Syria, here, is flat and dry, with some agriculture.
The outskirts of Damascus are ugly, with buildings of cinderblock and
But the city exudes a vitality, and there is no sign of poverty.
Cell phones are ubiquitous.
In the evening we go to an enormous outdoor restaurant near the airport.
This place is easily the size of a football field, and is interlaced with
waterways, bridges, waterfalls, windmills, grottoes, and lagoons.
We sit at a large table in a faux boat next to a waterwheel,
and have a magnificent meal.
We have pita bread so fresh that it steams when torn open, tabouleh
of mostly parsley, salads, olives and pickles, hummus, yogurt, kiffir
with salt and garlic, little pizzas, cheese pastries,
kubbeh (also called "Syrian grenades" --
pastry shells filled with ground meats and pine-nuts),
raw ground lamb, kabobs of chicken, lamb, and spiced ground lamb,
all followed by fruits and melons.
There are several similar restaurants in the area, one is Italian-themed,
another is Ancient Rome.
This morning we visit
Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church.
We then visit the Syrian parliament building and
are greeted by several members of parliament, two Muslim and one
Roman Catholic. One of them is an old school chum of Bashar's.
We go to a meeting room and are served the customary tea.
Issam Al Jamal, Vice President of the Parliament,
everyone stands to shake hands with him.
He has been assigned the task of forming a new government, in which
he will be
President of the Parliament.
On the way to meet with
Bouthaina Shaaban, Director of Foreign Media,
Bashar tells us that she was Hafez Assad's personal interpreter.
Also, there is a rumor that she will be the Foreign Minister after
the government reorganization that is taking place this very day.
[ We later found that she did not become Foreign Minister, but
was promoted to a new ministry, that of Syrians Living Abroad. ]
After a lunch in the Souk, the old covered market, we go to the Ummayad
Mosque, built in 715.
The women in our group are loaned gown-like garments with hoods to
cover their heads.
Inside the complex is the tomb of Saladin, who expelled the crusaders
The mosque itself is very beautiful, with striking mosaics covering the
Inside is a shrine to John the Baptist, which is said to contain his head.
John is an important Islamic prophet, so the shrine is surrounded by
both Christians and Muslims.
Blind Koran-reciters sit nearby, reciting in return for offerings.
Children play, and people chat; the mosque is not a solemn place.
People even sleep on the rugs, although occasionally
attendants with sticks go around
to prod them awake.
I was sick all day, so this account is second-hand.
The group visits the mosque of
Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro, the Grand Mufti of Syria.
Rev. David Parks-Ramage of our group
gives a talk to an audience, we are told,
of 15,000, with another 100,000 listening to the live webcast.
That day Bashar's family hosts the group for a huge mid-day feast.
His family is very large, very friendly, and has many excellent cooks.
I rejoin the group and we drive up Mt. Qassioun, which overlooks
Damascus, to enjoy the view. It's the Sabbath, so a lot of people
are here. Some sit on rugs and drink tea from samovars, others
stroll and talk.
We hear the muezzin's call, and many
people pray on their small rugs, but many others ignore the call.
We return to the old town and walk down Straight Street towards our
restaurant. We pause at an old Khan that is being restored: it will
become the Damascus Museum of Natural History.
The khan, built in 1749, was a caravansary, or a hotel of sorts.
There is an open central courtyard, where the pack animals stayed,
surrounded by sheltered balconies where the
Our restaurant is old, with archways dating back to the 8th century.
There are faded prints of Queen Victoria's Jubilee and of long-dead
The Sheik's son, Salah Kuftaro, dines with us.
Whirling Dervishes perform; a great mystic practice reduced to dinner
We arrive at the University of Damascus, which looks much like any
We go to one older building and go to a meeting room in the
Damascus University Department of Sharia.
The weather is hot, we are in
suits and ties, and there is no air-conditioning.
We then walk to another building to meet
Dr. Hani Murtada, Minister of Higher Education, and
Dr. Mohammed Issam al-Awa, President of
In yesterday's governmental reorganization, Dr. Murtada
was elevated from President of Damascus University to the Ministry, and
Dr. al-Awa moved from the Vice-Presidency to the Presidency.
We next drive to the Grand Mufti's foundation,
Abu Nour, where
Sam Keen, of our group, gives a talk.
In the afternoon, we drive to Maalula.
This town is in the midst of an extraordinary landscape of volcanic
plugs and ridges.
Our hotel is a modern building on top of a crag overlooking the town.
Maalula is roughly 1/3 Eastern Orthodox, 1/3 Roman Catholic, and 1/3
Muslim. The churches and mosques seem evenly intermingled.
Everyone here speaks Aramaic.
In the evening, we see that about half of the houses have neon crosses
displayed. There are also neon and Christmas-tree-light crosses on
the hills overlooking us.
From our hotel we look down on the Greek Orthodox St. Tekla convent.
Next to our hotel is the Church of St. Sergius and St. Bachus.
This church is said to be the longest-serving to a single denomination
in the world. The altar dates to 313-325 A.D.
We walk downhill to St. Tekla, through a narrow gorge.
We stop at a pharmacy and discover that we can buy Cipro for about
1/10th of the U.S. price. We talk with the pharmacist, who is
Christian. In conversation he calls Bush a terrorist.
The convent is beautifully maintained; the Christian shrines around here are
well-funded by the government.
From here we drive to the Convent of Our Lady of Seydnaya.
This is said to be the second most-important Christian pilgrimage site
in the Middle East, after Jerusalem.
We continue from here back to Damascus, stopping in the suburbs at the
church built on the supposed site of St. Paul's conversion.
It's an ugly modern chapel.
It is not open, but a friendly nun opens it up for us.
After Damascus, we reach the Syria-Jordan border.
We again spend some time in the supervisor's office while functionaries
handle our papers. There is a "lesser Haj" underway; it is an important
season for pilgrimage to Mecca.
So the lines are long and we are appreciative of the special treatment.
We then drive past two huge portraits of Hafez and Bashar Assad, and ahead
of us are two huge portraits of the late King Hussein and
his son, the current King, Abdullah.
Throughout Syria we've noticed very few police, and when we do see them
they are unarmed.
There is little or no visible police presence in Syria, although we
are later told
that we were closely watched by the Secret Police the entire time.
None of us noticed any surveillance.