Sunday, April 06, 2008

Damascus Revisited

Damascus at night: the Barada River and the Four Seasons Hotel

From gas guzzlers to Dachias: A slash in import taxes on cars in 2005 has resulted in congestion on Damascus' roads

AISHTI magazine

For a city fabled as the longest continuously inhabited city in the world, change has always been a constant. But Damascus has not undergone the kind of change the first several years of this century has brought since the French Mandate ended.
Up until three or four years ago, Damascus seemed stuck in a 1970s time warp. Old American muscle cars plied the roads, haircuts and fashion styles would have suited unscripted walk on parts in “That 70s Show,” and cinemas were still advertising outdated Bruce Lee movies on hand-painted signs. Even changing greenbacks required a trip down a back alley, and the number of ATMs could be counted on one hand.
A raft of economic reforms since 2001 has brought about the gradual opening up of Syria, with the capital the natural centrepiece.
Private banks, fashion retailers, bars and restaurant chains are springing up around the city, while the old American gas guzzlers have been replaced with newer models following a slash in import tax.
Some will no doubt lament this change, but Damascus is no longer a destination frequented by Arabists, history buffs and Lebanese looking for a cut-price rug, a box of barazi, and a cheap mezze. There is much to now entice the discerning, and more demanding, visitor.

A break from shopping beside the entrance to the Umayyad Mosque

Damascus is now home to several boutique hotels, the Four Seasons, and an assortment of restaurants in renovated Ottoman-era buildings. The old city, a Unesco World Heritage site, has also seen a burst of innovation, with bars and nightclubs improving the formerly lackadaisical nightlife, and restaurants such as Naranj in Bab Sharqi a boon for the taste buds in its reworking of traditional Syrian cuisine.
On the cultural side, the fact that Damascus now has a Cultural Diary is a sign of the city’s reawakening. With Damascus the UNESCO Arab Capital of Culture of 2008, music and theatre are in the spot light, attracting talent from around the world, including Lebanese diva Fairuz’s (in)famous performance of the Rahbani brothers’ Sah al Nom at the Damascus opera house, Dar Al Assad.
For art lovers, the contemporary Syrian art scene has burst onto the international art map in the last two years, led by the Ayyam Gallery, Art House and the Atassi Gallery. The National Museum, which has been overhauled by a team of German archaeologists, also exhibits modern Syrian art.
Souk Hammidiyeh, with Roman pillars in the background

But while Damascus is gradually metamorphosing into a more consumer-orientated metropolis, the sites that have attracted visitors for so long are still there to revel in. The Umayyad Mosque, containing the shrine of St. John the Baptist, is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture, while the narrow streets of the old city hide the traditional Damascene houses that lie behind. Souk Hammidiyeh, one of the region’s largest covered bazaars, is still divided into categories, but along the main strip Bakdash is still the place to go for a pistachio nut ice cream. A Damascene tradition, the cream is pounded with large wooden mallets in front of customers by employees sporting 70s style mullet haircuts. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.

Pistachio ice cream at Bakdash


Damascus was sorely lacking in the luxury hotel segment until 2006, when the Four Seasons Hotel appeared on the city’s skyline, bumping the Meridien – which needs a facelift -and the Sham Palace – which needs to get rid of the ghastly plastic flowers – off the map.
With good restaurants, a much frequented lobby by Damascene businessmen to see and be seen, and art from the capital’s premier contemporary Syrian art gallery, Ayyam, the Four Seasons has raised the bar. Commanding great views of Damascus, particularly at night, a highlight is the Royal Suite, which is furnished with Oriental antiques and occupies the entire eighteenth floor. Attached to the hotel are several luxury boutiques, including Aishti and Aizone.
Damascus is soon to see more five-star hotels though, with the Kempinski Group to manage three hotels, and Cham Holding to build a $70 million hotel to be managed by the Marriot.

Photos by Paul Cochrane

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