Search for the words “Syria” or “Damascus” on the web today and headlines about chemical weapons, rocket attacks, and civilians being killed in a civil war that has dragged on for four years is what you get in return. Many of my friends don’t want to think about the Syrian war anymore. It’s become old and depressing news, a war without end. But I think about Syria a lot because I was there at the beginning of the troubles. I tell people that and I usually get a look of shock and disbelief. But in March, 2011, in the early days of the so-called Arab Spring, I went with a group of friends, including my father, to see Roman antiquities, Medieval Crusader castles, and Damascus itself—claiming to be the one of the oldest cities in the world. The regimes of Tunisia and Egypt had just fallen we all thought the wave would push Assad out of the way. But it didn’t. Today the Egyptian revolution has been put in retrograde, Tunisia’s democracy seems wobbly, and the Syrian war rages on endlessly.
I’ve stopped watching news footage of the war. Once I watched a Frontline about children living in a shelled apartment building in Aleppo and convinced myself that I had been there, that it was a building where our guide Aiman, who has since escaped to Turkey, lived with his family. Later that night I dreamt that I was in a trench being shelled. Now I try to remember the good things I experienced in Syria. The group of school girls at the Citadel in Aleppo yelling “Hello, I love you!” as us as they ran by. The waiter who wrote “Good afternoon U.S.A.” in Nutella on top of our crepe we had ordered one afternoon in Damascus. And the day that my friend Micky, my dad, and I circumnavigated the walls of the old city of Damascus in search of the eight extant Roman gates.
Our guidebook told us that walking the walls of the old city would take three hours and wasn’t recommended, except for the dedicated. We felt up to the challenge and set our one morning in search of our first gate, Bab al Faraj (Gate of Joy).
“America! Obama number one!” a young vendor shouted at us as we crossed the market street. A “Street Called Straight” was mentioned in the bible and was once a Roman arcade bisecting the city from east to west. Today it is a souk selling everything from toilet seats to tea. On either side of us the shops displayed mountains of colorful spices. We walked through the souk, past the Citadel–the Arabic fort that once protected the city–to the northern wall. Originally built by the Romans, the walls still stand today but have been become a part of the fabric of the city. We only saw Bab al Faraj once we had walked through it. The candy-cane striping of brickwork blending in to the tumult of shops and colorful banners.
Leaving the gate we walked past a policeman giving orders to a man tearing down posters of Assad. Not knowing what was going on we kept walking and soon came upon a group of Iranians–women dressed in chadors and men in black suits—walking intently towards the Sayyida Rouqqaya Mosque. Rouqqaya was the daughter of Medieval Shi’a martyr and the mosque is home to her tomb. We followed the group and entered the mosque, Micky donning a chador herself and disappearing through women’s entrance, dad and I through the men’s. Inside the sanctuary was decorated with glittering mirrors, colorful tiles, and chandeliers that reminded me of disco balls. The mosque was remodeled in the Iranian style in the 90s. We stood and watched as the worshipers circled around the tomb standing in the middle of the room.
Shortly after Rouqqaya Mosque we walked through Bab al Faradis (Gate of Paradise), exiting the city walls, and walking along the Barada river. Filled with floodwater from the nearby mountains, the river once turned Damascus a city of gardens—a paradise. The prophet Mohammed is said to have refused to enter Damascus because he could only enter paradise once, and that would be during the afterlife.
Walking through this quiet quarter, which was once orchards, we felt relief from the bustle of activity in the souk we had just left. We came to Bab al Salaam (gate of peace) with its crenulated, medieval top. Three teenage boys stopped us to take their picture. Needing fortification and a map check we stopped for tea at a café along the river.
We re-entered the old city via the ramparts of the Medieval walls, through Bab al Touma (Thomas’ gate), named after the doubting Apostle Thomas. We were now in the Christian Quarter of the city, a busy commercial area with virgin Marys tucked into porticos at many corners. Hungry, we stopped for lunch near Bab al Sharqi (Eastern Gate), which stood alone, away from the walls, its columns towering above us.
After lunch we made several failed attempts to find Bab al Kassan (St. Paul’s Gate) through the labyrinth of dead-end streets. I asked a woman for directions in French, the only language we shared. She told us we’d have to exit the city walls to get there. Feeling rudely ejected into the modern city, we walked along the busy ring road until we found St. Paul’s Chapel. Damascus was once an important city to Christendom. It was here where the Apostle Paul, an early Christian convert, is said to have been saved from the Roman soldiers persecuting him by being lowered to freedom outside the walls in a basket. He later took Christianity to Rome.
Continuing along the outside of the walls, through a large produce market, we found Bab al Saghir (small gate). To the Romans this was Mars Gate, built on top of a temple to the god Mars. A bit further along was Bab al Jabieh (Water Trough Gate), which stands at the end of a Street Called Straight, where we had begun our journey that morning.
According to some sources there was a ninth gate, Bab al Nasr (Victory Gate), which was destroyed during the Ottoman era. I can only wonder now, four years on, who will be the victor in this war and what will this era leave or take away from a city that has known plenty of wars and killing. I have no way of knowing how much of what we saw that day is still left standing. I vaguely remember a fire in the old souk but can find no mention of it. My only hope is that this war will end soon and the killing will stop; and when that happens it will be consumed by the city, an added layer to a 3000 year-old history. But for now the endless war continues on.