Martyrs Square

The bronze colonnade in Marjeh square was erected in 1907 to commemorate the opening of the first telegraphic link in the Middle East - the line between Damascus and Medina (now in Saudi Arabia). On this spot, on May 6, 1916, Ottoman authorities hanged tens of Arab national leaders who called for independence from Turkey. Since then, Marjeh Square has been known as Sahet al-Shuhadaa - Martyrs' Square. The plate on the base of the colonnade is in Turkish, which used to be written in Arabic script until Kemal Ataturk ordered a change to a modified Latin alphabet in 1928.


What a Night

Just before the wedding party, friends and relatives of the bridegroom gather in his house for the talbeeseh party, when the 'arees (bridegroom) is dressed up for the big event while his friends cheerfully chant along with the traditional 'arada group:

Shennekleileh... Shennekleileh

Shoo hal leileh... Shoo hal leileh
(What a night... What a night!)

Men hal leileh hamal al salleh
(From this night on he'll carry the basket)

Men hal leileh sarlo 'eileh
(From this night on he'll have a family)

Allah ye'ino 'ala hal leileh
(May God help him this night!)


No Toilet

Tired of visitors who came in with intentions other than praying, the Imam of this Old Damascus mosque had to declare:

"Please... There is no toilet in the mosque!"


Going Down

Going down to Damascus from Mount Qassiyoun. Not many cars there on that snowy day, but on a summer Thursday or Friday night, there would be bumper-to-bumper traffic as people drive up to spend the weekend in the mountain towns of Bloudan and Zabadani, or just to have a picnic in the open space around the Unknown Soldier's monument.


Did She?

She became the ruler of a small Roman colony in the Syrian desert and wanted to turn it into an empire. Zenobia, the Arab queen of Palmyra, declared independence from Rome and defied that third-century superpower. She won battle after a battle, united Syria under her rule, invaded Asia Minor and reached the frontiers of Egypt. Her glory was not to last, though. The Romans marched in great armies, defeated the Palmyrans at Antioch, conquered Palmyra and left it in ruins, taking the Lady of Victory into captivity. But what happened to Zenobia after her capture remains a mystery: Was she really made to walk in the Emperor's Triumph in Rome, chained and humiliated? Or did she, as some historians claim, committ suicide before that? I hope she did.

* Picture: Zenobia on the 500 Syrian Pounds note.


As If...

It has been two years, Mother,
And the night of Damascus,
The jasmine of Damascus,
The houses of Damascus
Still inhabit our minds.
As if the Omayyad minarets
Are planted in our hearts.
As if the apple orchards
Are perfuming our conscience.
As if the lights and the stones
Have all traveled with us.

Nizar Qabbani 1923-1998
("Unofficial" translation)


Blessings Spread

After silently reciting Al-Fatiha (the first surah of the Quran), a Muslim wipes face with both palms, as a gesture of spreading blessings received by reading Allah's words.

May Allah's blessings spread all over earth this Eid. Happy Eid for you all.

* Pictures: Sitt Raqiyyeh Mosque, Damascus.


Standing Day

The day just before Eid is called al-Waqfeh (standing day) because on this day, in Mecca, pilgrims will be standing on Mount Arafat till sunset. Arab TV stations bring live coverage of the event, and people sit behind their TV screens to watch hundreds of thousands of men and women, dressed in white terrycloth that represents equality among pilgrims, while they invade those hilltops near Mecca and gradually turn their color from sandy brown to pure white.

* Picture: The Omayyad Mosque, Damascus.


Winter Recipe

The greatest warm-up in the bone-chilling cold: Fool Nabet - Hot black-eyed beans garnished with a lemon squeeze and a sprinkle of sour cumin. Tip: Before you start eating, grab the bowl with both hands while the warm vapors bring the fool/foul smell to your nostrils. Nothing can make you feel warmer.


The Challenge

Saladin, the legendary Muslim hero who defeated the Crusaders and liberated Jerusalem in the mid-12th century, is buried in Damascus, few meters away from the Great Omayyad Mosque.

It is said that when the French army under General Henri Gouraud occupied Damascus in July 1920, Gouraud walked up to Saladin's tomb and exclaimed, "Awake, Saladin! We have returned!"

To this day, Arabs are still waiting for Saladin to live up to the challenge.


Rooftop Mess

Typical rooftops of Damascus residential buildings: A mess of hanging wires and cables, water-storage tanks, air-conditioners, solar power panels, TV antennas and herds of satellite dishes, most of them looking towards Arabsat.


History Mosaic

A mosaic of history:

1. Archs of the Temple of Jupiter - Roman, 3rd century BC
2. Walls of the Mosque - Omayyad, 8th century AD
3. Western Minaret - Memluk, 15th century AD
4. Souk al-Hamidieh - Ottoman, 18th century AD
5. People - Syrian, 21st century AD



City Mall is the only western-style shopping mall in Damascus (two others were opened outside the city in Sabboura and on Daraa Highway). For reasons that are not well understood, it is known among taxi drivers as "Cetamol" (pronounced seetah-mol) which is the Syrian brand name for the pain killer Panadol/Tylenol.


Green Booster

On sale on a downtown Damascus pavement: "Zallouh Root: Sexual booster, general booster, for diabetes, nerve problems and back pain"

Zallouh is made from the root of the herb Ferula Hermonis, which grows at the height of 2000 meters above sea level on Mount Hermon between Syria and Lebanon. It has been used as an aphrodisiac since ancient times, and it is a well known folk remedy in some parts of Syria and Lebanon. It's chemical powers and benefits were studied and confirmed by doctors and scientists a few years ago, and the word spread worldwide. It was described by CNN in 1998 as the "Lebanese Viagra."


Those Alleyways

In those alleyways... How many treasures did I hide?
And how many childhood memories did I leave?

On their walls... How many pictures did I draw?
And on their stair-steps... How many toys did I break?

Oh Damascus, my wounds have no banks,
So wipe my sorrow off my brow.

-- Nizar Qabbani 1923-1998
("unofficial" translation)


The Pencils

When the Ottoman Turks occupied Syria in 1516, Sultan Selim I ordered the construction of al-Tekiyyeh Mosque on the banks of Barada River in Damascus. The people of Damascus did not like the typical Turkish style of the Mosque. Its pencil-shaped minarets looked weird, and people saw them as a symbol of Turkish domination, which they didn't expect to last for long. However, many other pencils were later constructed in Damascus, and the Ottomans stayed for 400 years.


Nofara Sounds

Al-Nofara. This small cafe, just outside the walls of the Omayyad Mosque, is the most famous in Old Damascus. Al-Nofara is always bustling with customers, usually men, who create a lively mixture of sounds: Loud laughter, rolling of dice on wooden backgammon boards and occasional periods of silence interrupted by a long sip from a tea cup or the bubbling of an argileh (waterpipe), then ended with a shout: "Narah ya walad!" (bring me some coal, boy!)