My driver speeds down a highway that is lined with kilometres of barbed wire to my left (turn-off signs to Lebanon beam overhead) and crumbling sandstone homes to my right.
As I near the inner realm of Damascus, I’m bombarded by erratic traffic and convoluted streets. My mind is spinning but my quiet driver knows exactly where to go.
It’s Friday, the holiest day in the Islamic week, and my desperate intrigue overrides any temptation to sleep off my jetlag. I check into my hotel and grab a city map to get my bearings. Car-filled streets from an hour ago are now deserted. Syrians have been summoned by their captivating call to prayer; an orchestrating echo across the city skyline.
I pace the streets in the heavy heat and I notice a collision of worlds here – elderly, sandstone buildings are adorned with TV satellite dishes and flashy Western-styled billboards spruiking electrical goods and shampoo.
I wander down Suq Al-Hamidiye, the historic lifeline of Damascene street culture. Sun rays innocently shine through bullet holes in the iron canopy towering above me; a remnant of a haunting time when Syria was air-raided by the French. Most traders are closed for the day but an occasional shop-front seduces me with aromatic pyramids of rich spices, nuts and pastries. A barrage of families walks towards me – some hand in hand, others licking ice-creams but all wearing elated smiles on their faces.
The Temple of Jupiter’s determined arch graces the mouth of Al-Hamidiye and announces my arrival at Umayyad Mosque. There is organised chaos at the western doorway as worshippers scrounge for their shoes. Suddenly, a black sea floods the square. Women dressed in flowing chadors emerge from Umayyad conversing and laughing loudly. I start to wonder if I’m allowed to enter. A local acknowledges my dilemma and motions me inside with an assertive, inviting hand. I unlace my shoes and clumsily wrap a scarf around my head.
Walking through to the elegant courtyard, overwhelming peace, calm and openness engulfs me. Cool marble tiles underfoot suck any worries and weariness from my body. I marvel at the mosaic patterns above the prayer hall. I’m enthralled by the treasury. I’m out-numbered by minarets soaring proudly towards the sky.
Families sit in shade from the prayer hall or bask in the sun. Children run, play chasey and giggle uncontrollably. Some men remain kneeling in the hall, their faces creased in deep prayer and reflection. This is a typical Friday afternoon in Damascus and I’m entwined in its vital strands – religion, family and unity.
Veiled women occasionally gaze up at me with wary, curious eyes and it dawns on me that I stick out dismally. Though, I smile back knowing that this is Damascus, a city doted by the Prophet Muhammad as “paradise”. Without a visit to one of the world’s oldest and holiest mosques on a Friday, a trip to the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world is pointless.
A shortened version of this story was entered into the World Nomad’s Travel Writing Scholarship 2011.