Damascus and leaving Syria (December 18th - December 24th)
(Damascus - Daraa)
Distance biked so far: (5,934 km)
Damascus is a large City of 4.5 million people but most of the sites of interest are in the Old City. It is a City of contrasts with veiled women walking beside those dressed in typical Western clothing, Christian churches (mainly Greek and Armenian Orthodox) isolated in a Christian quarter surrounded by Muslim Mosques and a modern section surrounding the Old City dating back to at least 3 Centuries (possibly up to 6 Centuries) before Christ.
The Omayyad Mosque is a massive structure built on a site dating back 3,000 years B.C. It has 3 Minarets with one named the Minaret of Jesus because local tradition says it is where Jesus will appear on Judgement Day. The inner courtyard is a peaceful place to escape the busy Damascus streets.
When I was there a group of Iranian men and women were sitting in a circle with one man providing what sounded like a sermon, while holding a microphone and portable speaker. Many of them were moved to tears while hunched over or holding out their hands. There are large tour groups of Iranians everywhere in the City, recognizable by their black clothing. I noticed that the women were quite aggressive while shopping in the souks, bargaining hard with the stall owners.
The Old City also houses St. Paul's Chapel, which marks the spot the disciples lowered St. Paul out of a window in a basket one night so that he could flee from the Jews, having angered them after preaching in the synagogues.
Historical sites are not always easy to find here and I was having a hard time finding the Chapel, wandering around the maze of the Old City. I was standing by a door which I thought was the entrance when a young girl approached while walking with a few children. She asked if I was looking for the church and said yes so she opened a door and I followed. I ended up standing in the middle of someone's living room. I thought it quite strange and wondered what I was doing there but just started looking around at various pictures on the wall. They were of different kids but there were too many to be from a single family. Another lady walked by and led my down the hall, through a kitchen and a back door and the church appeared in front of me. Apparently, the church is associated with an orphanage and the back entrance to the church is through the building. You can go around the City walls to the front but my map did not show that access. It must happen all the time because no one seemed surprised to see a stranger in their living room.
The best way to see Damascus is to just wander off the main thoroughfares of the Old City. The main street is called "The Street Called Straight" which is mentioned in the bible (book of Acts). It is quite an experience to look up and around knowing these are the oldest streets in the world and have remained largely unchanged for thousands of years.