Sunday, December 30 2000

It’s afternoon now. I’ve spent the morning in the National Museum amongst carved statuary and screens, glass, pottery, inlaid swords, suits of chain mail and a room which was panelled, painted, carved, domed and richly dim. 

I enter the  mosque tentatively, not quite sure of protocols, and find myself in an area of space and shade, where I’m offered a long brown robe with a hood and watch a gardener sweep up leaves, and knock a huge rough-skinned lemon off one of the courtyard trees close to the mausoleum of Saladin. I move into the main area, the area shown in the postcard and I’m overwhelmed by detail: minarets, marble inlay, wooden screens, lapis lazuli and gold. Above it all swirls of pigeons.

Inside the mosque is vast. Children race up and down the centre part, skidding on rugs and falling flat on their backsides. Groups of women sit in groups off to the side chatting. Men, shoes lined up neatly behind them, prostrate themselves in prayer. An old man sits talking to earnest groups and blessing children. I too sit at the foot of a pillar, taking it all in.

As I put my shoes back on, a small boy wearing a Pooh Bear jacket takes up his position in front of me and looks with huge brown eyes at this strange woman, who smiles back without breaking his concentrated stare.

The day hasn’t ended yet. I move into the calligraphy museum next door. There is a woman caretaker and I feel more at ease. I’m in a square space with an octagonal fountain in the centre, which suddenly comes to life. The ceiling is gold and blue-corniced and richly painted with vases  and spirals of flowers; the back wall opens into a casement with heavy, brass-barred doors; behind an arch a stained glass window. I sit down, sketching and describing. What began by looking like relatively simple patterning proves to be intricacy within intricacy: pink, gold, green, white, black, grey, red. This focused frenzy of description comes to an end when my fingers begin to freeze: a functioning fountain is best on a hot day.

I walk the length of the street called Straight: the churches of Ananias and St Paul; keffiyehs, iqals, sacks of pulses and grain; a small foundry with two young men cross legged rhythmically banging something glowing and metallic; another young man sitting on the kerb demonstrating a kind of kitchen whizz, chopping parsley and making a lattice of potatoes.


A short slideshow in the courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque


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That was my experience of Damascus seventeen years ago. For Damascus now, read this.