SYRIA - Damascus
Damascus is Syria's
largest city and capital. It grew up around the Barada River and
Ghouta Oasis, which make life possible in an otherwise uninhabitable
landscape. Damascus is another contender for the world's oldest
continuously inhabited city - there was a settlement here as long
ago as 5000 BC.
Today, its fascination
lies in its mysterious oriental bazaars and the gracious, somewhat
decayed, charm of some of Islam's greatest monuments. The centre
of the city is Martyrs' Square (aka Saahat ash-Shohada) - most
of the restaurants and hotels are close by.
Visual art in the
Arab world often means architecture, largely because Islam forbids
the depiction of living beings. Throughout Syria you will find
some spectacular ancient and classical sites, with relics left
by the Muslim caliphs, the Romans and the Byzantines. There are
also plenty of religious works left behind by the Crusaders. The
Quran is one of the finest examples of classical Arabic writing.
Toward the end of the 10th century, Syria was the focal point
of one last great flash of Arab. Bedouin artworks include silver
jewelry, colorful textiles and a wide range of knives.
is a cornerstone
of Arab life. It is commonplace for Syrian families, particularly
desert dwellers, to welcome strangers into their home. The tradition
developed from the harshness of desert life - without food, water
and shelter provided by strangers, most desert travelers would
die. Wherever you go in Syria, you are likely to hear the word,
tafaddal (loosely translated as welcome) and you will frequently
be invited into people's homes for food or a cup of tea.
is the predominant
religion in Syria. A monotheistic religion, Islam's holy book
is the Quran, five times a day, Muslims are called to prayer from
the minarets of mosques that dot the country. Islam derives from
the same monotheistic roots as Judaism and Christianity, and Muslims
generally regard Christians and Jews with respect - in Islam,
Jesus is regarded as one of the Prophets of Allah, and Jews and
Christians are considered fellow 'people of the Book'. Mohammed
was the last Prophet, and it was to him that Allah dictated the
Quran. Most Syrian Muslims belong to the Sunni sect of Islam,
but there are sizeable Shiite, Druze and Alawite minorities.
Islamic law forbids
the eating of pork and drinking of alcohol, and this law is
followed to a greater or lesser extent throughout Syria. Islam
also has a tendency to divide the sexes, and you might find
that many eating establishments only welcome men. Most of these
will, if asked, show you to the 'family room', an area set aside
for women and their partners of men. When Syrians eat out, they
will usually order group meals - a selection of mezze, or starters,
followed by main meals to share. Arabic unleavened bread, or
khoobz Arabi, is eaten with almost everything. The other staples
are felafel, deep-fried chickpea balls; shwarma, spit-cooked
sliced lamb; and foul, a paste of fava beans, garlic and lemon.
Mensaf is a Bedouin specialty - a whole lamb, head included,
on a bed of rice and pine nuts.
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