by Fifi LaMode
One of my favorite Middle Eastern destinations is Syria. Forget what you hear on TV (Fifi doesn't do politics) this is a great country. Damascus is the oldest continuously populated city in the world, over 5,000 years old. The Old Town is a maze of little streets which requires a guide to navigate (we tried and almost lost each other in addition to losing our way when we tried to find a rug shop we visited earlier).
The Ummayad Mosque is one of the most sacred places in Islam; it's where Christ is supposed to appear at the end of the world. It also houses the head of John the Baptist (nope, not for public display). Nearby is the tomb of Saladdin, revered by Muslims as a paragon of chivalry. Did you know he was Kurdish? Neither did I. There's also a statue on the spot where Saul of Tarsus was allegedly struck down and saw the light, and became St. Paul.
Souk al-Hamidiyeh is the most famous souk (bazaar or market) of old Damascus.
Houses look derelict from the outside only to reveal lovely courtyards with mosaics, fountains and flowers. The shops in and around the Old Town sell little tables with inlay which you can take apart and carry on a plane (clever!) and damask cloth (Damascus, damask, get it?), a rich brocade in deep colors.
Our favorite purchases were antique Persian prints on a papyrus-y paper (If you buy one, they can put it in a frame on the spot. Do so, as a decent frame here will cost you many times what you paid for the print.) These prints are delicate and lovely and make wonderful gifts, and they pack easily into a carry-on. Other things to buy are colorful glass vases in all shapes and sizes, and silver mirrors. Fragrant herbs and spices, almonds from Jordan, dates, figs, olives, all can be purchased at a fraction of what you'd pay in other Middle Eastern countries.