In the bathhouse, they say, all men are equal. But some, I couldn’t help but noticing, were more equal than others. Stripped down to a damp towel and a pair of wooden clogs, in the Nour Eddin Hammam in Damascus, it was really all about flesh. The big guys lolled about like silver-backs, slapping one another’s meaty thighs, while the less well endowed looked on from the sidelines like slender juveniles, dreaming of the happy day when they too would have paunches the size of independent Ottoman provinces. Surrounded by Big Bellies. I felt like a pencil jammed between the cushions of a sagging sofa.
We sat for a time in the sauna in eerie silence, sweating quietly. Then one of the Bellies leaned towards me.
‘France?’ its owner asked timidly.
‘England,’ I said.
‘Ahlan, ahlan,’ the Bellies chorused. ‘Welcome, welcome.’
The Bellies took me under their wing. In the first room beyond the sauna, a sort of tepidarium, they handed me over to the scrubbing masseur who lurked in a side chamber with a supply of coarse grain sandpaper. I could see that I was a disappointment to him. With so little flesh it was hard for him to know where to start. While he gave me a vigorous seeing to, I closed my eyes and thought about antiquity.
Damascus is the world’s oldest surviving city. The first reference to her appears in Genesis, in the time of Abraham, somewhere about 1700 BC. Her contemporaries have all fallen into ruin millennia ago: Carthage, Thebes, Babylon, Persepolis, Ephesus, Nineveh. But Muslims, including my well-bellied friends, believe that Damascus is far older than that. To them the city was the site of the original Garden of Eden; God is said to have fashioned Adam from the clay of the Barada River which stills flows beneath its walls. From the ancient wall of Damascus, the rest of the world — from Beijing to Rome — begins to look like modern suburban sprawl.
At the centre of the old city lies the great Umayyad Mosque, the history of Damascus in stone. If there is a sense of ghosts it is no wonder. The building began life, perhaps 1000 BC, perhaps earlier, as a pre-Roman Aramean temple honouring the old gods of Mesopotamia and Canaan. When the Romans arrived they made it a vast basilica for the worship of Jupiter. When Christianity held sway it was transformed into a Byzantine church, and finally with the Arab invasions, it began a new life as a mosque, 1300 years ago.
Each incarnation can be found among its old stones. Aramean coins lie among the foundation blocks. Roman columns litter the forecourt, and Roman busts are set into the walls as a building blocks. The Byzantines inspired the glorious mosaics which still adorn the courtyard while Islam added minarets, ablution fountains, a new dome and carpets.
I had spent the morning in the mosque. In its vast sweep you can still see the form of the triple-aisled Roman basilica. But the longer I lingered, the more intimate it felt. There is comforting domesticity about all those carpets, and the fact you have left your shoes outside. Families wandered about, couples posed for photographs in front of the shrine of John the Baptist, children chased one another, people sat propped up against pillars, reading or chatting, while those exhausted by the tumult of the old city caught a nap on the low window ledges.
The muezzin, fresh from giving the call to prayer, came over to pump my hand and welcome me to Damascus. He had a merry chuckling face framed by a white beard. ‘Are you waiting for Jesus,’ he asked teasingly.
He led me out in the courtyard, where Iranian pilgrims were weeping outside a shrine that contained the head of Hussein, and pointed at the minaret in the south-east corner. ‘The Jesus Minaret,’ he said. ‘When Jesus returns to earth’ — Muslims too believe in the Second Coming ‘this is where he will come, to this minaret.’ He chuckled and took my hand. ‘We will be here to welcome our Christian brothers on that fine day, God willing.’
This is the effect of Damascus: the blurring of boundaries, the crossing of bridges. In the post 9/11 age we have come to see the Arab and Islamic world as separate and antagonistic. Damascus offers a different interpretation. Over ten percent of Syria’s population is Christian. In Damascus Christianity and Islam have lived side by side for 14 centuries. In the Old City churches and mosques sit next to one another; priests and imams chat on street corners. The two religions share one another’s prophets, enjoy one another’s festivals, and respect one another’s traditions. In these difficult times, Damascus is a model.
