Legend has it that on a journey from Mecca, the Prophet Mohammed cast his gaze upon Damascus but refused to enter the city because he wanted to enter paradise only once – when he died. In this city of legend, which vies for the title of the world’s oldest continually inhabited city, this is but one of thousands of stories.
Damascus (Ash-Sham to locals) is a place of storytellers and of souqs, home to an Old City whose architecture traces millennia of history and where the assault on the senses sustains the romantic notion of the Orient unlike anywhere else in the Middle East. The weight of history has, above all else, bequeathed one special gift to those who visit: its polyglot inhabitants – whether Muslim or Christian – have, down through the centuries, perfected the art of hospitality and nowhere is the oft-heard refrain ‘ahlan wa sahlan, you are welcome’, said with such warmth as it is in Damascus.
But until the recent troubles, this was not a city resting on its considerable laurels of historical significance – its conversion of countless elegant courtyard homes into restaurants and hotels and the vibrant life coursing through its streets have earned it a reputation as a dynamic cultural hub and it has even been dubbed ‘the new Marrakesh’. In short, the Prophet Mohammed may just have been right.