Monday, May 12, 2008

Two days in Damascus

Today we woke up at a decent hour and met in the hotel lobby to discuss the day's plans. Our hotel is the nicest one we've stayed in thus far. The staff are incredibly helpful, and the building itself is really interesting. It used to be a private mansion and comes complete with courtyard with a high ceiling from which drip hundreds of green vines. At night the courtyard is lit with green florescent light. This is disconcerting because the light is the same color as the lighting on all the mosque minarets, but this leafy setting seems more like the domain of the green absinthe fairy than a place of worship. There is also a fountain in the center of the courtyard filled with rose petals and bubble bath. Red checkered tables complete the friendly and slightly kitschy ensemble.

The day before we saw most of Damascus's main attractions, so planning the itinerary for today was not difficult. It's been a pretty low-key couple of days, which is good. I think many of our group members have been getting worn out by Cairo, the food, and travel in general, so it's been nice not to rush around too much. Yesterday we went to the Umayyad Mosque, which used to be a church, so it's a really interesting mix of Byzantine and Islamic architecture. The mosque was flooded with swarms of black-cloaked Shiites because it's a huge Shia pilgrimage site. Apparently Hussein's severed head is buried underneath the mosque somewhere. He shares his hallowed stomping ground with John the Baptist, so the Shia were competing for space with Christian pilgrims as well. Regardless of religion, all women were required to wear cloaks to go in. I must say Alison, Ainsley, Ariel and I looked dead sexy in our gray druid-like getup.

After the mosque we wandered around Souk Al Hamidiyya for awhile. We got Syrian ice cream, which tastes like a mixture of marshmallows and cream, and doesn't really melt because it has stabilizers in it. Ainsley of course made friends with the ice cream men, and they were more than happy to let her behind the counter and show her the ropes. After acing her ice-cream scooping apprenticeship, Ainsley rejoined the group and we kept wandering, our noses navigating though the onslaught of spice-market cocktail; barbecue one minute and Syrian Cinnabon the next. After the souk we went to go see some really big gates...which were cool, and then Alison and I went carpet shopping. We both fell in love with tangerine carpets, but alas, they are really expensive. After wandering back along the wall to the old city, we met up with Ariel's Arabic teacher, Durea. She and her friend took us to an art gallery and her friend's brothers' cafe. We sat down in the grotto-like cafe interior (which was named after a character in the Epic of Gilgamesh), and listened to live music including an old Syrian favorite, Hotel California. Andy had to finally surrender to the parents and leave to go meet them for a few days, but we had fun despite the diminished number.

Today we went to the old Damascus palace, which came complete with mannequins performing various tasks in each decked-out room. Shwaya creepy, but interesting. After that we went to the National Museum and Ainsley and I discovered to our dismay that we understood all the French captions better than the Arabic ones despite the fact that we've been taking Arabic for 2-3 years. We still felt marginally more cultured, though, and so our spirits lifted, we pressed on to a native crafts fair and then home for a nap.

That evening we decided to head up Jebel Al Qassiyun, which I had misheard as Jebel Al Passiyun, or 'Passion Mountain.' It didn't cross my mind to think that languages were not normally meshed together so blatantly, but I still don't know what Qassiyun means, so I shall forever remember it as Passion Mountain. It's a better name anyway. What really won me over about the mountain was that we didn't have to climb it. It sits on the edge of the city, and you just hail a cab to take you up to the top. Once at the top, we scouted out a good cafe, brought out the fresh juice and snacks and started playing cards. We were admiring the beautiful sunset when Durea called, telling Ariel that unfortunately our driver for the next day had canceled on us. We were planning to go to Crac de Chevalliers, a giant castle out in the country. We definitely needed a driver, but Durea assured us it would be easy to find another one at the bus station. Inshaallah she shall be right...