Sam Bowker: The Grand Tour Diary (2005 - 2006)

This is the archived journal of a 2005-2006 'Grand Tour' around the Eastern Mediterranean and along East Africa, written by Sam Bowker, whilst in search of his PhD topic.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


The last two days have been spent in the centre of Damascus, Syria.

This is one of the oldest continually occupied cities on earth. The historic centre is loaded with thousands of years of accumulated tiny alleys, ancient ruins adapted into larger buildings, wonderful old doors with ornate locks, and people from all ages and backgrounds going about their daily business. The souks are long corridors of shops, ranging from tiny stalls and street vendors to labyrinthine shops based in converted bathhouses (hamams) or caravanserai (motels for camel-riding traders). It smells less of diesel and rotting cabbage now - some women are dressed in more western attire than I recalled from when I was last here. It is still an energetic, fascinating, and complex city. Stunning architecture abounds.

I've been staying at the Sultan Hotel, a very hidden-away place which I heartily recommend for backpackers. It is near the contemporary souks for electrical accessories (plugs, sockets, circuit boards etc) and live birds, as well as the landmark Martyr's Square.

Yesterday was a day for exploring the back streets within and beyond the old city walls. Heaps of photographs were taken, but due to technology issues I very much doubt I will be able to upload any to this blog until I return to Cairo in November. Damascenes of all ages love being shown their portraits immediately after they have been taken. Their approach to this kind of technology is intriguing - it took three hours of wandering before I found this internet cafe somehwere vaguely behind the Great Mosque (aka the Umayyad Mosque), and the entire thing is in German.

Another example - there are a pair of escalators installed at one of the main entrances to the Souk, Bab Hammediyah, were the authorities have built an underpass beneath a major road. They are probably the only ones in the city, and few locals seem confident about using them. Women especially prefer the stairs, even tiny old ladies with large loads on their backs. It is not uncommon to see someone fall from them, or hesitating before putting their foot upon the moving staircase. Escalator riding is clearly a skill we take for granted in the West.

I have also been shopping. I knew well before the Grand Tour began that my time in Syria would be THE chance to collect the items I'm after. Partly because they exist here, they remain affordable, and because I can leave them with my generous parents to take back to Cairo. I won't specify what I bought as I want there to be some surprises for when I return! They have been magificent places to explore. Faisal's (for textiles and unusual Middle Eastern costume) and Mohammed's on the Street Called Straight are particularly good. Not only are these excellent shops with great collections, but their owners are good friends of my family.

The food here is delicious and cheap, so long as you avoid ice, local water, and anything green. We've been eating Sfiha (tiny meat pizzas), syrupy baklava, vanilla icecream so thick and firm that it snaps when bent topped with broken pistachios, toot shami (Bidon Felsh!) (mulberry juice), shish tarwouk, Syrian breakfasts (bread, apricot jam, hardboiled egg with cream cheese), plenty of the local chai (tea) served black and sweet in shot glasses, and all manner of other things. One especially fantastic meal was a mezze in a restaurant near the Street Called Straight, which was once a wealthy trader's house, centuries ago. Gorgeous place. They also gave us a dessert on the house, consisting of sugary preserved fruits and jams, including a rose petal jam. Their lemon and mint juice was also superb - tart and sweet and very green! It also had ice but who cares when it tastes that good... isn't that right Tabbi?

I am off to explore some more, and maybe stop by Ghraoui's. That is a chocolatier about ten times more expensive than any other in the sweet souk. But they have just started playing a good song here, so I might answer some of your emails.

I'll write again from Alleppo, five hours drive across the desert to the North.


  • At Tuesday, September 06, 2005 10:34:00 pm, Anonymous Laurence said…

    Escalators - these things also terrified me as a young boy. Getting off was frightening. Fears that my toes would get stuck underneath. Leaping the last couple of steps was the only way to avoid this danger. Those shopping days with Mum in Albury. The escalator in Myer. Such a big busy place compared to the farm where I was then growing up. Interesting to hear that little old ladies on the other side of the world feel the same. Laurence


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