Monday, June 29, 2009

Damascus [updated with pics and more; previously posted 10/03/09]

I had a horrible flight from Istanbul to Damascus - really bad turbulence a good part of the way. I had white knuckles most of the trip, when really, I wanted to be sleeping. Other than that, my entrance to Syria was fine. Making my way to my hotel had a few setbacks, though. I wrote about that in another post. Basically, the airport bus didn't stop at the station shown on the map, so I had to find a ride with some other travelers to where I wanted to be. Then, I found out that my originally planned hostel/hotel was full. :O I didn't have to wander too far and found a bed in a co-ed dorm at a hostel next door (it was the only bed they had left available).
After I had gone to bed, one of the guys arrived. He is from Japan and is one month into a three month trip around the Middle East. We talked for a short time before I fell asleep. I slept fairly well. I didn't wake up at all when the other two arrived. I woke up at 7:30 and went back to sleep. Too early. I got up at maybe 8:30, got ready and went down for breakfast. Breakfast was fresh bread (still nice and warm), an apple, a cheese triangle, butter and jam, a hard boiled egg, tahini and a couple of olives. Not a bad breakfast.[a random building... not sure what it is, but I like it]
After breakfast I took some clothes down to be washed and then wandered over to the Old City part of Damascus. I walked around the Citadel (it is closed to the public)[statue of Saladin in front of the Citadel]
and then through the old souqs (SO long!!) and back alleys until the Ummayad Mosque was open at 10:30.[in a long covered souq. fairly early so not all of the shops were open]I love wandering. :)In front of the mosque is the remains of an old (temple?) gate, at one end of a very long covered souq. The Umayyad Mosque, also known as the Grand Mosque, is one of the largest and oldest mosques in the world. The mosque used to be a church but was converted into a mosque.To enter the mosque, I had to wear a funny grey robe. The mosque really is very grand. It is HUGE!!! And beautiful.I mentioned the mosque when writing about the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul - because there is a shrine in the mosque which also claims to contain the head of St. John the Baptist (the one who baptized Jesus).At least 6 different places claim to posses his head. There also several claims of possesion of his arm (with which he baptized Jesus) and other such things. The mosque is important to Muslims for many reasons, one of which is that it is said to be where the Prophet Mohammed's grandson and other descendents were improsoned during the Battle of Karbala.There is a shrine in the mosque that contains the heads of those people who died in Karbala. Next to (connected to) the shrine is a small box like inset where the head of Husayn ibn Ali (the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed) was kept. Next to the mosque is the tomb of Saladin.
After spending some time in the mosque, I had tea at An Nafura, a little coffee/sheesha shop behind the mosque. Nice, but too much ash was blowing around from all the sheeshas.I walked around the Old City for so long. It really is like a labyrinth with winding alleys, some ending in dead ends, some covered (some with quite low roofs).Some were even leaning!! Such an amazing place to go through. Many of the streets and alleys are souqs (traditional markets) selling all sorts of things from clothes to housewares (in different alleys, though).I eventually found the Azem Palace. So nice!!I wasn't allowed to take pictures in the rooms, though. They were set up sort of like a museum. One room in the palace is for the bride. The whole purpose of the room is for the bride to get ready for the wedding. She bathes, and then takes around 2 days to prepare for the wedding.I did take some pics in the central courtyard, though.
After checking out the palace, I went through some more of the souqs. I bought some snacks - sesame snacks and ones made with pistachios (sort of like peanut brittle but made with pistachios), and some dried apricots.I ate a late lunch at Leila's Restaurant. It is in a beautiful courtyard about a floor below the ground level. It is open to the sky, but there is a roof that they pull over if the weather is bad.The bathrooms are pretty much caves (but fancy caves!). I had fattoush and a banana milk to drink.The waiter was a bit odd. He brought my food, disappeared and when I had just snapped a picture of my dish, he returned with a plate and started scooping the salad from the bowl onto a small plate, pretty much dumping some of it in my lap. :O I said I could do it on my own, but even after spilling on the table and my lap, kept going, making a bit of a mess of everything. Strange!!! Then he didn't return for so long. I finished eating and ordered some tea. The tea took a long time to come.It isn't the cheapest restaurant in the area. I had expected a bit more in terms of service. After I paid the bill, which included 10% service fee, the waiter didn't bring all of my change but rather gave himself a tip by rounding the bill up. I was certainly not impressed.
I nearly got lost wantering about the souqs again. I covered several of the alleys more than once or even twice, and it seemed as if sometimes I was going in circles!!I love the spices!
The only people that talked to me other than sales people trying to sell things to me, are a few women, and a girl who was walking with her father and brother. They asked where I'm from and what my name is. The girl and her father and brother were kinda sweet and were trying to talk to me for a while, as we were walking in the same direction for several minutes.
I headed back to the hotel and then, for some reason, decided to eat again. I asked at the hotel where I could get food nearby. The guy said there are a couple of places I could get sandwiches up and to the right. I went where he said, but found no sandwich type places. I went into a little restaurant. The only English anywhere was on the window, where it said, "MEALS COOKING." I asked what they had and the guy took me to a display case near the back and pointed out everything in English.I got rice (some sort of curry-ish seasoned rice) and a vegetable dish. Flat bread is in bags on the tables and is pretty much help yourself. The food was excellent, and cheap. Then it was off to the Internet to do some posting, and bedtime was upon me.[the crooked stairs up to the 3rd floor where my room was]

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