Syria Damascus 2001.04.27 - 04.29

Old City

Damascus is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Urban settlement started around 5000 BC. Today, it's the bustling capital of Syria.

The main sites of Damascus can be seen in a day. Most noteworthy are the National Museum, Umayyad Mosque, and Azem Palace. All are within walking distance of each other and the the cheap backpacker hotels. The National Museum and Azem Palace charge an expensive S£ 300 admission fee (S£ 15 for student card holders). Umayyad Mosque is open to visitors except during prayer hours and charges S£ 50, but we didn't see anyone selling or checking tickets, and therefore didn't pay. The National Museum is reputed to be the most important museum in Syria, and Umayyad Mosque is said to be the most important structure in Syria. Azem Palace, once the private residence of the governor of Damascus, has impressive colorful architecture.

Also interesting is the covered souq (market) in the Old City along a street named Souq al-Hamidiyya. It's one of the few market areas where tourists can freely wander about without getting harassed to purchase. Along this street is a popular ice cream shop called Bekdach. Throughout the day, fresh ice cream is pounded with large wooded mallets in cold metal bins. Sit at the row of tables filled with locals and place an order for the number of ice creams desired. No elaboration is needed. Bekdach sells one kind of ice cream. The S£ 25 ice cream scoop comes in a glass bowl, is quite filling and very delicious.

Also worthy of mention is the Damer cake shop on Sharia Maysaloun near the Cham Cinema. A huge variety of fruit tarts and cakes are S£ 20 each, and are similar in sweetness and quality as those in France or Japan. In other words, they're very good. Wandering from the cake shop towards our hotel, we were invited to join a street soccer game. The Syrians are consistently inviting and friendly. Wes had a blast.

Internet in Syria is limited to an access point in Damascus. Charges are high compared to neighboring countries. The Internet Café Zoni near our hotel, Al-Haramein, charged S£ 2.5 per minute (equivalent to US$3 per hour; comparatively, Turkey is about US$1 per hour and Jordan is about US$2 per hour). The Zoni computers were fairly new, the software was up to date, the printer worked, and line speed was good. Both Hotmail and Yahoo Mail could be accessed.

From Damascus, we bought bus tickets to Amman, Jordan (payable only with US$6 or 5 Jordanian Dinar). The afternoon before departure, we took our excess Syrian Pounds to a money changer to buy Jordanian Dinar or US$. We discovered that the money changers only take foreign currencies and give Syrian Pounds. We went to a bank next. Same story. Nobody wants Syrian Pounds. Fortunately, a teller at the bank pointed us in the direction of the "black market". In the general vicinity, we asked a shop owner where we could buy US$ and were directed to a shop selling odds and ends like cookies, cigarettes, magazines, etc. The shop owner must have misquoted us the black market rate because we bought US$ at S£ 50 each. In other words, he gave us US$ at 0.2% in our favor. He only had a supply of US$62 worth, but that covered the amount we needed.

Elaborate mosaics decorate a huge surface area in the inner courtyard of Umayyad Mosque.

A man sells tea to his customers on the streets of Damascus.

The covered souq on Souq al-Hamidiyya lures crowds of locals shopping for their daily goods. Shopping here is fun and hassle-free.

3 men pound ice cream in unison at Bekdach ice cream shop on Souq al-Hamidiyya. The ice cream is slightly gummy and very good.

Wes and fellow traveler Ryan pose for a team photo after a casual game of soccer in the streets of Damascus.

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