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The Short Guide to One Day in Christian Damascus

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5 months ago

Syria is comprised of a sizeable Christian minority which are mostly adherents of the eastern Orthodox church. It’s unclear whether the population of Syrian Christians remains over two million as was the case before the war, or less than a million, but what is clear is that Syria is filled with some of the oldest Christian sites in the world, including in Damascus.

Christian Damascenes are proud of their heritage and culture, so let them take you on a journey through their food, stories and celebrations. And if you’re looking to uncover more of Syria’s deep Christian history, make sure you carve out a couple of days to visit Wadi al-Nasara (or the Valley of Christians) on your trip.

Churches dot the streetscape of old and new Damascus

This article is part of a series of short guides to facilitate your experience of the Christian, Islamic and modern sides of Syria’s ancient capital, Damascus.

Where to stay in Christian Damascus

As far as the Old City is concerned, the lives of Christian Damascenes is centred around Bab Touma on the eastern end of the Old City, and one of the seven gates of Damascus. The Byzantines named the gate Bab Touma which simply means Thomas’s Gate, and the reason it was named so was in commemoration of Saint Thomas the Apostle.

There are a number of excellent hotels around Bab Touma, but we think the best experience to be had is at Beit Al Wali Hotel which combines all the charm of old-world Damascus with incredible service. As you will likely be visiting Syria on a guided tour, make sure to let your guide know in advance that you want to stay at Beit Al Wali – you’ll thank us later. Being in the Christian area of the city, many of the staff are Christians. From the décor to the service, to what is arguably the world’s best breakfast, you won’t be left wanting.

One day in Christian Damascus

9 am: A traditional Syrian breakfast “ftoor”

Ftoor is more than breakfast: it’s a whole experience of Syrian food and flavors. And it’s an experience because you get a little bit of everything and presentation is of utmost importance. A traditional “ftoor” or Syrian breakfast will consist of at least ten dishes that are all placed on the table at the same time and complemented with (usually cinnamon-infused) Syrian tea.

Syrian ftoor breakfast with plates of food
A typical Syrian ftoor

You’ll be served fresh vegetables like tomatoes and radishes with strained yoghurt, honey, apricot or orange peel jelly and, because no Syrian breakfast would be complete without it, white cheese. But it’s not just any white cheese: it’s boiled to remove some of the salt which makes it squeaky.

It’s the perfect compliment to the jam. Sometimes you’ll get stringy cheese which is just as delightful.

Labneh, olives and zaatar with olive oil as part of a traditional Syrian ftoor
Expect freshly made spreads, dips and spices in your ftoor

But that’s not the end of your breakfast. Zaatar is also served along with warm pita, fatteh (a must-try Syrian dish), olive oil, olives, boiled eggs and (my favorite) makdous, which is a dish of oil-cured pickled eggplants stuffed with walnuts, red pepper, garlic, olive oil and salt.

If that isn’t enough, you’ll get a few dips and spreads to go with your breakfast including hummus, labneh (strained yoghurt) and tahini.

fuul fatteh at beit al wali damascus
Ftoor usually features many must-eat Syrian dishes, including fatteh

And because Syrians love their dessert and are very good at making them, you’ll be served mamouniyeh: the king of puddings in Syria. Mamouniyeh is a sweet semolina porridge layered with roasted semolina, ghee, sugar syrup and is garnished with the perfect amount of sweet cheese and pistachios. It feels light so it’s the perfect complement to be a big Syrian ftoor.

Mamouniyeh topped with pistachios
Mamouniyeh is often served as a dessert at breakfast

Ftoor is an everyday occurrence for Syrians, but as with any food, there is always somewhere that makes it better. If you’ve decided to stay at Beit Al Wali, you won’t be disappointed. Their ftoor is a performance of colors, flavors and immaculate presentation.

Beit Al Wali is the perfect Damascene experience in the Christian quarter

10:15 am: Hanania Chapel

The Hanania Chapel is particularly fascinating for the religious or history-buff traveler because of its connection with the story of St Paul and his conversion to Christianity with the help of Hanania. It is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world and the second oldest church in Damascus.

The chapel is an ancient underground structure right at the end of the famous Via Recta (the Straight Street), just near Bab Sharqi (also known as the Gate of the Sun). As you descend the small stone staircase into the deep underground cave, you will understand why the Hanania Chapel is one of the most beautiful places to visit in Syria.

11 am: The Olive Church

The Olive Church is a little-known church just to the south of the Hanania Chapel. As the name suggests, the Church is surrounded by olive trees. The decoration and artistry within the Church is well worth a short stop on your way to your next destination.

