Saturday, 27 March 2010

The blogger goes east

When I was about 9 years old my mum took me and my friend Richard to a cinema in Torquay to see “Lawrence of Arabia”. I was captivated by the epic story, the cinematography and the romance of the desert, and after that always wanted to know more about that part of the world.

The film ends with Lawrence arriving in Damascus with the Arab army, riding a camel. Sadly a Turkish Airlines Airbus 321 from Istanbul was somewhat less dashing but I nevertheless felt the excitement of arriving somewhere I’ve always wanted to see.

On my first evening my usual need to find out where I am exactly led me to walking into the centre of the city. As the Lonely Planet guide says, there are two parts to Damascus, the Old Town and the rest of it. Visitors are inevitably drawn to the Old Town, a three-quarter of a mile long oval surrounded in parts by a Roman city wall and containing a dense tangle of streets, markets, mosques, houses, churches and alleyways.

Perhaps the main attraction of the city is the Umayyad Mosque, one of the holiest sites in the Muslim world. Dating from 705 it is a truly magnificent building, a large open courtyard paved with polished marble, walls decorated with beautiful mosaics, and around the perimeter rooms containing various shrines. As a 'seeker' I felt slightly nervous about entering on my own, but one of the people on the gate recognised me as a foreigner and said, "Welcome, welcome", which made me feel much better.

I walked around very aware of an atmosphere of great excitement and deep respect of the people visiting it. The most appropriate thing to do seemed to be to find a quiet corner and to sit and reflect on the surroundings.

Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, but the Umayyad contains a shrine very important to Shia Muslims, and so there were large numbers of pilgrims, mainly Iranians, made very visible by the black-clad women. In Britain we seem to hear a lot about Iraq and the conflict between Sunnis and Shias so it was gratifying to see that the visiting pilgrims moved around the city easily.

In fact, one area on the outskirts of Damascus is a mainly Shia area as it has the Saida Zainab shrine, another important place for Shia pilgrims. I was taken there one day and went in with my driver, and was completely overwhelmed by the intense beauty of its interior, with its mosaic walls and a shining metallic ceiling, that gave it the feeling of being some sort of celestial body.

All around me excited people struggled to get to the centre of the shrine and kiss and touch it. My driver took some photographs of the place and me, and conscious that people take on a very serious look when they were photographed in such places I tried to pull myself together and look suitably composed (although I'm not sure that I succeeded).

As the week progressed I spent several evenings in the Old Town, and never failed to be impressed by the calm magic of the place. The fulfilment of long-held dreams can be disappointing, but this was not the case; Damascus was certainly a wonderful experience.

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