The capital was to be the last port of call on our magical Syrian tour in 2009.
Damascus vies with Aleppo as being the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, both having a history of over 6,000 years.
Like its Northern neighbour (see my entry for A), Damascus is stuffed with highlights.
Umayyad Mosque Damascus
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.
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.
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?
Hejaz Railway Station
The station was used for administrative & retail purposes only when we visited, though it also served 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.
A member of staff saw our admiration for the photographs and then proceeded to give us a history of the railway.
The train never did actually make further than the 1300 km to Medina some 400 km 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 our historian 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 my travel companion 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.
Although never quite matching the Great Mosque for splendour, there were other highlights in Damascus, particularly the Iranian Mosque and the medersa.
The city beginning with the letter D that I would most like to visit that I haven’t yet? Durban in South Africa.
How about you?
Look out for E on Monday.