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.
Hospitality 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.
Islam 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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