Syrian Sojourns: Damascus Remembered



This essay is a memento of one of my most meaningful personal journeys—a visit to Damascus before the immensely tragic, ongoing internecine war in Syria.

Many centuries ago, Damascus was honored as “the earthly equivalent of Paradise.” A medieval traveler, Ibn Yubair (1145-1215), spoke of her as “bedecked in the brocaded vestments of flowers.”

While time and recent events have certainly changed the perception of this earthly paradise, I was lucky enough to catch a glimpse—a moment, a vista—of what once was.


The Damask rose (Rosa × damascena).

Damascus, Dimasqu s-Sami, has also been called the spiritual center of Syria, in contrast to its northern sister Aleppo, formerly the more extroverted and dynamic economic hub of the region. It is also the capital of Syria, still mostly intact, despite rocket attacks and fighter-bombers overhead.

Of a recent, understandably brief trip to Damascus, a fearless foreign traveler blogs: “People live their daily life like it’s the most normal thing on earth, they don’t pay attention anymore, I guess after 6 years (of war) it becomes the norm . . . there are military checkpoints everywhere in the city, and you can’t take pictures everywhere.”

What a terrible contrast to my many peaceful wanderings through the old city’s ancient lanes, at any time during the day, be it dusk or late evening.


A lane and walls in the Old City.

I read in my diary, “It’s dusk now, I walk through the old town, and find myself in front of a cave, the opening barely covered with a rug. Inside, perched on small chairs, are two men working to repair rugs. I ask permission to watch for a while.

“‘Madame, Madame, sit down, please Madame, no, not there, it’s dirty, here, this is better, would you like hot tea, are you hungry? Please stay as long as you like.’

“We speak and laugh and I watch them working ceaselessly at repairing, reweaving, reknotting, choosing the right yarns, paying attention, doing their work. One of them invites me to dinner at his house.

“‘My wife will cook for you, you must come to my house.’

“I decline with all possible politeness but also feel badly; what generosity to the perfect stranger. Instead, I buy a beautiful porcelain bowl and promise to return.

“Throughout the night, I walk, passing the incomparable Umayyad Mosque; the moon is up. Nothing threatens. The suq is empty now, or almost empty. Some last stragglers call out, ‘Madame, Madame, come see, come touch, we have the best!’”


Suq Hamadieh in the evening hours.

The incomparable Great, or Umayyad, Mosque, built between 705 and 715 AD by Calif Al-Walid, one of the early rulers of the Umayyad dynasty, is the very center of spiritual Damascus. It is one of the holiest sites in Islam, equal to the Ka’aba in Mecca and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.

I consider myself most fortunate to have spent leisurely time in the gloriously beautiful Dome of the Rock, known as the haram al-Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary) and the Great Mosque in Damascus, the second great, early treasure of Islamic art.


The great mosaic above the formal entrance to the sanctuary dates back to the 8th century AD and shows Damascus as it was once: a city with green trees, a river, and grand houses.

I shall never forget my first visit to Damascus and the Umayyad Mosque one autumnal evening. After a long cab ride from Beirut in Damascene rush hour traffic, I finally arrived at the small, hidden hotel, Sultan, much favored by budget-traveling archaeologists.

Undaunted by fatigue, linguistic challenge, and near total ignorance of the city’s layout, I immediately headed out in search of the mosque. I was intent on seeing the Minaret of the Bride (madhanat al-Arus) against the moonlit sky. And, al-hamdullilah (thanks be to God), I got there in time, shortly before the last prayer of the day when the mosque closes.

At the visitors’ center, I donned the obligatory black gown, required for secular women (and men in short pants), and was admitted to the grand courtyard of the Great Mosque and eventually the mosque itself. But I lingered for a long time outside, sitting at the edge of the ablution fountain (ablution is the Islamic procedure for washing parts of the body, a type of ritual purification before entering the mosque for prayer), absorbed in the glory around me: the full moon shining on the glittering green; golden mosaics above the formal entrance to the sanctuary; the vast, white, highly-polished marble floor reflecting the shadows of the two-storied porticoes that flank the courtyard on three sides; and a flight of doves whirling around the Minaret of the Bride. I now remember that it almost brought me to tears of the happiest sort.


The Minaret of the Bride (mahdanat al-Arus).


The Ablution Fountain.

Slightly dazed, I entered the mosque itself. Somewhat in sensory overload, I was just able to take in brilliant lamps suspended from the ceiling; ruby red ancient rugs spread on the ground; and the faithful moving to and fro, praying in long rows, facing Mecca.


Interior of the Mosque.

I have been in, and at, the Great Mosque many times since then, always enchanted by its magnificence, but that first time will live with me forever.


The glorious courtyard.

Little did I know that first time that one day I would meet His Eminence, the Grand Mufti of Syria, the highest official of religious law, Ahmad Kuftaro. And if that wasn’t astounding enough, I would be invited to see him and Pope John-Paul II praying together at the Great Mosque during the Pope’s visit to Damascus in May of 2001.

