Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Stolen shoes and gooey icecream in Damascus

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What would former US president George W. have thought of it I wonder? Here we are in old Damascus, surrounded by cheerful Syrians and chatty Iranians on pilgrimage. That's half of the Mr Bush's axis of evil in one hit. If I could find a Libyan in here we'd really be on a roll...

Damascus is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, if not the oldest. People may have settled here first in the 4th millennium BC. I can't grasp this kind of historic depth - it's rather like trying to visualise the amount of US toxic debt.

At the heart of old Damascus lies the Umayyad mosque - one of the most revered places in the Islamic world.

Pilgrims flock here from all over the globe but non-Muslims are equally welcome - the only proviso is that women don floor-length grey hooded gowns. As we shuffle shoeless into the central courtyard I can't decide if we're more Jedi knight or Rivendell elf.

While small children skid across the glassy smoothness of the marble courtyard, the sun glints on the gold mosaics on the building's facades. They are no longer complete but a glorious reminder of how the mosque must have looked after its completion in the 8th century AD.

Before that the site had been a Christian cathedral built to house the head of John the Baptist (and before that it had been the site of a temple dating back to the 9th century BC).

The head is still here apparently, now incorporated into the mosque prayer hall. At least three other places boast of having John's severed head but this possible ambiguity doesn't stop fervent pilgrims from clinging to the silver screen that surrounds the shrine, bestowing it with prayers and kisses.

It is not just common threads between Islam and Christianity that are woven here in the mosque.

Shi'as (especially from Iran) come to pray at the shrine of Hussein, son of Ali (and grandson of the Prophet Mohammad). Ali is regarded as the founder of Shiism, but the pilgrims are comfortably mixing with the predominately Sunni Syrians.

The thick carpet of the main prayer hall slightly dulls the sounds of hundreds of people praying, reading from the Koran, chatting and, in the case of the children, playing and rolling around on the floor like happy puppies.

I always fascinated to watch non-Muslims getting to grips with the atmosphere of a mosque for the first time. The sense of community, common purpose, friendliness and general bonhomie often takes people aback.

I remember coming here a year ago with my Iranian Shia friend, Reza. He had been carrying his boots (bought in the Warehouse in NZ some months before and favourite travel companions) until I suggested he leave them in the shoe racks.

"No. Someone might steal them," he said.

"Surely not in a mosque," I said, "and never from a fellow Muslim?"

Rather reluctantly he left them near the neon display of daily prayer times.

When we returned my battered sneakers were still there but his boots had gone. I didn't need any interpretation of his "I told you so" glance.

"Ah well," Reza said, "someone must have needed them more than I did."

He had to borrow a pair of slippers from the mosque custodian so that we could venture into the nearby souk to buy another pair.

This time we all emerged clad with suitable footwear for the souk. Souk al-Hamadiye only dates from the 19th century (a mere second or so ago relatively speaking in Syrian history) but I reckon it is the most stunning of souks anywhere.

Lined with double-storey shops with stone facades the entire souk is covered by an arched metal roof. Rays of light pierce the shadowy interior through a myriad of tiny holes that pierce the metal. This was by accident not design - the holes are bullet holes from the time of a local uprising against French rule in the 1920s.

Shops glitter with gold jewellery, dangle with belly-dancing costumes, surprise with sexy lingerie and beguile with glistening Damascus fabrics embroidered with gold thread.

Most astonishing of all though is Bekdach, purveyors of icecream made with semolina powder.

A man with a luxuriant black moustache sweats it out kneading the ice-cream as if it was bread dough.

A line of rather harried assistants then scoops the ice-cream into cones and dishes - there's always a queue here.

And, if you are clutching a gooey icecream there's at least some chance of being able to stay out of the clutches of the souk's carpet sellers.

- Jill Worrall

Click here for photos

Pictured above: Icecream making Damascus-style. Photo / Jill Worrall

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