DAMASCUS, Syria — Damascus might not top everyone's dream vacation wish list, but it had slowly crept to the top of mine. St. Paul was first to give me the itch to come here. Saul of Tarsus, as he was then known, hadn't even reached the city walls when he was struck blind by a vision of Jesus, a conversion that changed the course of Christianity.
I didn't count on anything so memorable, but then a Middle East correspondent I know wrote me a drooling letter about the markets of Damascus, and I had my own vision: exotic bazaars with fabulous carpets, Bedouin robes and antique silver, all at bargain basement prices. What pushed me over the edge was my kids' baby sitter. Her father-in-law in Syria said this was the time to visit--before strongman Hafez Assad dies and, as Syria-watchers predict, the country reverts to tribal warfare. A month later she reported: "My father-in-law says to come soon, before there's peace with Israel and the tourists start arriving."
Damascus is not a pretty city. Outside the medieval walls of the Old City it sprawls like a messy modern metropolis, a mix of broad boulevards, desultory parks and scattered new construction. A great slab of mountain tops the north; to the south and east stretches a harsh and daunting desert. It's only the Barada River, snaking down from the Anti-Lebanon mountain range, that prompted early settlement here.
And early it was: Damascus has been continuously inhabited since 4000 BC, and any conqueror worth his salt made it a target, from Nebuchadnezzar and Alexander the Great to Hadrian and Tamerlane. It was a center of early Christianity (John the Baptist's head supposedly lies in a tomb here) and then, with the rise of Islam, home to one of the most sacred sites outside Mecca. Mongols, Mamelukes and Ottoman Turks set up camp here. So did the Germans during World War I, then the French. Syria became independent after World War II.
Happily for the visitor, Damascus is a great deal more navigable than its chaotic history suggests. Just about everything that's interesting is in the Old City, a maze of twisting streets and alleys bound by massive walls from the 13th century. The markets are there. So are the Great Mosque and all the old churches and palaces.
The Old City was the first destination of our five-day visit last November. My wife, Kaarina, and I had been traveling the better part of a day and a half, because getting to Damascus from the U.S. is best done with a European connection.
There's no better cure for jet lag than plunging into the frenzy of the Hamidiye Souk, the Old City's main market. A cacophony engulfed us--merchants yelling, mothers herding children, the blare of Arab music. Swept up in the crowd, we brushed off the tenacious money changers and peddlers hawking socks, batteries and stuffed owls, and veered down one of the numerous side streets and then veered again.
Eventually the din receded, and an intoxicating calm descended on the commerce at hand. The heady aromas of the spice market seemed to waft from the Middle Ages. Vendors in stalls sold herbs, potions, sweets. Entire stores devoted to water pipes or decorated boxes.
Surprises popped up every few yards. Small archways opened onto sudden courtyards. Doors led to palaces. Attracted by a small crowd, we ducked into a courtyard where what looked like an Arab sitcom was being filmed. On cue, an old man on a stool repeatedly exploded in a torrent of abuse, to the great merriment of the crowd that had gathered.
We prowled the gold street. We ducked into cool caverns of rug emporiums. We stopped by stores with antiques and looked for the richly woven cloth for which Syria is renowned.
"Please, welcome," was the universal greeting in English. "Just look. Come in and have tea."
We put off serious shopping until later. It was difficult enough just sorting out Syrian currency. Faded and worn almost illegible, the bills, denominated in Syrian pounds, looked as if they were printed around the time of Saladin.
Of course nobody in Damascus actually wants Syrian money. The U.S. dollar is the preferred currency, but bring your own supply; there are no ATMs in Syria, traveler's checks are difficult to cash, and only hotels and upscale restaurants accept credit cards. A sign at our hotel warned, "We only accept foreign currency." Great, my wife and I thought: What were we going to do with the $300 we'd changed at the airport?
Clearly it wasn't going for taxi fare. Our metered fare from the Sheraton hotel to the market was 325 pounds, which we estimated to be $4. Only later did we realize we'd missed a decimal point; the fare was 40 cents. No wonder the driver gave us such a big smile.