I don’t even remember how the amazing connection with H.E. Kuftaro came about. But one day, I received a phone call: “Madame, come and meet His Eminence, the Grand Mufti Kuftaro. He and his wife, Um Fadi, invite you for tea tomorrow in their country house!”

Well, I thought to myself, an adventure in the making, and promptly accepted. And so it happened. Dr. Farouk, an elegant and erudite man and the Mufti’s personal assistant and translator, picked me up, and off we drove to the mysterious country house.

In retrospect, I am so glad that I kept diary notes of this unusual meeting since photography was not welcomed. This is what I wrote:

“We stop in front of a large ochre-colored house surrounded by gorgeous flower beds, manicured lawns, and sprinkling fountains. A host of young, rather burly men surround the car. I worry a bit wondering who they are, security men, personal attendants, family members, who knows?

“We step into a tiled foyer and settle in the salon, waiting for the appearance of His Eminence. But, oh no, we hear that he is resting and we are to see him in his bedroom.

“By now, I feel a little nervous. Am I dressed properly? Is my long grey coat over slacks the correct attire? I am getting downright sweaty at the prospect of seeing the Grand Mufti of Syria in his bed. I have no clue what to say to him or what one important question to ask.

“But there I sit, accompanied by Dr. Farouk, on a chair to the right of His Eminence, a little, quite elderly gentleman, resting among pink pillows, covered by a pink blanket. The curtains are also pink. The whole room is a vision in pink.

“Dressed in a blue cloak, his turban settled on his head—how does it stay there?—he gives me a warm smile. Dr. Farouk is on my right, translating. On a bench by the window are the women, the Mufti’s wife, Umm Fadi, Dr. Farouk’s wife, and his daughters. They look at me with welcome in their hearts and kind eyes.

“I do not remember the conversation, except that His Eminence used some lovely image of faith being like an olive tree that needs to be tended patiently before it brings fruit. He also said, “We are happy to have you with us!”

“We take our leave, and I am not sure what to do. Do I just bow? Everyone kisses his hand. I don’t but instead lightly touch his, a gesture he offers. I am impressed with the old man and was moved by his dignity.”


The old Treasury, covered with intricate mosaics, in the courtyard of the Great Mosque.

Ahmad Kuftaro died in his early nineties in 2004, three years after I met him. I often wonder how he would comprehend the terrible fate that has befallen his country, his city—the fighter-bombers overhead, the daily rocket attacks, the utter destruction, the many dead, and the millions displaced.

Of course, Damascus was, as I knew it then, not only solemn but lively; full of worldly pleasures, appealing to the senses of beauty and to the palate. The city was a veritable treasure trove for antique silver, jewelry, and finely hammered brass objects delicately inlaid with silver or even gold. I was fortunate to find a particularly fine piece and bought some yards of the famous damask cloth, a reversible figure fabric, traditionally of silk, with fabulous patterns formed by weaving.

I found these enchanting items in the artisanat, a handicraft market in a caravanserai, built in Ottoman times in 1516. Adjacent to it is the graceful Takiyyeh mosque with its elegant pencil minarets, built by Sinan, one of Ottoman Turkey’s foremost architect of the 16th century.


Brass vase inlaid with silver and gold.


Patterns in silk damask cloth.


Takiyye as Sulaymaniyah Mosque and caravanserai.

Amazing suqs abounded; great bakeries, a famous chocolate boutique, and ice cream stalls lured the unsuspecting dieter; restful teashops were perfect for sitting and stare into the middle distance; and the traditional coffee houses, where storytellers held forth in the evenings while everyone sat around smoking the traditional nargileh or hookah, inspired the poet and dreamer.


Tempting cakes.


Resting in a teashop.

I often think and worry about dear friends of mine, the Kaddour famiy, at whose house in the Old City I spent delightful evenings with scrumptious dinners and inspiring conversation. To my great relief and joy I recently connected with Laila, the oldest Kaddour daughter, on Facebook—it’s good for something!—who told me that everyone is well. I remember her as a young student and how she and I would “hang” in a favorite restaurant, eating, talking, and smoking an apple-spiced hookah.

I miss them. I miss the unexpected adventures: the rug-covered cave, the warm and spontaneous contacts, and, of course, sitting at the edge of the ablution fountain in the courtyard of the Great Mosque, catching a glimpse of “the earthly equivalent of Paradise.”Perhaps it will be possible, one day, to be again “On the Road to Damascus”!



Perennial Biker stories to come. . . . 

Biking season is on! The Perennial Biker has been all over the place in Chicago Florissant, photographing roses, the blooming prairie, languid peonies, gorgeous dogwood, azaleas, magnolias, blue, purple and yellow iris, and the vibrant green riverbanks of the Chicago River.

Biking stories in the months to come will include essays about the fascinating and burgeoning Uptown, the incredibly creative mosaics on the walls of buildings and underpasses of our fair city, the multifarious outdoor sculptures scattered throughout Chicago, and, last but not least, Chicago’s hidden green spaces of wilderness: secret gardens and fairytale hedges.