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In Damascus, old worlds collide

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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.

ANCIENT ALLURE

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

From the mosque, I set off to explore the crooked, narrow streets.

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.

scott.kraft@latimes.com

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