DAMASCUS, SYRIA—Early travelers crossing the desert to Syria got their first view of Damascus from the top of Jebel Qassioun, a gently sloped mountain northwest of town. It was not a sight they soon forgot.
The prophet Muhammad refused to descend into the city, declaring that one could enter paradise only once and he would save himself for the one above. A thousand or so years later, Mark Twain loved the view but found the city, on closer inspection, "crooked and cramped and dirty." Muhammad, he decided, "was wise without knowing it."
Though my arrival in Syria was by Airbus rather than by desert caravan, I knew my first stop had to be Qassioun mountain. I dropped my bags at the hotel, quickly arranged for a car and, by the time dusk began to gather, was sitting at an outdoor cafe perched high above Damascus.
My driver, a 25-year-old named Mohammed Madal, grew wistful. "Every time we return to our country," he said, "we have to come to Qassioun to feel like a Syrian again."
A warm, dry breeze brushed our faces and the lights of Damascus winked to life, the glowing emerald rings of its minarets coming into view. In the distance were the oval-shaped ramparts of Old Damascus, the Old City, where I would spend the next day trying to discover who was right, the prophet or the wit.
For longer than I can remember, I had wanted to visit Damascus. As a young boy, I was enchanted by the biblical stories of Paul's road-to-Damascus conversion. Later, as a correspondent in Africa, I was captivated by friends' tales of a Middle East city that brimmed with history and yet, owing to its political isolation, was rarely visited by Western tourists.
My opportunity came on a stopover I engineered on the way home from a business trip to South Asia. My schedule permitted just one full day of exploration, so I had to make the most of it.
Early the next morning, on a sunny fall day last year, I set out on foot from my hotel for the Souk al-Hamadiye, the largest and best known of the Old City souks, or Arab markets, and the main pedestrian entrance.
As I turned into the souk, I was immediately struck by its size. The wide cobblestone street, which dated from Roman times, was lined with the narrow facades of two-story shops. An arched dome of corrugated iron rose high above the avenue, and pinpoints of sunlight beamed through bullet holes dating to the 1920s, when French warplanes put down an uprising of Arab nationalists.
The crowds were thinned by the Ramadan holiday, the annual month of sunup-to-sundown fasting for Muslims, but shops were open. It was clear that this was a working street in a working city, a place where Syrians shopped for clothing, rugs and furniture.
I strolled through the Hamadiye souk for nearly half a mile and emerged into a sunny courtyard dominated by the 30-foot-tall remnant of a Roman archway. Men lined up at an outdoor scale to weigh themselves, and shops sold worry beads and Bedouin jewelry.
Rising from the far end of the courtyard was the western wall of the great Umayyad Mosque, one of the holiest sites in Islam. I walked around to the tourist office, paid 50 Syrian pounds (about $1) to a man behind a metal desk and was issued a ticket for the day.
The site of the mosque has been a place of worship since the 9th century BC, when the Aramaeans built a temple to their god. It was later a temple to the Roman god Jupiter and, when Emperor Constantine became a Christian, it was replaced by a basilica dedicated to John the Baptist.
The Christians were nudged out in the 8th century, when Damascus became the capital of the early Islamic world, and the current structure was built. The mosque complex, including a courtyard and prayer hall, is vast -- 200 yards long by 100 yards wide -- and enclosed by enormous walls that still hold some of the Roman temple's original stonework. The three corner minarets and the Dome of the Eagle, which stands on four pillars inside the south wall, are visible for miles.
I lined up with the faithful, doffed my shoes and entered the red-carpeted hall, which echoed with the muezzin's call to prayer. Velvet ropes divided the cavernous hall lengthwise into three distinct sections. Along the south wall, facing Mecca, hundreds of men prayed. On the north side, robed women chatted and tended to children.
In the broad middle, visitors took photographs, strollers gazed at mosaics on the walls, men read the Koran and people napped on the carpet. The smell of socks was, at times, strong.
Near the center of the hall was a prominent, if incongruous, reminder of the pre-Islamic history of this house of worship -- an ornately decorated green-glass monument, about the size of a large car, said to be the tomb of John the Baptist.
CITY OF EMPIRES