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Written by SETH SHERWOOD (NYT)   
Tuesday, 07 December 2010 15:37

36 Hours in Damascus

John Wreford for The New York Times

The venerated eighth-century Umayyad Mosque. More Photos »

DAMASCUS loves to flaunt its age. It claims to be the world’s oldest inhabited city — replete with biblical and Koranic lore, Roman ruins, ancient Islamic edifices and Ottoman-era palaces. But that’s not to say the Syrian capital is stuck in time. Dozens of centuries-old mansions have been reborn as Mideast-chic hotels, and fashionable shops and restaurants have arisen in the ancient lanes of the Old City. Throw in a fledgling generation of bars and clubs, and the age-old metropolis has never looked so fresh.



5 p.m.

“Rise and go to the street called Straight.” That was God’s dictum to Ananias of Damascus, who cured Saul after he was famously blinded by the light, leading to his conversion and new identity as Paul. It’s still excellent advice. In recent years, the ancient edifices along Straight Street have welcomed design shops, Wi-Fi cafes and stylish hangouts like the Khan (Straight Street, Midhat Pasha Suq, Maktab Anbar district; 963-11-544-99340; The artsy mall opened this year in a 17th-century mansion and is filled with cool shops and galleries like Tajalliyat Art Gallery (which specializes in Syrian contemporary painters), Yabi & Yamo (modern updates of classic Syrian furniture) and Khanoum (Middle Eastern fashion designers).

8 p.m.

Also on Straight Street is Naranj (963-11-541-3600), a stylish new restaurant across from the Roman Arch. Under carved wood ceilings and soaring archways, a well-heeled international crowd smokes water pipes and chats animatedly as white-clad waiters serve excellent mezze including mekanek, tender sausages soaked in a light lemon broth. Also worthwhile are djaj mousakhan (a Levantine answer to the egg roll made from diced chicken that gets dusted in tangy sumac powder and deep fried in an oily-crisp bread shell) and burghal bi dfin (a slow-cooked leg of lamb served with mounds of fluffy steamed burghal). A large meal for two, without wine, runs about 2,000 lira (as Syrian pounds are commonly called), about $45 at 44.5 lira to the dollar.

10 p.m.

Cozy couches, bookshelves, local artworks and a decent bar have made Cham Mahal Art Café (Al Amin Street; 963-11-543-5349) into a de facto living room for the city’s creative set. On certain nights you’ll find jazz, guitar, flamenco or other groups giving concerts. The music sounds even better with a bottle of Lebanese Al Maza beer (100 lira) or a glass of Lebanese wine (175 lira) from Chateau Ksara.


10 a.m.

One of the holiest sites in Islam is the Umayyad Mosque. Built in the early eighth century on the former site of the Roman temple to Jupiter, the vast rectangular structure is celebrated for its green and gold mosaics, and for the Islamic figures buried there. Just above the north wall is the mausoleum of Saladin, the celebrated medieval leader of the Islamic forces against Richard the Lion-Hearted and the Crusaders. In the east wing, black-clad mourners pay their respects at the silver coffin of the Shiite martyr Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, whose murder in A.D. 680 cemented the great Sunni-Shiite split. Admission: 50 lira.


Looking for great hummus, tabbouleh and kebabs? Look elsewhere. The tiny Grape Leaves cafe (just south of Al Qemerieh Street; 963-11-542-6160) ditches Mideastern culinary stereotypes in favor of simple, rustic home cooking. The young guys behind the counter serve earthy dishes like sheikh al mahshi (a gloriously sloppy ragout of zucchini stuffed with ground lamb in a warm yogurt sauce over rice) and fasoulia bil zeit (a vegetarian mix of slow-cooked green beans and lentils in a tomato-garlic sauce). The milky-sweet rice pudding is a fine finish. Lunch for two is around 550 lira.

2 p.m.

While the Old City’s best-known bazaar is undoubtedly Souk El Hamidiyeh, the real treasures are hidden deeper in the maze. Fadi (across from the south wall of the Umayyad Mosque; 963-11-221-1848) has gauzy red vests with ornate embroidery handmade from camel and goat hair (2,500 lira). The two-year-old DanMas shop (Maktab Anbar Street; 963-93-331-9180) carries hand-loomed cotton towels (2,200 lira) and hooded bathrobes (6,000 lira). And Ghassan Orientals (across from Al-Maljaa park; 963-11-543-5615) specializes in handmade furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl patterns.

