"The Turkes say, that their Prophet Mahomet was once at Damascus, and that when he saw the pleasant situation of it, and beheld the stately prospect of it, excelling all others that hee saw before ; refused to enter into the Citie, lest the pleasantnesse thereof should ravish him, and move him there to settle an Easthly Paradise, and hinder his desire of the heavenly Paradise."
William Biddulph, 1600, in Purchas his Pilgrims, 1625
First mentioned in the ancient tablets of Ebla, Damascus is known to many archaeologists as the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world (although Aleppo and Jericho also contest this claim). It has always been a great trading city and the city was famous for its crafts and wealth. The best testimony to this is the term "Damascene" which was used to described the best silk, sword and indeed, anything that is the symbol of quality and fashion, like Paris today. Ancient travellers heap praises of this ancient city. Roman Emperor Julian called it "Pearl of the East". The Quran described it as one "whose like has never been built before". Mark Twain recalled the ancient tradition of Damascus as the Garden of Eden. Damascusí greatest moments of glory was during the Omayyad Caliphate, when Damascus became the capital of an empire stretching from Spanish plains in the west to the steppes of Central Asia in the east. This period (661 to 750) came to an end with the bloody downfall of the Omayyads and the rise of the Abbasids, who set up their capital in Baghdad. A period of decline set in until the arrival of Salah-al-Din, the legendary Saladin as known to the West. Salah-al-Din made Damascus the capital of united Syria and Egypt, and the base of his struggle with the Crusaders. This was followed by a long period of decline, destruction (by the Mongols), reconstruction, and stagnation until the twentieth century, when it became the capital of an independent Syria.
21 July 1996
|"The photos and statues of Assad and his late son Basel were everywhere. I counted at least 15 on my side of the road before reaching the city area. Multiply this by 2 and you get 30 on both sides - thatís almost one for every kilometre ! "|
The Airport was 35 km from the city central and we travelled on a desert highway before reaching the cityís suburbs. The journey itself was an interesting introduction to the Syrian state. The photos and statues of Assad and his late son Basel were everywhere. I counted at least 15 on my side of the road before reaching the city area. Multiply this by 2 and you get 30 on both sides - thatís almost one for every kilometre ! In the city area, every shop and house proclaimed their loyalty to the Leader and his late son. Every bus or car has at least one photo or poster on the windscreen. The Leader is shown everywhere, and he is either shown wearing a suit, a Bedouinís kerrfiya, a generalís uniform, ; Or riding a horse, leading an army, holding a baby, or standing with the great rulers of the past 5000 years of Syrian history - Mesopotamian kings, Salah-al-Din, etc.
Assad : Lion of Syria
New Damascus, built by the French colonials, is presented as the city of Assad. Although many buildings in the newer part of the city are typical of those found in many nameless Middle Eastern towns - standard 5 storey concrete edifices - huge murals of the Leader adorn many of them, and statues of the Leader and his son dominate quite a few traffic islands, together with flags of the Baíth Party. Who is this man who so completely dominates the political, social and cultural life of this country ?
Assad was born in 1930 into a poor family of Alawites, a minority Islamic sect in northwest Syria. He joined the Syrian wing of the Ba'th Party (meaning Arab Socialist Renaissance Party), a party advocating the formation of an united Arab socialist nation, in 1946 as a student activist. In 1952 he entered the Hims Military Academy and became an air force pilot. After the Ba'thists took power in 1963, Assad became commander of the air force. After a series of sometimes violent power struggle, Assad became the president in 1971 after a coup díetat. After he gained power, he set about eliminating all potential threats to his power, silencing critics and building up Syriaís military power. He actively wooed Soviet support to build his military and interfered in Lebanese affairs. By the late Ď80s, when Soviet power was in the wane and he tried to cultivate a more balance relationship with the west by joining the U.S.-led alliance against Iraq in the Gulf War of 1990-91. However, his efforts are hampered by the lack of friendly relationship with U.S., which accuses Syria a state that sponsors terrorism. And he suffered a further blow when his son and once-thought successor, Basel al-Assad, died in 1994, of a traffic accident (some rumoured that it was caused by drunk driving).
While it is easy to simply denounce Assad as just another dictator (as western media generally do), many Syrians see him as a staunch defender of Arab and Palestinian rights, especially at a time when two of Israel's neighbours - Egypt and Jordan - had signed peace treaties with Israel and received tonnes of western aid. Netanyahu's hardline stance towards Palestinian autonomy and withdrawal from Syria's Golan Heights have further strengthened Arab belief that only an equally unbending position will lead to a truely just peace with Israel.
Hotel Akhdar and a walk
|"This once monumental building is totally worn out, if not for a new canvas painting of President Assad hung on the front balcony. The rail car placed as an exhibit at the front hall appeared so lonely, and if it were alive, would probably be mourning at the state of affairs around it, and the indignity that befall it after a period of glory and prestige."|
As the bus entered the city central, we asked Mohammed if he could recommend to us a place in the city central, near the Souq al-Hamadiyyeh, the premier souq, or bazaar of Damascus. No problem, he said, and he brought us to Hotel Akhdar, where he always stay when heís in Damascus. Mohammed acted as the go-between with the hotel proprietor as the latter could not speak English well. We wanted a room for two, but Mohammed insisted that three of us should share the room. It was a pain, as he dominated the conversation with the proprietor, and pushed for a solution that he wished. He even went as far as to say that there is only one room left in the hotel, and it was for three persons. At this point, we wanted to leave, and thereupon he relented, admitting that there were indeed quite a few rooms in the hotel, for S.L. 600 per room. So we stayed there for the night. What a disappointment ! Not so much because of the hassling, but that what we had thought as a nice guy was actually no different from the taxi-driver we met at the airport.
The city centre of new Damascus is an easy one to walk about. The streets are quite wide and traffic not as chaotic and heavy like Cairo. But it lacks a certain boom and busy feel so prevalent in Cairo, Istanbul or even Amman. Some of the buildings were probably built during the French occupation period and the pre-Baíth years, and many are slowly decaying and certainly looked run-down to me. Nowhere was this feeling stronger than before the facade of the Hejaz Railway Station, built at the turn of the century to carry pilgrims to Mecca. This once monumental building is totally worn out, if not for a new canvas painting of President Assad hung on the front balcony. The rail car placed as an exhibit at the front hall appeared so lonely, and if it were alive, would probably be mourning at the state of affairs around it, and the indignity that befall it after a period of glory and prestige.
Nearby at the Martyrsí Square, we had burgers and "Syrian pizzas" at
a little shop, and sat down to chat with the friendly shop-owners. Many
had hardly seen any visitors from East Asia, and were curious to find out
about these strange creatures. Some asked if we thought this was a terrorist
country. A few even offered free drinks or tea and all are anxious to find
out about our views of this country. It was only our first day, but the
overall hospitality (apart from the experience at the airport) was overwhelming.
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