The Rose of the Desert, Damascus, Syria, Middle East

… Fouad left the Cham Palace Hotel in Damascus and entered the car that would take him to the house of the al-Attar family. The sun was setting at that time. The lights had just been lit in the congested avenues, but nothing remotely resembled the idyllic atmosphere that was once the ancient city, founded in the Ghouta oasis, renowned for its orchards, pomegranates, roses, picturesque souks, khans and the Barada river, which flowed down from Mount Hermon, the southern branch of the Anti-Lebanon range.

Fouad liked Damascus. It looked like Cairo, where he lived, though it was smaller in size, with less impressive monuments, but of equal artistic value. The society kept many of its traditions with the same love that it kept the magic of its courtyards with the lemon trees, the wafting perfume of jasmine, the canaries singing in filigreed cages and the necessary Liwan where the families would sit on summer nights.

Of course we are talking about the old city, enclosed in its medieval walls with the seven gates and the Grand Mosque of the Umayyads, which the European travellers saw upon approaching from the Salihiyah hill, twinkling down – all white in the green oasis – while the desert spread all around. This was the image seen by Mohammed and he passed by without entering the city because, dazzled as he was by its beauty, he said that in Paradise you enter only once. And for cameleers arriving from the depths of the Arabian desert, the city seemed like a haven with its palm trees, murmuring waters, orange trees, pomegranates and juicy peaches.

Thus encompassed by the Orient and History, the city flourished under every dynasty, and for centuries resisted earthquakes, fires, floods and lootings, with its houses being rebuilt – even more beautiful than before.

Even before the times of the French Mandate the noble families had abandoned it to build modern villas outside the walls. The house of the al-Attars was located in the Salihiyah district, which was once a suburb of Damascus, when grandfather al-Attar, after returning from Paris where he had studied, decided to leave the family’s Bait near the souk of the goldsmiths. An old family, the al-Attars had blossomed economically centuries ago in the trade of thoroughbred horses, of which they had a monopoly in the Middle East.

... Yes, Nadia was Syrian. Although she had left the city young to go to study in Paris, like her grandfather. Damascus was in her heart. She longed for it more than anything else. She missed its old-fashioned atmosphere with the old Peugeots, the Citroëns and the Chevrolets. She missed the familiar sounds, the solemn voice of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. And if in the neighborhood where her parents lived, she didn’ t see, as in the old city streets, carts selling roses in tin cans and oil being delivered by horses with beaded bridles and ostrich feathers, Fouad and her sons would often listen to her saying tenderly: “In the basin under the fountain of our courtyard, the moon is still reflected.”

* With Damascus always in my heart and thoughts

An excerpt from the travel novel: EGYPT, A journey to the Nile (soon to be published in English)

Greek publication: ΑΙΓΥΠΤΟΣ, Πέρασμα στον Νείλο

Interior of an old Damascene mansion

Interior of an old Damascene mansion

The Liwan of the Al-Azem Palace in Damascus

The Liwan of the Al-Azem Palace in Damascus

Barbara Athanassiadis