In the hammam the masseur was sluicing sackfuls of dead skin off my freshly scoured body while my new fat friends, the Bellies, waved me onwards to the next stage. I tottered after them in my ill-fitting wooden clogs like a pantomime Dame, clutching my towel about my middle.
Hanging onto your wrap is the key thing in a Middle Eastern bathhouse. Total nudity is unacceptable. The whole operation, from sauna to cold shower, from soapy massage to hottest steam room, is undertaken wearing a thin towel like a short sarong. It is a blessing really. The Nour Eddin Hamman was an elegant sort of place. The tone would only have been lowered by a lot hairy guys publicly soaping their genitals.
In the caldarium clouds of steam parted to reveal half naked figures round the walls, squatting next to marble basins and pouring bowlfuls of hot water over one another. I found the Bellies in an alcove washing one another’s backs. It was a male bonding thing. When they finished soaping, they sang. They were jolly rousing songs, with improvised verses, and much back slapping. It was the kind of camaraderie and hilarity that in England is normally only achieved after five pints and a couple of vodka chasers.
Afterwards in the domed reception room, we sat enthroned on raised divans, swaddled from head to foot in dry towels. Tea arrived. While the Bellies puffed contentedly on water pipes, we chatted. Once we had disposed of the usual subjects — the number of sons, football (the Bellies professed an unaccountable affection for Tut En Ham), international exchange rates — we got onto theological matters, and in particular the nature of Paradise.
Muslims enjoy the prospect of an afterlife in a sort of pleasure garden staffed by beautiful women in transparent frocks. Death must be like being allowed into the women’s section of the hammam, one of the Bellies mused. Much as I tried to spice it up, the Christian paradise seemed to come out a poor second — clouds and a lot of bearded guys with harps and open-toed sandals. It sounded, they all agreed, too wholesome to be much fun.
The following morning the bazaar had come to life. It has been the beating heart of the Old City since the days when the Damascus was one of the last staging posts on the Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean. Through its narrow arteries flow a human tide of bewildering diversity. Bedouin women from the desert, with tattooed chins and velvet gowns, fingered gold chains. Young girls in jeans, clutching school books, crowded round the CD stalls. Flocks of veiled women descended on the lingerie stalls where brassieres hung from rails in sizes almost too large to be human. Bearded mullahs passed, erect, dignified, and invariably in a hurry, as if Allah was a stickler for punctuality. Through the dense crowds slalomed dangerous men in charge of hand carts, oblivious to a thousand near misses.
The goods were as compelling and as various as the people. Head scarves, turtle shells, fresh bread, sheet metal, sponges, sweets, wooden ladles, camel saddles, car exhausts, perfume, Damascene brocade, sacks of spices, brass pots, carved doors, knives, thimbles, carpets, gold, frankincense and myrrh. Outrageous odours flooded through the alleys announcing the various sections of the bazaar: coffee, cloves, wood shavings, rose water, baking bread, the sharp scent of cooking beetroot. Sometimes an odour arrived that for a moment I could not identify. Then I rounded a corner and there it was: melons, sliced open, glistening, ripe, exuding a heady melony aroma.
Tall gateways lead from the alleys of the bazaar into old caravanserais, some of the finest buildings in Damascus. In the days of camel caravans, these sprawling inns were built to accommodate animals, goods and merchants among courtyards and domed alcoves and gorgeous arched arcades. These days, in the absence of trains of swaying camels, most have been subdivided into dingy stalls and workshops.
But one remains thrillingly intact. I had the good fortune to come to Khan Assad Pasha unprepared. In the midst of the spice bazaar, next to my hammam, I noticed an impressive gateway, framed with honeycomb stalictities. Pushing open a small door set into a pair of vast double doors, I ducked my head and fell into a cathedral of caravanserais.
It was built of ablaq stonework, contrasting bands of black and white stone, typical of Damascus, that emphasised its form. Round a wide central dome, are eight smaller side domes, set on four great piers. There is almost no decoration. It is a building of architectural shapes, of pure sensuous soaring form, of walls and pillars curving into arches, and arches curving into domes. It was heart stopping. Buried in the Damascus bazaar, unannounced, was the most beautiful building I had ever seen.
