The Old City is an antique gemstone surrounded by a traffic-clogged metropolis of 4 million. Modern-day Damascus spreads across a valley of drab apartment buildings sprouting satellite dishes like mushrooms. But the Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is an oasis of layered history that exudes a charming timelessness.
I wandered through a warren of alleyways scented with cumin, apple-flavored tobacco and, occasionally, rotting garbage. Kiosks were selling spices and nuts from overflowing wood bins, rope rings of yellow figs and perfumes from rows of plastic bottles.
In one narrow alley, I passed a horse-drawn carriage painted bright blue with a long diesel-fuel container in the back. As the horse clip-clopped along, the operator cupped his hand to his mouth, calling out his arrival, offering to fill residents' cooking-fuel tanks.
The Old City claims to have been continuously inhabited for nearly 5,000 years, and it resembles a Hollywood back lot, with sets from the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, Byzantine, Arab and Ottoman empires standing side by side and, sometimes, on top of one another. As Twain put it in "The Innocents Abroad," "Damascus . . . has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies."
The U.S. State Department officially discourages travel to Syria, owing to its support for Hezbollah guerrillas and its close ties with Iran. Partly for that reason, it is not overrun by tourists. Yet the Syrians I met were friendly and welcoming, and the aggressive touts and hawkers, ubiquitous elsewhere in the Middle East, were absent. Strangers on the street paid me little attention, and I was carried along by the music of Arabic conversations and the sensation of being anonymous.
Many of the cafes in the Muslim quarter of the Old City were closed for lunch during Ramadan. So I wandered over to the smaller Christian quarter, which was bustling with activity, and came upon an open, unmarked window at which two women stood in a queue. Inside, three men were sweeping puffy brown pita bread off a small conveyor belt into plastic bags. Waiting my turn, I followed the women's lead and put up one finger. One of the workers handed over a bag with six pieces of delicious bread, still warm, for the equivalent of 20 cents.
I had heard from friends that Damascus was a good place to shop for exquisite, inexpensive Persian and Afghan rugs. For centuries, Muslims from all over the Middle East and Asia brought rugs with them on their pilgrimages to Damascus, trading them for food and lodging or leaving them behind as gifts.
There were dozens of rug merchants, but a friend had recommended one named Issam Lahham. I found the gray-haired proprietor standing outside his shop, off the Hamadiye souk. We spent two leisurely hours in his downstairs showroom as he laid out carpet after handmade carpet, patiently giving me a lesson in the history of each.
The rug business in Damascus, Lahham told me, was not good. "We have very few buyers. Very few," he said.
Issam's was a no-bargaining shop, but his prices, compared with those I had seen on earlier trips to Turkey and Pakistan, seemed fair. I selected two small handmade tribal rugs, from Turkmenistan and Baluchistan, each about 80 years old, for under $400. As an assistant packed my purchases into a gym bag for the trip home, Issam showed me a folder of business cards, which, to my surprise, included those of a dozen friends from my years as a foreign correspondent.
DINNER BEGINS AT SUNSET
I was famished. I had booked a table for dinner at Beit Jabri, or Jabri House, near the Umayyad Mosque, and I walked around in circles until I finally found the restaurant's front door. It opened onto a beautiful 18th century Ottoman mansion and a courtyard dining room.
Restaurants in the Muslim quarter have just one seating time for dinner during Ramadan and it begins promptly at sunset when the daylong fast is broken. When I arrived, Beit Jabri was already packed with boisterous diners, many of them large families, seated at tables laden with mezze, a variety of Middle Eastern appetizers. The dishes included hummus, a lettuce-and-tomato salad, a red-pepper purée, garlicky eggplant baba ghanouj, a bowl of large black-eyed peas in garlic and tomato and another of green beans, pine nuts and tomato. Busy waiters filled glasses with fruit juice (no alcohol is served).
No one was eating, though -- it was a few minutes after 6 p.m. and not yet sunset. As we waited, the sky above the courtyard turned from blue to gray. At 6:22, the Umayyad Mosque muezzin's sonorous call to prayer filled the air and the courtyard fountain splashed to life. The diners dug in energetically, and I followed their lead.
After waiters cleared away the remains of a dessert of cheese pastry and fresh fruit, some diners departed, but a few remained. The atmosphere was festive and relaxed, and a table of four young women near me played a card game while taking turns puffing on a hookah with fruit-flavored tobacco.
Feeling stuffed, I returned to the street and ventured back down to the Hamadiye souk. Shops that had closed for dinner were reopening, and the streets were filled with couples, friends and families strolling, laughing and talking.
I soaked it all in -- the scene, the crowds, the history -- feeling fortunate to be part of it all, if only for a day.