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The Short Guide to One Day in Islamic Damascus

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4 months ago

Syria is dotted with some of the world’s oldest and most visually stunning examples of Islamic architecture and genius. Damascus in particular is home to many of these, and it is well worth setting aside a day or two to experience the best of the culture, food and traditions of Muslim Damascenes.

The vast majority of Syrians today are adherents of Islam, but before the Muslim conquest of the Levant in the early 600s, Syria was the the main center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. It is for this reason that a number of Damascus’s famous places were once churches, including the awe-inspiring Umayyad Mosque, one of the most beautiful places in Syria.

The Dome of the Treasury at the Umayyad Mosque
The Dome of the Treasury at the Umayyad Mosque is a remarkable example of the architectural layers of 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 Islamic Damascus

We recommend Talisman Hotel at Bab Al Salam (the Peace Gate) to experience the lavishness of Damascus, but yet with the layers of history that is characteristic of any Damascene building (this was once a Jewish palace). The ancient character of the hotel is immediately apparent, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that you’re not going to get Grade A hospitality.

Talisman Hotel in Bab Al Salam in Syria with pool
Talisman knows how to create an oasis (Source: Talisman)

You will want to let your Syrian tour guide or agency know in advance if you would like to stay at the Talisman. Otherwise, your guides will likely just book you into a standard Syrian hotel.

One day in Islamic Damascus

9 am: A traditional Syrian breakfast “ftoor”

If you read our guide to Christian Damascus, you’ll know that the only way to start your day in Damascus is as the Syrians do: a traditional “ftoor” or Syrian breakfast. It’s a symphony of flavors, and there’s no better way to get the day started. If you’re staying at the Talisman Hotel, you won’t need to worry about going elsewhere. The ftoor there is beautifully presented and delicious (and the jams are so fresh).

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

If you’re looking for somewhere outside of your hotel to have ftoor this morning, we recommend Al Nawfara Café, just in front of the side gate to the Umayyad Mosque where you’ll start your day of experiencing Islamic Damascus.

10 am: Umayyad Mosque

It’s time to head directly to the symbol of Syria: the Umayyad Mosque. The Umayyad Mosque is a wonder of architecture which dates back to the 700s and is renowned for its intricate detail, exquisite dome, minarets and its sheer width.

courtyard of the umayyad mosque damascus syria
The stunning courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque

The Mosque has lived many lives, including as a Roman temple and a Christian cathedral. And elements of its past lives are still very much on display. It’s one of the reasons why Damascus is one of the best cities for architecture in the Middle East.

There are so many things to be in awe about at the Umayyad Mosque, but in particular look out for the mosaic panels which are actually made of colored and gilded glass rather than stone. There’s nothing else quite like it.

Minaret at the Umayyad Mosque
Minaret of the Umayyad Mosque

Local tip: If you can, try to go on a Friday for Friday prayers. It’s an even more elevated experience.

While you’re there, make sure to pay a visit to the domed shrine of St. John the Baptist. St. John the Baptist also plays a role in Islamic tradition as the Prophet Yahya. After all, this mosque was the Church of St John before the Muslim conquest of the Levant.

Tomb of St. John the Baptist in the Umayyad Mosque with stone columns
Tomb of St. John the Baptist in the Umayyad Mosque

12 pm: Damascus Citadel

The Damascus Citadel is located in the northwest corner of the Old City, not too far from the Umayyad Mosque that you’ll be walking from. The Citadel is quite an impressive site with three gates and curtain walls connecting the 12 towers.

Citadel of Damascus
Citadel of Damascus

The Citadel is distinct from being one of only two castles in Syria that are built on the same level as the city that surrounds it. That makes it significantly more accessible than other castles (like, for example, Krak des Chevaliers in Wadi al-Nasara, which is a must-visit during your trip to Syria).

1:30 pm: Lunch at Beit Sitti

There are far so many options to take a minute to yourself to relax and soak in the hustle and bustle of the Old City. The cafes of Damascus are famous for their aromatic tea and hubby-bubbly for smoking – all set within buildings that are usually no less than a thousand years old.