It is the custom in these regions that beauty be veiled. Aside from its fine gateway, the Khan Assad Pasha shows almost nothing to the outside world. Damascus is full of such hidden treasure, of beautiful houses turned inward on a private world of courtyards and fountains, while passerbys see only a blank wall and a stout doorway.
I was staying in one such house in the Christian quarter near Bab Toma. Beit al Mamlouka is a beautiful Damascene residence built in the 17th century which has been lovingly converted into a boutique hotel of eight rooms. A passage from the outside door tumbles you into a courtyard with a central fountain and a lemon tree. An tall iwan — a deep arched alcove — beckoned with cushioned divans. At night, lit by candles, this is one of the loveliest spaces in Damascus.
Bait al Mamlouka is the re-creation of May Mamarbachi, a Syrian woman who was in need of an adventure after some years abroad. She looked at a hundred houses before she found the right one. It took fifteen months to assemble all the planning permits, and a hundred workmen almost three years to realise the plans. Opened in April of 2005, this labour of love perfectly captures the sense of oasis that is the essence of traditional Middle Eastern houses. In its elegant embrace there is shade, quiet, repose, the sound of water and the opportunity for a good nap after the hurly-burly of the alleys of the Old City.
After just such nap, I set off in the late afternoon to find St Paul, or at any rate his footsteps. Paul is in a long tradition of people who changed their mind on the way to Damascus. He had set out all gung-ho to do Christians a mischief and, after his encounter with a bolt of blinding light, ended up becoming one. He is rightly acclaimed as the founder of Christianity, transforming it from a Jewish sect into a distinct religion
The city boasts various places connected to the Pauline story. There is the gateway where he was lowered from a basket, and the Street called Straight where he stayed when he first arrived in the city. But the most evocative is the house where Paul was reputedly given shelter by Ananias.
It is now a chapel, well below ground level, accessed by stairs from a courtyard in Sharia Hanania. I arrived to find a girls’ youth group seated in one corner, singing Orthodox hymns. They were melancholy melodies, the haunting voice of Eastern Christendom. The Arabic words had something of a lover’s longing — ‘come to us, stay with us, have a place in our hearts.’
I fell into conversation with Father Sami, an elderly priest seated by the entrance. He was a Greek Orthodox priest from Lebanon, and had served all over the Middle East — in Jerusalem, in Jordan, on the West Bank. He had been in Damascus for twenty years, and referred to it as the home of Christianity.
Father Sami had a way of telescoping the centuries. He talked gently of Paul and his conversion as if it was within living memory; in the room where Paul had sheltered it did indeed feel suddenly close. He fretted about the various schisms of Christianity. Hearing I was from England, he reprimanded me gently about the Anglicans and their split from Rome, as if Henry VIII was a man we might still reason with.
‘All this trouble about marriages and divorces,’ he sighed. ‘Why can’t he take a mistress like other rulers.’
Democracy was a further worry.
‘Everyone with a different opinion,’ he sighed. ‘Where will it all lead? Only to more conflicts, to more schism. We must learn to be as one. That was the message of Paul.’
In the evening I ate in Elisar, a big boisterous restaurant in the courtyard of a grand old Damascene house. It had a theatrical quality. Against a stage seat of arches and fountains and trailing vines, waiters swept back and forth with trays of meze, attendants in embroidered waistcoats hurried round with lumps of glowing charcoal for the water pipes, tables of old characters departed while new characters arrived and the maitre’d waved his hands for more chairs.
Three tables away a group of men were waving their hands at me. ‘English,’ they chorused. For a moment I didn’t recognise them with their clothes on. It was the Bellies.
They pulled up another chair for me.
‘Where have you been?’ they demanded. ‘You don’t bathe anymore?’
‘I have been exploring Damascus,’ I said. ‘Four thousand years of history and some very good late night bars have kept me busy.’
They laughed and clapped me on the back.
‘Ahlan, ahlan, ahlan,’ they cried. Welcome, welcome, welcome.
I had lost track of the number of times I had heard that word in the past week.