5 p.m.

Sweltering in a hot, wet underground room and having your skin scoured by a stranger might not sound like the sexiest form of fitness, but the time-honored tradition is remarkably restorative. Built in the 14th century, Hammam Al Nasri (Al Nassiri Street, Old City, south of Straight Street; 963-11-543-6126) reopened this summer after a half-century of disuse. Grab a towel, take a seat in the tile-lined inner sanctum and let the superheated vapors purge the filth and toxins from your pores. Afterward, a hammam worker will rub you with an exfoliating glove, wrap you in soft towels and lead you into the tea lounge. The experience costs 380 lira. Note: The hammam is women-only every day until 4 p.m. Afterward it is exclusively for men; Friday is men only.


8 p.m.

If you learn only one Arabic phrase, “kebab karaz” might offer the tastiest payoff. It means cherry kebab, and the combination of succulent lamb chunks and sour-sweet cherry sauce is a beloved dish from the Syrian city of Aleppo. At the new Luluat al Sharq restaurant (Jisr al Abyad, New Damascus; 963-11-331-1604), which translates as Pearl of the East, the noted chef Yasser Jneidi serves Aleppan delicacies in a lavishly restored early-20th-century mansion. The silky-smooth hummus is whipped with generous infusions of tahini and lemon juice, and the glistening red muhammara (made from finely diced nuts, spices and olive oil) has an admirable kick. A meal for two, without drinks, runs about 2,500 lira. 

11 p.m.

Rub elbows with the city’s young, Western-oriented Syrians at Z-Bar (Omayad Hotel, corner of Maysaloun and Brazil Streets, New Damascus; 963-11-221-7700; , a sleek rooftop bar with some pricey bottles of Roberto Cavalli vodka on the shelf. The style-conscious and alcohol-laden crowd sways to house, trance and Arabic pop music, while marveling at the nocturnal views. Even swankier, the open-air dance floor of Dome (Unknown Soldier Road, East Doummar district; 963-99-155-5444; feels like Syria via South Beach, with its white Chesterfield couches and white neo-Baroque bar stools. The 20- and 30-something patrons get dolled up in high hemlines and plunging necklines, designer jeans and fat silvery watches.


10 a.m.

Visitors to the National Museum (Al Jamiaa Street; 963-11-222-8566) usually make a beeline to its two famous artifacts: a tablet from the ancient city of Ugarit inscribed with what is believed to be one of the world’s first known alphabets and the ornate Jewish temple from the vanished desert town of Dura Europos. But other masterpieces lurk in lesser-viewed corners. Among them are the Mari wing, which includes a gypsum statue of the singer of the temple of Ur-Nanshe, with his curiously androgynous look, and a wing devoted to Islamic-era ceramics, metalwork and carvings, including a rare plate depicting the Tree of Life. Admission: 150 lira.

1 p.m.

Damascus offers much more than just tablecloths and cheap souvenirs. The handicraft souk next to the Tekkiye Suleymaniye mosque is noted for its skilled artisans and (generally) fixed prices. The leather master Ahmad Jaqmiri (main alley; 963-11-224-7590) fashions handmade belts (600 to 1,500 lira) and bags in all sizes (from 350 lira). And just off the souk’s main passage in a small courtyard, the female weavers at Wardy feed strands of wool into a wooden hand-operated loom. The colorful, geometric carpets (1,000 lira) weave together age-old tradition with contemporary styling.


Opened this year, Agenor (Straight Street; 963-11-541-3651; is a luxurious 12-room boutique hotel in a 19th-century mansion brimming with ornate mosaics, intricately carved wood, hammered copper, inlaid furniture and other sumptuous traditional details. Doubles from $225.

Al Pasha Hotel (Zaitoun Street; 963-11-543-0100;, another 2010 creation, is a 16-room minipalace that features lavish old- style Damascene décor. A gym, spa and pleasant outdoor bar are on the premises. Doubles from $195.

Decades ago, the grand Art Deco-style Orient Palace Hotel (Hijaz Square, new Damascus; 963-11-221-1510; entertained visiting celebrities and heads of state. The hotel is now a shell of its former self, but the faded glory and central location make it a decent budget option. Doubles: $60.















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