A modern capital whose voice - discreet but assured is having a decisive effect on the Arab world and in the Mediterranean area today.Damascus is said by its citizens to be "the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world".One other Syrian city, Aleppo, disputes this title. However, recent excavations have shown that it is the Hama region (the Orontes al Lattamne basin) which really deserves it.
Omayyad Mosque - At the heart of Damascus The Mamluk minaret framed between two Corinthian columns dating from fourteen centuries earlier, symbolizes the extraordinary mixture of influences that have gone to make up this city of nearly three million five hundred thousand people.
The Omayyad dynasty made Damascus the political, religious and cultural center of early Islam; but the built by Caliph Al Walid (705-715) included within its walls a church which had itself been built on the site of the temple of the god Hadad The Arameans. Salah al Din, the hero of Islam, lies buried in this city which the Crusaders were never able to invest; and it was not far from here that Paul of Tartous was converted.
Damascus is mentioned in the earliest historic texts - Egyptian records of the 19th century B.C. and the archives of Mari, dating from the 25th century B.C.
Further back, history gives way to legend and speaks of "Dimashq al Sham". Legend too, gives way to poetry, in which it is said that when Christ returns to Earth to do battle with the Anti-Christ, he will make his way down by the highest minaret of the Omayyad Mosque.
The oldest city in the world?… To be sure, but is it not so because the secret of longevity is change, and because timelessness can only be achieved through evolution?
No matter what his route, the visitor is struck by much that is new in Damascus. Arriving from the International Airport he sees many recent technical installations , ultra modern hotels, and the improvement of the arid zones on the edge of the desert.
If he comes by motorway - from Homs, Hama or Aleppo, he sees a vast new industrial area, wide avenues and clear-ways right to the heart of the city. Coming from Beirut he passes the University Residence, the extensive duty-free zone, the International fair with its great concrete arrow, the handle of which symbolizes the Damascus sword. If he comes in from Qunaytra he sees a satellite-city under construction - Dimashq ad-Jadideh, New Damascus.
There is also the new mountain road, leading into the city from the north after having climbed almost to the summit of the Jabal Qassiun; it offers a splendid panoramic view of Damascus and the green slopes around it. Other features include the three sports complexes, finished in 1976 to receive the Arab Olympic games.
Finally, the city center is being restructured to cope with heavy traffic and to provide the business premises, offices, hotels and administrative buildings that are urgently needed.
A sea of cars and people
Early in the morning , and above all in the evenings, the old city and the central quarters overflow with a human tide that surges from the pavements into the roadways, causing furious hooting from the motorists and vain shouting from the traffic police. Chains and protective barriers would seem to have been devised merely to serve as a training ground of obstacle racing… Very often the tide loses momentum and people drop out to stand in bus queues, to stop at the news vendors’ stalls, and to stand around in little groups and discuss the news in front of "super palatial" cinemas with advertisements all over them…
If the peddlers’ trays - laden with gewgaws, edible seeds and cigarettes sold individually - rarely attract the attention of the passers by, the same cannot be said of the shop-windows crammed with transistor radios, tape-recorders and, the latest craze, cassettes.
Garlands of oranges and lemons, great glass jars misted over from the ice-cold juices they contain, proclaim the narrow shop where you need little encouragement to buy freshly-squeezed fruit juices. In the neighboring roast-meat shop they tend to prefer a modern automatic spit that can take fifty or a hundred chickens at a time, to the traditional kebab skewers and the vertical "Shawarma" introduced by the Ottomans. And there behind the window stands a man with a big knife who, quick as a flash, will cut you one, two or ten slices from an apricot and semolina cake as big as a millstone…
Vanishing turbans and fezzes The crowds are dense, but peaceable; even the children rarely get excited. The people are pleasant, courteous and helpful when necessary, but rarely demonstrative or spontaneously familiar. A stranger in their midst does not arouse excessive curiosity; they show a reserve that it would be wrong to interpret as indifference - being more often the result of the difficulty of communication.
Dress is also a cause of astonishment to the foreigner encountering an anonymous crowd here for the first time.
The galabiehs, the turbans and the fezzes, that used to be worn, are being rapidly replaced by somewhat dreary European clothes. Even the "Kufiyeh", the headdress consisting of a piece of red or black check toweling held in place by a pit - so practical for desert travel - is seldom seen. In the general monotony the occasional sheikh’s turban, or the soutane of an Orthodox priest, stands out.
Fortunately the younger generation of Damascus women have the secret of blending simplicity with elegance - consigning the black veil, worn closed like a monk’s hood, to folklore.