With 8000 years of history, Damascus is beguiling. But tagged as an Axis of Evil, travel to the Syrian capital has long been considered out-of-bounds. Scrubbing and buffing its exquisite collection of courtyard houses, reinventing artisan traditions and shrugging off its rogue reputation, Damascus is now opening to tourism.
Local legend has it that the Prophet Muhammad, traveling through Syria in the late sixth century, glimpsed the luxuriant orchards and marbled palaces of Damascus from the rocky heights of Jebel Qassioun, but refused to enter the city below. Man should only enter paradise once, he declared, and he wanted to save his visit for the afterlife.
The city Muhammad would have seen was already ancient, with some 7,000 years of recorded history, during which it had been besieged, razed, and reinvented countless times. Religions and civilizations lay on top of each other like a palimpsest; Islam, in turn, added a layer of its own, creating a fascinating mélange in which Al-Amin, the old Jewish Quarter, is only a stone’s throw from the stunning Umayyad Mosque, a holy site for Shia Muslims that also houses John the Baptist’s skull.
And while Muhammad may have resisted Damascus’s charms, there’s no reason why you should. The walled Old City at the heart of the sprawling metropolis, eternally captivating with its twisting alleys, hushed churches, and elaborate mosques and mausoleums, is today more alluring than ever, thanks to an expanding collection of places to eat, shop, and lay your head.
Where to Sleep
A crop of new boutique hotels have opened in exquisitely restored Ottoman-era buildings in the Bab Touma (Gate of St. Thomas) area. Beit Rumman (72 Quishleh St.; 963-11/545- 1092; beitrumman.com; doubles from US$145), a converted 18th-century house, is the pick of the lot. Six small but cozy rooms and a cellar restaurant open onto a stone courtyard with a gently trickling fountain; book the downstairs suite for more space. In winter, guests lounge on wicker chairs in the heated courtyard, while in summer, they roost in a rooftop gazebo overlooking St. George’s Cathedral.
Just down the street is Beit Al Wali (Boulad Alley; 963-11/543-6666; beitalwali.com; doubles from US$140). Once the residence of the Ottoman sultan’s envoy to Damascus, this stately abode has been restored as a 20-room inn with a pair of marble-clad courtyards. Guest quarters are accented by carved baseboards and handpainted floor tiles; flat-screen TVs and Wi-Fi add a dash of modernity.
Where to Eat
Damascus’s Old City teems with restaurants tucked inside ancient courtyards, decorated with mosaics and draped with tangled vines. Most serve Levantine staples like meze and kebabs. Locals rave about the romantic candlelit courtyard at Elissar (off Bab Touma; 963- 11/542-4300), but the food is average and the service brusque. Better is Bab Al-Hara (Sharia al-Qaimariyya; 963-11/541-8644), whose atmospheric setting features etchedglass windows and a latticed seraglio (harem) chamber. The baba ghanoush dip and fattoush salad are fresh, the lamb shashliks are fat and juicy, and the service is fast and amiable.
Naranj (Sharia Bab Sharqi; 963-11/ 541-3600), a sleek rooftop restaurant near the Roman Victory Arch, departs from the norm, offering an extensive menu of tasty up-country dishes like kebab hoshhash (lamb with pepper paste and pomegranate molasses) and vegetarian moussaka.
If you don’t mind a less romantic atmosphere, some of Damascus’s tastiest food can be bought from street stalls. The falafel rolls at hole-in-the-wall Abu al-Foul (near the Chapel of Ananias; 963-11/544-6350) in Bab Touma are stuffed with pickled vegetables, hummus, crispy falafel balls, and zesty sauces. Al Kushna (cnr. Sharia Bab Touma and Sharia Bab Sharqi) sells calorific cheese pies and herby olive rolls hot from a wood-fired oven. Pair them with freshly squeezed fruit juice from the stall opposite, then brave the jostling crowds at Bakdash in Souq al- Hamidiyeh for pistachio-rolled ice cream.
Where to Drink
Most bars- or even restaurants serving alcohol- are in the Christian Quarter, which stretches between Bab Touma and Bab Sharqi. Upbeat After 7 (Sharia Bab Sharqi) brims with chain-smoking students partying on the cheap and cheerful drinks. Quieter is rustic Ninar Art Café (963-11/542-2557), near the Bab Sharqi gate. Checkerboard floors and black-and-white photographs set the scene, and cocktails and arak (the local aniseed-flavored aperitif) share the menu with dubious-sounding snacks like chicken gizzards and pizza hotdogs. Or do as the locals do, and while away the afternoon with a shisha pipe and cardamom spiced coffee at Al Nofara (Sharia al- Qaimariyya; 963-11/541-8213), a busy café next to the eastern wall of the Umayyad Mosque that makes an excellent vantage point for people-watching.
Where to Shop
An ancient Silk Road trading hub, the Old City bursts at the seams with must-have antiques and trinkets. Hectic Souk al-Hamidiyeh, whose roof is riddled with bullet holes rained by French warplanes during a 1925 revolt against French colonial rule, offers a jumble of goods, from leather jackets to hand-embroidered Aghabani tablecloths. More atmospheric is Souq al-Bzouriyya for herbs, spices, teas, and sweets. A shoebox-sized boutique with an upstairs warehouse, Soubhi Al Khayat (Souq al-Khayatin, beside Azam Palace; 963-11/224-3477) is a one-stop shop for lamps, brocade, mother-of-pearl inlay boxes, Berber rugs, and Afghani kilims. Hand-etched glasses and vases can be found at Aram (Medhat Pasha Souk; 963- 11/544-4821), and silver and copper inlaid brass plates- an ancient art preserved by the remaining Jewish community- can be snapped up at Gad for Oriental (just east of Ummayad Mosque; 963-11/541-3919).
Nearby, Dahdah Palace (9 Sharia ash-Shallam; no telephone) is run by two loquacious women who insist on taking visitors on a tour of the dilapidated 17thcentury house before showing them their extensive brass and copper collection. Also be sure to drop by Anat (Souq Medhat Pasha; 963-11/542-7878) near the Bab Sharqi gate, a small shop with exquisitely embroidered tablecloths, abayas, and purses made by women from Syria’s rural villages and refugee camps.