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Damascus

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Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.

I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.

Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.

Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.

Old Damascus from Mathias Botfeldt on Vimeo.

We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.

Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.
I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.
Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.
We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.
Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.
I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.
Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.
We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.
Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.
I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.
Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.
We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.
Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.
I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.
Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.
We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.
Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.
I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.
Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.
We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.
Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.
I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.
Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.
We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.
Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.
I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.
Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.
We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.
Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.
I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.
Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.
We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.
Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

Sandy skies brighten as the muzzein’s call drifts across the city and the morning sun crests the horizon, hues of ochre and taupe warming to a golden glow. I quietly navigate the twisting alleyways and covered markets that make up the Old City of Damascus, the only sound my footsteps echoing upon the cobblestone streets.
I hurry through an eerily still Souq Al-Hamiddiya. The main thoroughfare, now lined with clothing and handicraft shops, dates back to Roman times. The normally bustling market is deserted at this hour. Storefronts are closed and a sole vendor sells fabric he has carefully laid upon a clean white sheet on the floor. Pinpoints of light stream from holes in the corrugated metal roof where bullets from French machine guns punctured it from the sky during the nationalist rebellion of 1925.
At the end of the marketplace, Roman arches open to a courtyard and my destination, the spiritual and historical heart of the Old City, Umayyad Mosque. The morning prayers have just ended and worshipers silently emerge from the great mosque’s interior. I slip through the massive, embossed steel door and step out of my shoes onto the cool marble floor. The guard looks at me quizzically but doesn’t protest my long flowing dress and scarf concealing my hair.
“Five minutes,” he says roughly. The mosque will soon close until the next prayers later that morning, but the mosque will then be crowded with droves of worshipers and tour groups alike. I have five minutes of early morning quiet to soak in Syria’s most important religious structure and one of Islam’s most important buildings. In sanctity, Umayyad Mosque is second only to the holy mosques of Mecca and Medina. And with the marble gleaming and the golden overlay glowing, its beauty and architecture rivals Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock.
Its history is unparalleled by all three. Umayyad is said to be one of the oldest places of continuous worship in the world. It was once an ancient Roman temple to the god Jupiter, then a Christian church dedicated to St. John the Baptist and finally, only after the Arab conquest in the 7th century, the mosque that currently stands. Religious tolerance was a reality then, and the world a place where Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived together in harmony. I had no idea that during my visit to Damascus, I would find that these three walks of faith could still coexist in this land.
Legend has is that ancient Damascus was one of the most beautiful sights on the Arabian Peninsula, a shimmering walled city of white and golden domes, surrounded by verdant green groves of orange and olive trees. Travelers approached across the mountains, beckoned to her city gates and the labyrinth of alleyways beyond. No traveler escaped her siren call, not the Jewish traveler Saul, who on the road to Damascus converted to Christianity and a new identity as the Apostle Paul. Nor, 600 years later, the Prophet Mohammed, who upon glimpsing the magnificent city is said to have turned away, saying that “man should only enter Paradise once, and that is upon his death.”
Damascus has maintained this mystique for over 6,000 years, and is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. And today, despite State Department warnings and rumors of evil-doings by the Syrian government, travelers still arrive from all over the world to discover her inner beauty. Many return time and time again. I am one of them.
This morning, one lone man remains in the mosque. He sports a long, flowing Islamic robe, carefully tied turban, and wispy black beard. I catch myself feeling a bit anxious as he approaches, in To enter Hamiddiya Souq is to lose oneself in time. I am transported back to the Middle Ages as I behold horse-drawn carts and vendors selling pomegranate juice, aromatic spices, and luxurious textiles. As I make my way through the jewelry market toward the spices, a vague memory guides me to a destination I once knew years ago.
I take a quick left and enter a small cul-de-sac with several high-end antique stores, where I soon see a familiar face amongst ancient lamps, carpets, antique silver, Damascene knives, elaborate pottery, and furniture inlaid with mother of pearl. A group of men sits on piles of carpets, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea. I approach them with a greeting: “Salam wa aleikum.”
Selim looks up with a smile, “Shoo? Alissa, it’s been a long time.” I laugh and give him a hug. Selim is one of the last remaining Jews in Damascus. Once over 100,000 strong, they lived in harmony with Christian and Muslims until 1948, when war broke out between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Life in Syria changed. Travel visas were denied and people suddenly felt watched. Slowly, in small numbers, they began to leave.
Finally, in 1994, the Syrian government agreed to let the remaining Jews emigrate to the United States and almost 4,000 left. “Today we are only about 40 left,” Selim explains. “Most are elderly men who can’t imagine living anywhere else, or single businessmen who can’t leave their jobs.”
He continues, “When I grew up, we had over 45 synagogues. It was a happy time. We celebrated our holidays, weddings, bar mitzvahs…” his eyes soften as he allows his mind to drift. “We have only two synagogues remaining, closed except for special days of worship.”
“Can I see one?” I ask. Selim pauses and then makes a call. “You can go. Now. My driver will take you.”
Surprised, I jump up and thank him. Selim’s driver arrives in a new BMW SUV and Selim smiles, shrugging his shoulders, slightly embarrassed by the extravagance. Into another time warp I climb and we speed through Damascus’ narrow streets in an air-conditioned bubble.
We pass a school yard and stop near a dull gray cement wall with a single door and a sign, “Kinise Jobar—Eliahou Nabil.” An old man opens the door carefully and welcomes me to the synagogue Eliahou Nabil, where faithful still worship. With one switch, the synagogue transforms and the tomb of St. Eliahou is illuminated before me, and beyond there are pulpits, ancient tomes, and framed documents. The size is impressive. I walk slowly, taking it all in while the elderly caretaker leads me to the far end of the sanctuary. He pushes back thick velvet drapes and reveals a beautifully decorated door. A final door is unlocked and he reveals the synagogue’s most revered treasure: the scrolls of the Holy Torah.
Places of powerful faith fill every corner of Damascus. In a small street of Bab Touma, the Christian quarter of the Old City, I find the Church of Ananias, named for the man who cured St. Paul of his blindness and baptized him into Christianity. The sanctuary is empty save for a few handwritten notes from visitors stuck between the stones. “If you open your heart, God will come in and fill it,” reads one written in English.
Deeper still, I wander until I come upon a smaller church, not listed in any guidebook, where mass is just ending. As worshipers spill out, I stand outside, marveling at the faith and sheer volume of religious structures in this city. A woman approaches me, asking shyly, in Arabic, where I am from. I respond, “Amereeka,” and we try to converse, though our language prevents much more than a smile and a nod. She invites me to her home for coffee, insisting that someone there speaks English.
By now well familiar with the concept of hospitality in Syria, I politely decline, but she won’t take no for an answer. Down a narrow alley I follow. Her doorway is sunken below a street level raised by centuries of life, and we duck to enter. A long hallway leads to an open living room reminiscent of a factory. The entire family sits on couches behind two long coffee tables. Pictures of Jesus, saints, and crosses adorn the walls. Everyone stares as I smile my greetings; we shake hands.
One of the younger women says hello confidently in English. Her name is Caroline and she works for Pepsi’s Damascus marketing team. She is visiting her family and helping her father with his small business, selling religious souvenirs to tourists. Caroline is a modern Syrian woman; 28 years old, she lives with an aunt, works for a western company, and dresses in jeans and T-shirts. Her father speaks some English as well. He reaches behind his chair for a picture of Jesus, explaining, “This picture is very important to me. Sometimes I can’t see in the eyes, but when my heart is open, I can see in his eyes and I talk to him. For more than 30 minutes sometimes.” The family has little, but they bring me coffee and biscuits and insist I stay for dinner. As much I would enjoy more of their company, I know it is time to leave.
Nighttime in the Old City evokes a certain wistfulness. As I wander the streets from busy Bab Touma to the quieter Muslim quarter, the final call to prayer echoes through the cooling air. Life carries on; tourists and families wander, sidewalk cafes are full, and old men while away the evening hours sipping tea and smoking nargileh. Soaking in the history and depth of this magical, ancient city, I remember Mark Twain’s quote and know I will be back:
“Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus. To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.” fundamentalist attire, while looking me straight in the eye. “Hello, my name is Mohammed,” he says, in an Oxford-perfect British accent.
“Are you visiting or living here?” Mohammed asks as we leave the mosque. “Visiting,” I respond. He looks down at my camera and continues, “I am from Britain, and moved last year to study Arabic and the ways of the Sufi. I have found some beautiful places to photograph. Most visitors never get beyond the Great Mosque and the souq, but there is much more to see. Come with me.”
I pause, overcome with curiosity. The intrigue of the hidden city, beyond the brightly lit marketplaces, busy city streets, and tourist attractions gets the best of me, so I go.
We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

