaffiyehs (Arab headgear).

As a close ally of the former Soviet Union, Syria had become by the mid-1980s one of the Middle Eastern countries most isolated from the West.

But today, there are signs of a cautious glasnost, amid lingering evidence of a more strictly regulated past.

International hotel chains have taken over the market trade for tourists, but they are bound to charge exorbitant prices because they must exchange their foreign currency at the old official rate of 11.20 Syrian pounds to the US dollar.

Despite antiquated currency forms that are handed to visitors on the plane, tourists now receive four times the official rate for their dollars at state banks. But clearing immigration and customs is strictly a military affair.

In the streets, people are friendly and hospitable to foreigners, but some regulations are reminiscent of the authoritarian practices in the formerly communist states of Eastern Europe: Don't take photographs of men in uniform or of military buildings, wherever they may be. And, in a country that still treats security headquarters with a mystical reverence, don't walk in front of the heavily guarded Ministry of the Interior.

The most overt sign of the current regime of President Assad is the omnipresence of his photograph on posters, public buildings, and billboards.

But in the past year, the president's photograph has been overtaken by that of his late son, Basil, who was killed in a car accident 14 months ago. He was being groomed to succeed his father as president.

What began as an officially encouraged practice of sharing in the president's mourning has acquired a momentum of its own.

Basil's photographs -- often showing him in military fatigues and sporting a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses -- are everywhere, including in the rear windows of taxis and private automobiles and -- encased in plastic -- attached to people's clothing.

The largest poster of Basil -- a painted canvas measuring about 30 feet by 45 feet -- hangs on a government building close to the central bus station.

Nearby, a street vendor sells a selection of playing-card-size photographs of the president and his two sons. The president's younger son, Bashar, is now being groomed for a position of influence.

''I love my president and his sons,'' says Safwan Darwish, a schoolteacher from the town of Lattakia who has just had a color photo of Bashar attached to his jacket.

But like most Syrians, Mr. Darwish is reluctant to discuss the politics of the day and the prospect of peace with Israel.

The most overt sign of a dawning new era is the proliferation of television satellite dishes, which are exposing Syrians to new versions of world events and developments in their own country (particularly the once-taboo subject of peace with Israel).

When President Clinton visited Damascus in October last year, posters were put up on the road from the airport to the city proclaiming the virtues of peace. Most of the posters have since come down, and the air of expectation has subsided.

To citizens of Damascus, peace with Israel is still a remote prospect.

''My personal opinion,'' Information Ministry official Bedia Afif says, ''is that there are only two options: One is to get rid of Israel, and the other is to spend 100 years getting used to the idea of living with [the Israelis].''

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