The Olive Church in Damascus during Easter celebrations
The Olive Church during Easter celebrations

11:45 am: The Mariamite Cathedral

The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary, as the Mariamite Cathedral is also known, is one of the most beautiful and ancient churches of Damascus.

Records confirm that there has been a church at this site dating back to at least as early as the fourth century, but the modern church is from the nineteenth century. It has been rebuilt and renovated over the centuries, including following its destruction during the 1860 civil conflict in Lebanon and Damascus.

Church belltower Damascus Cathedral
Church belltower in the Cathedral

As the seat of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch, it is still very actively used today. It’s particularly fulfilling to sit and enjoy the lovely hymns being sung. The Cathedral it is located on Via Recta which is the old Roman road of Damascus.

1 pm: Lunch at Jabri House

You won’t find this one on Google Maps. Jabri House captures the beauty of Christian Damascus in its setting and décor. It was built at the beginning of the 18th century but in 1995 it was transformed into a restaurant with a contemporary art gallery and library. There is truly no better place in the Old City to experience the atmosphere of Old Damascus.

Entrance to Jabri House in Damascus
Jabri House’s small door leads to a grand restaurant

Historic homes, like Jabri House, really underscore how Damascus is one of the best cities in the Middle East for architecture.

2:30 pm: Shopping at Midhat Pasha Souq

After lunch, it’s time to get your legs moving again. And there’s no better way to do than shopping. The Midhat Pasha market reminds of the Biblical story of St Paul, St Hanania and Via Recta.

Spices in Damascus green
Syrians love their spices

It is considered the oldest continuously inhabited street in the world as it was built during the Roman period. It boasts hundreds of shops selling everything from clothes to spices.

4 pm: The Chapel of St. Paul

Located in the former Bab Kisan which is the site of the Biblical story of St. Paul being let down from a window in a basket during his escape, the Chapel of St. Paul is a modern stone chapel which acts as a gate to the Old City. The area around the Chapel is traditionally a place that Christians in Damascus would live.

Chapel of St Paul in Damascus
Chapel of St Paul in Damascus in Kisan Gate

5 pm: Galleries and antiques shopping

Damascus has an undiscovered art scene that is just waiting for the world to embrace it. I think the place that typifies Damascus’s creative soul is the Mustafa Ali Gallery which houses some incredibly unique sculptures and other artworks. Take a moment to wonder through the streets of the Old City to get to the Mustafa Ali Gallery.

Mustafa Ali Gallery in Damascus with sculptures and modern art
Mustafa Ali Gallery

Travel tip: The Syrian souvenir you didn’t know you wanted is the very Damascene qishani art style which features fish motifs.

Qishani art blue bottles with fish on them ancient Damascene art
Qishani-style containers

While walking through the streets of the Old City, allow yourself to wonder down the alleyways. There are shops that are hundreds of years old that are very much off the beaten path selling wares that you can’t find elsewhere. You won’t regret it.

8 pm: Dinner at Yasmine House

Like your lunch destination, you won’t find this one on Google Maps (at least not in English). It’s called بيت الياسمين in Arabic which translates to Yasmine House. It’s a beautiful restaurant in a courtyard with amazing food. Make sure to get the shish taouk.

Shish taouk on a plane with bread on it parsley and peppers with pomegranate
Shish taouk at Yasmine House is a cut above the rest

Late: Partying in the Old City

Modern-day Damascenes love to party, so get ready for some excellent parties where the alcohol flows and the music is Arab-electronic. The weekend in Syria begins on Thursday night, so the best partying happens on Thursday and Friday nights. But in the predominantly Christian areas of Damascus, you’ll also find plenty of revelry on Saturday nights (especially in the summer).

And you don’t have to leave the Old City to find the parties. The section between Bab Sharqi and Bab Touma is full of bars, clubs and restaurants which are all heaving on the weekend.

Terrace of Abou al Zulof in Bab Touma
Abou al Zulof is a favorite haunt of Christian Damascenes

One of the best places to start the night is at Abou al Zulof just south of Straight Street. There’s a gorgeous outdoor terrace with a warm and inviting scene.

We would also recommend La Capitale, Loca and Abu George for a great night out that you won’t forget. You can’t really go wrong with any of these.

Zohar knows how to create an atmosphere

One of the things you want to keep an eye out for is traditional Syrian instruments. They’re often still played in restaurants around the city, and they really transform the atmosphere.

Old man playing the Syrian Oud in front of a Abou al Zulof in Bab Touma in Damascus
Soak up the unique sound of the Syrian Oud

We’ve concentrated on the Old City of Damascus in this guide, but there’s a whole world outside of the city walls to discover.

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