Garden of the world

Garden of the world

By
Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
Contains
12 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740667661
Photographer
Matt Harvey

After the empty silence of the desert, the trafficchoked streets of Damascus were an assault on the senses. The traffic was gridlocked, the blaring of horns and screeching brakes was incessant and the acrid clouds of black exhaust fumes made our eyes burn. ‘Haram, I hate this city,’ muttered our driver. ‘This is why I do not come here. Every week the traffic gets worse. This is madness.’ It was a complaint we were to hear frequently over the course of our stay in the Syrian capital. The proprietor of one hotel snorted when we timidly suggested that the traffic in Damascus was even worse than Beirut’s. ‘Beirut!’ she exclaimed. ‘Beirut is a paradise compared with Damascus.’

It all seemed a far cry from the city’s golden years as the centre of the great Umayyad caliphate, when Damascus was known as the ‘Garden of the World’. The faded billboards and modern high-rise office blocks that fringed the traffic-clogged multi-laned carriageway made it hard to believe that the great Barada River once cascaded freely from the nearby mountains to water the city’s gardens and to fill its fountains. Or that under the patronage of the caliphs, the world’s leading scholars, musicians and artists came to Damascus to study and to teach, while they delighted in its glittering mosaics and ornately carved sandstone palaces.

The jewel in the Ummayad crown was the great mosque, built on the ancient ruins of a Roman Temple of Jupiter. Even today it remains one of the holiest sites in Islam, second only to Mecca and Medina, and is considered one of the most magnificent buildings of Islam. Its great courtyard, prayer hall, minarets and domes are a felicitous blend of Byzantine, Hellenistic and Arabic construction and decoration.

The mosque borders the eastern end of the Hammadiya souk, the beating heart of Damascus’ Old City. We wandered along the souk’s great length, stopping to peer through windows laden with gold jewellery or stacked high with bolts of damask cloth. While the Hammadiya souk and its environs are a popular tourist haunt, they are also the main area of local commerce, so amongst the rails of tawdry worry beads and poor-quality leather, you also find all the stuff of daily domestic business, from toys, plastic clothes pegs and hardware to shoes, hijab (headscarves) and all manner of ribbons, buttons and bows.

A loud group of giggling Bedouin women pushed past, their faces marked with black tattoos. Through their veils they were licking ice-cream cones from the legendary Bakdach ice-cream parlour, famous all over the Arab world since 1885 for its bouza, a pounded ice cream with an extraordinary elastic texture made with mastic and sahlab, a thickening agent made from the root of an orchid.

We squeezed in at one of the long formica-topped tables opposite a couple of Iraqi truck drivers who were taking spoonfuls of pistachio-topped ice cream from dainty aluminium bowls. The place was packed with tables of women, young couples, solitary businessmen reading newspapers, large noisy families and darting waiters bearing aloft trays piled high with ice cream. And through the whirr of ceiling fans and the constant hum of Arabic chatter we heard the regular thudding beat of massive wooden mallets pounding ice cream in cold metal tubs.

Mansour Rifai, one of the ice-cream makers, told us that Bakdach pounds its way through ten tonnes of ice cream every week. ‘In the old days,’ he explained, ‘we had to cool the ice cream with ice that was brought down from the mountains. It used to take several hours to freeze a kilo of ice cream; now it takes about ten minutes.’ He introduced us to two ice-cream pounders, who paused from their efforts to show us their hefty wooden mallets before throwing them up in the air for dramatic effect and giving us a cheeky grin as they resumed their labours.

The main Hammadiya souk is surrounded by a maze of tiny alleyways, some of which lead to the Bzouriyya souk – the seed bazaar – where mounds of pistachios, cashews and almonds share space with tubs of glacé fruit, coffee and spices.

Just off the Bzouriyaa souk is the Azem Palace and we wandered into its shady garden, away from the maelstrom of the souks. Built in the 1700s as the governor’s private residence it has been beautifully restored to show off the distinctive ablaq stonework, banding black basalt and sandstone. The displays inside varied from the fascinating (tiny grains of rice carved with verses from the Koran), to the beautiful (exquisitely inlaid musical instruments) and the downright bizarre (cosy domestic scenes featuring costumed mannequins).

It was now after six o’clock and the square in front of the Ommayad Mosque was sinking into shadow. Plenty of people were out and about and the shops were doing a brisk early-evening trade. We followed a narrow winding street lined with carpet and antique shops that took us to Bab Touma, the city’s Christian quarter.

One result of the Syrian government’s increased support of entrepreneurship has been the restoration of the Old City’s unloved khans – or merchant houses – into upmarket restaurants. We had dinner that night at Elissar, one of the more established of these restaurants and a perennial favourite with politicians, diplomats and tourists. It fills a converted eighteenth-century khan, and has the typical covered central courtyard and over-the-top décor – gaudily tiled walls, wooden panels dripping with gilt and a central marble fountain. It was packed, and customers dressed up in their evening finery were still pouring in when, towards midnight, we made our way back to our hotel in the cool night air.

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