Say hello to our newest Contributor, Singapore-based, Hajar Ali, the founder of Urbane Nomads (www.urbanenomads.com), a niche travel agency that seeks to deliver the most unique travel experiences, whether in localities yet to be discovered or favored tourist destinations. Urbane Nomads actively promotes new, exciting design, taking an active interest in the culture and history of the area with intelligent tours that aim to go ‘under the skin’ of the place.
Two years ago, I spent more time than scheduled in Lebanon, experiencing a relatively sedate New Year’s Celebration in Beirut, affected both by the somber political mood in the wake of Hariri’s assassination, a sullen economy, and an increased hostility towards neighboring Syria. I’d crossed overland to Damascus via the Lebanese-Syrian border a few days after the New Year.
Over my next few days in Syria, the UN commission investigating the assassination of Hariri would seek out an interview of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, its foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa and former Syrian vice-president Abdul Halim-Khaddam in connection with Hariri’s assassination. Spilling over from a pro-Hariri demonstration I’d witnessed in Beirut, there were increasing calls for Syrian troops to move out of Lebanon. By the end of my stay in Syria, I witnessed the mobilization of Syrian soldiers and the increased prominence of UN vehicles on the streets of Damascus.
In contrast to Beirut’s landscaped sidewalks, clean streets and fresh, clean air, the streets of Damascus felt chaotic, the air dank and it was all too apparent I had crossed over to another country. The taxi driver couldn’t seem to find my hostel and after what seemed like an hour on Damascus’ chaotic streets, I’d changed my mind about staying in a hostel. I’d thought of Damascus’ boutique hotel installation, Beit Al-Mamlouka, but didn’t want to risk confusing the driver again so I went with Cham Palace Damascus, an indigenous chain of luxury hotels that I thought would be instantly recognizable.
That seemed to be the right call when I found myself comfortably ensconced in the lobby of Cham Palace within the next twenty minutes. Checking into the hotel was an instruction in Syria’s artisanal culture. Everything from the lobby to swivel chairs and the lift were decorated with an elaborate inlay of mother of pearl and ivory characteristic of Syrian decorative style. The Lebanese designer Nada Debs (www.nadadebs.com) had found international acclaim incorporating the decorative mother of pearl and ivory inlays within the more contemporary medium of Lucite as opposed to the traditional wood-inlay combination.
In the lobby, I met two Italian ladies who had smiled kindly at me at the Lebanese-Syrian border while we were awaiting our entry visas. One of them invited me to join them to visit the Omayyad Mosque and Souk Hammadiyeh later in the afternoon. I was glad for the company and help navigating around the city. I have an awful sense of direction, completely unable to make sense of a map and anyway, have always thought it more useful to ask locals or long-time residents for directions rather than go around with a huge map in hand.
We were headed for Souk Hammadiyeh, but not before stopping by Omayyad Mosque. The legends and mythology surrounding Omayyad Mosque are fascinating. Muslim tradition believes that the severed head of John the Baptist is contained in a silver capsule in the prayer hall with an alternative theory being that it is the Knights Templar that has possession of this severed head. The tomb of Salah ad-Din, or Saladin to Crusaders, is located within the compounds of this mosque. The eastern minaret, or the minaret al-Issa, is believed to be the place where Prophet Issa (Jesus PBUH) will descend, on the wings of two angels, during a time of crisis to lead believers in their battle against the Antichrist.
(c) Martin Gray
The architecture of the Omayyad Mosque, like most mosques, derives solely from geographic shapes, complimented by high ceilings, providing an almost zen tranquility to the space. Various architectural elements are telling of the various influences on this mosque – the open courtyard, a place you might want to spend some time during dusk for its beautiful atmosphere (and excellent photographic opportunities), has been attributed to the influences of Yemeni temples as well as a pre-Islamic Kaa’ba (today the centre of the Islamic pilgrimage, or hajj) and the ‘accentuation of the main nave’ was seen as a direct influence of Omayyad architecture. (source: Muslimheritage.com)
Walking down to the nearby souks, one encounters everything from delicious candies – the Syrians apparently take their sweets very seriously if the proliferation of sweet shops on the streets of Damascus are anything to go by – and dried fruits, soaps, jallabiyas (loose female clothing) and the most attractive blown glass art abound. Olga, one of the two Italian ladies who kindly invited me along, remarked: ‘The Venetians learned the art of glass blowing from the Syrians’. I was tempted to get the water jars, with a beautifully prismatic colour pattern retailing at a price that most of you reading this would have dismissed as ‘nothing, but I was afraid it wouldn’t survive the journey, given the multiple road transfers I was planning on…
Stay tuned for Part II of Hajar’s Middle East jaunt!