Flourishing for more than 40 centuries, Damascus has been a Greek, Roman and Christian metropolis—as well as the capital of the first Islamic dynasty. In the capital city, layers of the past are as apparent as the modern hotel towers and traffic jams.
Damascus, which spreads out in a wide 15-mi/25-km radius spanning the Barada River, is divided into a new section and the walled Old City. The Old City is still the commercial and social heart of Damascus, and a treasure chest of historical sites.
You'll most likely enter the Old City at its western end, next to the citadel. The large, open archway leads directly into the Souk al Hamidiyeh, the largest of several interconnected covered bazaars. It runs in a semistraight line, east and west, to a Roman arched gateway (once part of the Temple of Jupiter), which opens onto a large square.
Across the square is the city's most important landmark and one of Islam's oldest monuments: the Great Mosque of Damascus, also known as the Umayyad Mosque. Founded in the early eighth century, it is a must-see. The ticket office is near the northwest corner. (Women must don one of the provided robes.)
Before you enter the mosque, you'll pass by the Mausoleum of Salah ad Din (Saladin), which is also included in the admission price. Beyond that, a gate leads into the large courtyard (remove your shoes before entering). Take time to admire the three minarets and the green and gold mosaics—especially on the main portal and the raised treasury. You can enter the mosque's prayer hall at either end of the courtyard.
Walk around the prayer hall first—if prayers aren't being said—and then have a seat on the carpets and soak in the decorative elements, such as the recycled Roman columns and capitals, inlaid marble panels, painted ceilings, stained-glass windows, and crystal chandeliers. (The shrine near the center of the prayer hall is said to contain the severed head of John the Baptist.) The mosque provides a great atmosphere for people-watching.
There are many other architectural gems in the Old City. South of the Great Mosque is the Azem Palace, once the home of an Ottoman governor and now a museum. Farther south is Khan As'ad Pasha, a voluminous commercial building crowned by eight domes.
North of the Great Mosque are several lovely madrasas (theological schools), including Madrasa Jaqmaqiyya, which houses the Arab Epigraphy Museum. The Science and Medical Museum is in another attractive building, Maristan Nureddin.
Continue south to the Street Called Straight, the 2,000-year-old Roman Via Recta, which runs the entire length of the Old City. (Unfortunately, it's also a major thoroughfare for cars, making it an unpleasant route for pedestrians.) Near the halfway point are the remains of a Roman archway, and east of that is the Christian quarter.
Many denominations—Greek Orthodox, Syrian Catholic, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic and Maronites—have churches in the quarter. The Chapel of Ananias contains the cellar, where—according to biblical tradition—Ananias restored Saul's (St. Paul's) sight.
Traditional domestic architecture is another highlight of Damascus. Several of the grand courtyard houses have been restored and adapted to a variety of uses (many of them are restaurants). The most easily accessible are Beit Nizam, Maktab Anbar, Beit Aqqad (houses the Danish Institute) and Beit Nassan. About a 15-minute walk north of the Old City, the Historical Museum of Damascus is another fine example of an old residence and definitely worth a visit.
For quiet time and relaxation, visit one of the many hammams in the city, such as Hammam Nureddin (next to Khan As'ad Pasha, it's 800 years old and the most famous, but a bit touristy) or Hammam Bakri (in the Christian quarter).
West of the Old City are several other impressive sights. From Souk al Hamidiyeh, continue on Al Naser Street. A few blocks down and to your right is Al-Merjeh (Martyrs' Square), with a concentration of restaurants and juice bars. Continuing on Al Naser Street, you'll come to the Hejaz Railway Station, a late-Ottoman building constructed in 1913. It has a steam locomotive parked just outside the main entrance.
A few blocks farther is the Tekkiye Mosque complex. Built under the supervision of the Turkish architect Sinan and completed around 1560, the buildings reflect Ottoman styles with elements such as the thin, pencil-like minarets.
Don't be startled to see a MiG jet parked outside. The complex shares its grounds with a military museum, which has rooms full of antique swords, daggers and other weapons. A nearby crafts market in a former madrasa rounds out the picture.
Across the street from the Tekkiye is the National Museum (the entrance is around the corner to the north, near the river). Probably the most comprehensive museum in Syria, it displays ancient, classical and Islamic artifacts found throughout the country. As you leave, take advantage of the cafe outside, in the calm, shady gardens, which are also filled with artifacts.
For a good view of Damascus (particularly at night), take a taxi up to Mount Qassioun. For longer day trips, consider Bosra, Seydnaya and Maaloula. Plan at least three nights in Damascus, more if you're taking day trips.
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