We weave around the mosque into the Arab Quarter, through tiny dark alleys I have yet to explore. The city is still quiet, so we speak in whispers. I see several women in black robes covering them from head to foot. The women who wear these black hijabs are usually villagers or tourists. Damascus is a popular destination for Arab travelers as well.
“They are from Iran,” Mohammed explains, “pilgrims coming to worship at the mosque dedicated to Sayyida Ruqayya, the granddaughter of Ali and daughter of the martyr Hussein of Kerbala. It is a very important Shi’ite religious site.”
We turn another corner and a golden dome appears above the rooftops. A throng of fully veiled women crowd a blue-and-white-tiled arched entrance. I don a similar cloak the attendant hands me, disappearing in voluminous folds of black fabric, then remove my shoes.
The market’s dark alleyways slip from my mind as I cross a marble courtyard and glimpse the ivory dome and minaret glowing in the morning sun. Beyond, the interior dazzles, gleaming under sunlight beaming through artfully crafted windows and reflecting from minutely detailed fragments of beveled mirror on dozens of chandeliers. The mirrored mosaic continues across beams, columns, and vaulted ceilings leading to the tomb, where women weep and wail, sobbing the grief of centuries.
Mohammed has gone to pray on the men’s side, and I join the women, mourning the death of Ruqayya. A woman welcomes me, the only foreigner, patting the floor beside her and handing me a wrapped piece of chocolate. Awestruck, I marvel at the depth of their emotion. They sob and wail, some sitting on the floor studying the Koran, others massing at the tomb, pushing, stretching, and reaching to touch the gilded sides. Some have gifts, which they throw to the top of the tomb, while others rub clothing on the tomb to take home and share with those unable to make the trip.
Afterward, I find Mohammed in the courtyard, and we leave in silence. He guides me, floating through the alleys, into Hamiddiya Souq, where I gratefully and reluctantly bid goodbye to my new impromptu friend.

Old Damascus from Mathias Botfeldt on Vimeo.