On Monday we had a 6 hour trip by taxi into Syria, which fortunately went smoothly. We had been warned of big delays but they did not happen though the whole process was a bit complicated with standing in various queues for various inspections - they wanted to search our luggage and went through every suitcase thoroughly. Our Jordanian taxis took us to the outskirts of Damascus where we were met by new taxis with Palestinian drivers to take us to our hotel, about another 15 minutes. Traffic was a nightmare and for the first time another car ran into the back of our car - our driver jumped out, inspected the damage (minor), then jumped back in and off we went again.
Damascus is thought to be the oldest continually inhabited city in the world, dating from around 3,000 BC. Our hotel is close to the old city so very handy for seeing the sights. A quick lunch of fallafel then a briefing by our leader, after which we had a quick orientation walk before heading off for dinner in a restaurant in a beautiful old ottoman house which had been restored. We had the usual starters - baba ganoush, labneh, one strangely called "stuffed aborigines" on the menu but which turned out to be stuffed aubergines! All this followed by huge main courses and then sweets. No alcohol here, but delicious fruit juices. After this a few of us went to find a bar for a drink. We had to go into the Christian quarter for this as the Muslim areas near the mosque were dry. Most people had the local beer, but I opted for the "cocktail of the day", the bartender couldn't tell me what was in it but it was very green. I watched him making it and he kept tasting it to see if it was OK. When he brought it over they all stood there watching me until I gave them the thumbs up! Still not sure what was in it, there was either mint or creme de menthe, plus other ingredients.
Today, Tuesday, is our free day to explore Damascus. Our leader took us to the Umayyad Mosque first thing and we were priviledged to be allowed in while it was full with Iranian pilgrims.
This was another very strange experience. To begin with, all the girls had to wear robes which covered just about every part. We posed for photos before going in. We had to take our shoes off and could not put them down on the ground - we had to rest them on our bags until our leader found a basket to put them in. Once inside the mosque we were beseiged by the Iranians wanting to have their photo taken with us - now I know how the locals feel when we start taking photos of them. They obviously don't get many westerners here. Everyone was very friendly though all we could do was smile at each other. The inside of the mosque has beautiful decorations over the walls and ceilings and the pilgrims were overcome with emotion to be there, many of them crying. We were again beseiged by them, this time old ladies plying us with food, dried fruits and nuts etc and again wanting their photo taken with us. When it was time to leave we were kissed and hugged - a very moving experience.
Outside the mosque we paused for a glass of pomegranate juice from one of the street sellers, then went off to find the hammam. The male hammam was in one location so Richard had to go there, while me, Tam and Grace went to find the women's hammam. We were taken inside and decided to have "the works". We disrobed and were taken into a steamy room and given plastic bowls to slosh water all over ourselves. We had to keep doing this for ages, every time we stopped the women gestured at us to keep going. Eventually our ladies came for us and took us into another room where we were exfolliated - rubbed all over with a coarse mit and ribbons of skin were removed. Then it was a massage, lying on the marble floor, not the most comfortable position! Finally it was back into the steam room to wash our hair and rinse off, then into the reception area for a cup of flower tea and to watch another group belly dancing, then get dressed and try and find the restaurant where we had arranged to meet for lunch.
After a lunch of lemon and mint juice and lentil soup Richard and I headed back into the souq to have a look around the shops, which resulted in us getting totally lost and not getting back to our hotel until around 5pm.
Now we are just starting to think about going out for tea - the food is pretty good here.
We have tommorrow morning free to do a bit more exploring, then it's on to a public bus for the trip to Palmyra.