The capital was to be our last port of call on our magical Syrian tour. The bus from Palmyra was packed, so we took the only available seats right at the back on the left hand side. Before long a soldier was leaning on Hamish’s shoulder fast asleep!
We stopped half way for a foodstop. There was a huge bear of a man stirring a large pot of stew that most passengers consumed along with a portion of rice. An even bigger man who had been driving a truck, devoured three portions in the 30 minuted we waited. Hamish & I contented ourselves with a bag of crisps and a banana.
We arrived in Damascus on time to be dropped at the main bus station on the outskirts of the city. There was the usual scrum of taxi touts, our chosen chariot dropping us in the centre. We secured a hotel at our first place of asking, but for one night only. The city was particularly busy for some reason, meaning that we ended up in a different hotel for each of our three nights stay.
The decision had been made that we would stay put in Damascus rather than undertaking any more side trips. There was a tempting journey south to Bosra to see the Roman ruins and particularly the superbly preserved amphitheatre, but we were in need of a rest from extensive travelling, so stuck to our decision.
Damascus turned out to be a brilliant city to visit with the undoubted highlight being the Great Umayyad Mosque, but for me it never quite grabbed me in the way that Aleppo had. Maybe this was the result of a little travel fatigue, we did however have a wonderful time with there.
There were a few hours of daylight left that first afternoon, so we rushed down to the souk area. The vibrant souk was fabulous as you would expect, but Aleppo definitely had scored higher in this regard. We had a totally enjoyable wander all the same. Can you ever tire of visiting souks & markets anywhere?
We had seen a fab looking wooden cafe with large balcony terrace overlooking the souk, so decided to take mint tea and baklava there.
No sooner had we bitten into the honey sweet treat, than we heard a huge commotion below. A shopkeeper was chasing two shoplifters brandishing a large wooden pole. The thieves took several hefty whacks to their head, back & shoulders before dropping their bounty and running off into the crowds to lick their wounds. Justice Syrian style. Blimey!
Near our hotel stood Hejaz Railway Station, then used for administrative & retail purposes only plus to serve as a reminder of when the station thronged with Muslims bound for Mecca & Medina in Saudi Arabia.
The building itself was very well maintained with its stained glass windows and well-polished wooden floors, stairs & balconies, a majestic wooden roof and ornate ticket booths. There were also many pictures adorning the walls of pilgrims massed onto steam trains, animated in their joy at the prospect of fulfilling the Hajj, one of the five pillars of Islam and thus confirming their status as devout believers.
The photographs were wonderfully evocative and certainly made me joyful just looking at them. Out of the back windows, you could still see some tracks. Overgrown and rusting maybe, but it was not hard to imagine them bursting wife life and energy. What a carnival a departing train must have been as Muslims from the likes of Jordan, Lebanon & Turkey joined their Syrian brothers.
Our enthusiasm for the pictures and the whole railway building caught the eye of one of the administrators. The grey-haired and moustachioed gentleman then proceeded to tell us the history of the station and its trains.
The train never did actually make further than the 1300km to Medina some 400km short of Mecca, but it was still extensively used with the journey to the holiest of Islamic sites finished by other means. The heyday had only lasted around eight years from 1908 when the line to Medina had been completed up until the first Great War.
The building of the railway by the Ottoman Empire had been designed to cut the journey time from the Empire’s capital in Istanbul to Mecca from forty days to five, but this was interrupted first by the advent of WWI and then the fall of the Empire in 1920, which was when the majority of the railway ceased to operate all together.
So enchanted were we that he uttered the words, “would you like to visit the new museum of Syrian Railway History?” We did not need asking twice and soon found ourselves in a taxi bound for Kadam station on the outskirts of the city.
Kadam was now Damascus’s main operating train station with trains available to the likes of Amman & Aleppo, as well as the site of the museum and a working train maintenance depot.
Well I was pretty excited by all the exhibits and the goings on, but Hamish who is a self-professed railway nut was in his element.
The exhibits included old radios, parts of locomotives, signalling equipment, photographs, timetables, uniforms and much more.
However, it was the working train sheds and maintenance works that took the biscuit and sent Hamish into a proper frenzy. Old locos and carriages from Romania, heavy equipment and even the wooden carcass of a new carriage being built on site.
We were allowed to stroll around as sparks flew and hammers pounded around us. Outside stood restored steam engines lined up in neat rows.
Just as we were about to leave after a real schoolboys delight, an engine pulling a load of wood chugged towards us and off into the distance – you can see a short video by clicking here.
A very enjoyable couple of hours indeed.
It is not very often that the beauty of a building brings tears to my eyes, but a rare such occurrence happened to me when visiting the main mosque in Damascus, which has stood since 715 and is considered by many Muslims to be the 4th holiest place in Islam.
During the daytime the Umayyad Mosque was awesome and a fitting place to site the Mausoleum of Saladin, but it was night time that the place really shone brightly to bring out the emotion in me. The undoubted highlight of our time in Damascus.
As day turned to dusk, the call to prayer summoned worshippers from all around the city. One thing that really stood out to me was the number of families enjoying the main courtyard for a relaxing stroll before going to pray in the main hall, divided into two halves – one for women & children and one for men.
The interior of the hall was wonderful with its ornate stucco mihrabs, plush carpets, carved columns, wonderful ceiling and richly decorated shrines.
However, it was the outside that really captivated me. The place was lit to perfection, shining golds & greens off the marble surface of the walls & domes and the stone minarets.
Lanterns hung from the ceilings of the columned arcades and all blazed away into the moonlit dark blue sky, .
I was spellbound, but recovered my composure enough to click away to capture the scenes for ever. That is until unfortunately the time came for the guards to quite rightly usher the few travellers out, to leave the majestic venue for the worshippers.
Although never quite matching the Great Mosque for splendour, there were other highlights in Damascus, particularly the Iranian Mosque and the medersa.