Muhammara red crushed walnut and red pepper spread Syrian food
Muhammara is one of the treats you can expect at Beit Sitti

Today, you’re going to Beit Sitti for lunch so you can have the best of that atmosphere in one place. You’ll pass through a gorgeous narrow allow on your way to the restaurant that will make you feel like you’re tracing the footsteps of ancient Damascenes. Soak in the atmosphere and the joy of Syrian hospitality before you get back up to continue your journey.

2:45 pm: Nur al-Din Bimaristan

After lunch lunch, walk toward Nur al-Din Bimaristan (sometimes named Nuri Bemarastan) located in the al-Hariqah neighborhood directly south of Damascus Citadel. The Bimaristan is a medieval Muslim hospital built in the 12th century and resorted in the late 20th century. Nowadays, it houses the Museum of Medicine and Science in the Arab World.

Exterior of Nur al-Din Bimaristan in Damascus with pinkish red dome
The pinkish-red dome of Nur al-Din Bimaristan

You can’t miss it as you walk along the street. The iconic pink dome is a site to behold and is made in the ornamented vaulting style characteristic of Islamic architecture. If this interests you, we suggest you ask your guide to accompany you through the four halls, being the Science Hall, the Pharmacy Hall, the Medical Hall and the Taxidermy Hall.

4 pm: Shopping at Al-Hamidiyah Souq

The Al-Hamidiyah market is one of the most famous and visually attractive markets in the world. It begins at the Damascus Citadel and ends at the large gate of the Umayyad Mosque. If you approach the market from the Umayyad Mosque, you’ll see the Roman Temple of Jupiter standing 40 feet tall. It’s a beautiful entryway to a bustling market.

Hamidiyeh Market in Damascus Syria
The Ottoman-era Al-Hamidiyah Souq in Old Damascus, the best spot in the Middle East for desserts

At Al-Hamidiyah, you’ll find the best of Syria’s street food, antiques, clothing, handicrafts and desserts. The market is sprawling, so expect to get lost within its many laneways for hours. And every turn within the market will present something new and exciting.

5:30 pm: Sulaymaniyya Takiyya

From Al-Hamidiyah souq’s exit, walk 15 minutes outside the Old City to see Hospice Sulaymaniyya, a stunning building famous for the beauty of its dome and the symmetry of its two graceful minarets. It’s located in the Qanawat district which is also home to the famous Hejaz Railway Station, the first station on the railway that passes through Jordan to Saudi Arabia.

Sulaymaniyya Takiyya in Damascus with water feature in view
The stunning Sulaymaniyya Takiyya

The hospice is technically a takiyya which is a name for a mosque complex which served as a Sufi convent. If you have traveled to Istanbul, you will very quickly notice the Ottoman architectural style as it was commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent.

Courtyard of a mosque in Damascus
Architecture in Damascus is some of the best in the Middle East

8 pm: Dinner at Al-Hamidiyah Souq

You won’t be sitting down for dinner tonight. One of the best ways to experience the best of Syrian food is to walk around the market and try everything that catches your eye. You’ve done the arts and handicrafts section of Al-Hamidiyah; now it’s time to experience the food.

Make sure you treat yourself to Syria’s famous Bakdash ice cream after dinner. The ice cream store that is known throughout the Arab world and beyond is Booza Bakdash in the Al-Hamidiyah Souq.

famous bakdash ice cream from damascus syria
The famous Booza Bakdash

9 pm: Hammam

It’s time to clean off the dirt of the day in the most Damascene way possible: a hammam. It is generally accepted that hammams (public baths) started to appear in Damascus during the Umayyad era.

The best of the hammams in Damascus is Hammam Al-Malik Al-Zahir, one of the oldest public baths in Damascus. The quality of service and the experience is unmatched in the Old City, and you’ll be transported back in time with its ancient decoration.

Local tip: Get the massage with the steel wool. It’s quite the thorough exfoliation.

Market exit in Damascus with white dome Mosque in the background
Damascus is bustling, so you’ll need a break from the day

It’s the perfect way to wind down after a big couple of days exploring the Old City. The entire building carries the fragrance and distinction of the Old City of Damascus as it once was, so there is no better way to experience Old Damascus after seeing its sights.

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