Posts Tagged ‘damascus’

House of Ananias

October 7th, 2010

On my half-day visit to Damascus, I spent a number of hours wandering around the old quarter of the city.

At one point I happened to come across this beautiful little underground chapel dating back from the 1st Century, called the “House of St. Ananias”.

Click here for a (very brief) Wikipedia article on the chapel.

Below is a picture of the low-vaulted room to the side of the tiny chapel, the walls of which are lined with icons depicting the story of the conversion of Paul the Apostle.

More coming soon!

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Beating Ice Cream

August 13th, 2010

Ask an Arab what Damascus is famous for and chances are they’ll reply: its ice cream. The love story of Damascus and ice cream goes way way back. And by that I mean that it was famous for its ice cream as early as the 10th Century (if not earlier). Go figure.

The history of iced treats go back farther than I thought was possible.  For example, it seems the ancient Persians used to drink an iced fruit syrup (the Arab word for which gave us the words “sherbet”  and “sorbet”) more than two thousand years ago. Apparently, the Persians invented faloodeh, a chilled dessert with rose water and vermicelli, back in 400 BC. Faloodeh is still popular today.

It appears the Arabs were the first to add milk (or cream or yoghurt) as a major ingredient in the making of ice cream. The Arab versions notably differ from Western confections in that they contain mastic, a resin native to the Middle East, and sahlab, an extract from the orchid plant.

The traditional Damascene method of making the ice cream involves churning it and beating down on it with a big pestle/paddle to make it thick and elastic. The ice cream is then rolled in a mixture of crushes cashew and pistachio nuts. The modern Syrian recipes for ice cream apparently can trace back to the recipes from the 10th Century. And those recipes themselves may be based on (much) older ancient Arab, Persian, Greek or other recipes.

Below, a man beats ice cream. To camera left you can see tubs of crushed nuts and to camera right, in the foreground, you can see a tub of churned and beaten ice cream awaiting its turn to be mixed with the nuts.

This picture was made at Bakhdash, an ice cream shop established sometime around 1885 and located in the Al-Hamidiyya Souk in Damascus.

Oh, and if you’re wondering how the ancients used to prepare ice cream and other iced concoctions for serving up in the summer months, then take a look at yakhchals.

More coming soon!

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Saladin

August 1st, 2010

Damascus houses a number of treasures. One of the most remarkable being the tomb of the great Kurdish/Arab/Muslim leader Salah ad-Din Al Ayyubi (AD 1138-1193), better known in the Western world as Saladin.

Below is a shot of the small building which houses the tomb, just outside the Umayyad Mosque.

Saladin is renowned in both the Western and Arab worlds for his military prowess, chivalry and generosity. So much has been written on and about Saladin that I’ll leave that for more qualified people. I’ll just limit myself to quoting something from Wikipedia which I enjoyed very much: “Saladin’s relationship with Richard [the Ist of England, better known as "The Lion Heart"] was one of chivalrous mutual respect as well as military rivalry. When Richard became ill with fever, Saladin offered the services of his personal physician. Saladin also sent him fresh fruit with snow, to chill the drink, as treatment. At Arsuf, when Richard lost his horse, Saladin sent him two replacements. Richard suggested to Saladin that Palestine, Christian and Muslim, could be united through the marriage of his sister Joan of England, Queen of Sicily to Saladin’s brother, and that Jerusalem could be their wedding gift.”

The tomb on the right, covered in the green silk embroidered with Koranic verses in gold lettering, is the actual tomb of Saladin. The white marble one in the centre was a gift from the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, Wilhem II (27 January 1859 – 4 June 1941), and remains empty.

More coming soon!

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Traditional Damascene Houses

July 22nd, 2010

Within the walls of the old city of Damascus you can find peppered here and there examples of beautiful Damascene houses.

A typical Damascene house is built on two storeys, with all rooms looking out onto a spacious courtyard. Trees are generally planted there and a water basin or fountain usually adorns the center. Often, a reception area (called an Ewaan) opens out onto the courtyard. These typically consist of a U-shaped hall and seating area with

decorated

high ceilings.

During my half-day visit to Damascus, I had the chance to visit a number of these houses. Their proprietors were generous enough to allow us to visit them. Below are a selection of pictures from three of them.

One has been converted into a small boutique hotel (we got a guided tour of the place – wonderful!), another was unfortunately in ruin (but the owners are in the process of trying to restore it – the caretaker invited us in to visit it), and the third, Kasr Na’asan (Na’asan Palace), was the biggest surprise.

We’d spoken to a number of people who told us of it, so when we eventually came across it and found the door open, we entered. We met a number of people going to and fro across the courtyard, who hailed us in a friendly manner and then carried on their business. I wandered about taking in the extraordinary beauty of the place, and snapping the occasional picture. Finally, we ventured into one of the rooms to speak to a young man who was at desk working on his computer.

Turns out it wasn’t a museum or a hotel, as we’d been speculating: it was still being used as a residence by it’s owners. Oops. In testament to the extraordinary hospitality of the residents of Damascus, t

he owners had no problems with us coming in unannounced to wander about their home. They chatted with us pleasantly for a while and even offered us coffee.

Gotta love Arab hospitality.

I didn’t unfortunately get to visit one of the biggest, and perhaps best known of these small palaces – the Azm Palace. But I look forward to revisiting Damascus at some point again soon and will hope to correct that oversight then.

More coming soon!

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Bab Sharqi

June 29th, 2010

I had the chance to travel by car from Beirut to Damascus, Syria to spend a half-day there.

Despite all I’d heard about the beauty of the city, I remained unprepared for how extraordinary it truly is, and more so for the friendliness and kindness of those of its inhabitants whom I had the chance to meet. I’ll be sharing here some of the pictures I took in the few short hours I spent there.

The city of Damascus has 7 ancient gates, the oldest of which dates back to time of the Romans. Due to the limited time I had, I unfortunately only managed to visit 3 of the gates (and -silly me – took pictures of just 2).

This is Bab Sharqi (or Eastern Gate), which apparently is the only one to retain it’s Roman plan.

During the era of the Rashidun Caliphate, the great Arab military commander Khalid ibn al-Walid, who was known as “Sayf’ Ullah al-Maslul” (The Drawn Sword of God), entered Damascus through this gate after his conquest of the city on 18 September 634, at the end of a 30-day siege.

More coming soon!

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