Many years ago I was fortunate to have been stationed in Pisa Italy when I was in the army. The summer of the year after my arrival, I decided I want to tour the middle east. After touring Greece, I caught an airplane to Beirut Lebanon. Beirut is a surprising gem of a city. It is little known to Americans but is a destination of choice for the French. That, in no small part, is due to the fact that following World War 1, when the European powers were divvying up the old Ottoman Empire, the French laid claim to Lebanon while the British were claiming its southern neighbor, Palestine.
The French, in turn, made Beirut into a middle eastern version of the Riviera complete with a casino. I stayed in Beirut for four days. I found the people of Lebanon to be extremely friendly and seemed to have no opinion on American tourists, probably because we were a bit of a rarity and had not offended them, yet anyway. The hotel manager, one day, suggested I take the bus tour to Damascus, that I would thoroughly enjoy it.
Early the next morning I boarded the tour bus and quickly found a pair of Canadian girls, the only North American people on the trip. Damascus is only 55 miles distant from Beirut. At the time, the only road between the cities was a single two lane highway. Upon arrival at the Lebanese Syrian border, the bus is boarded by the border guards who collected all our passports. We were told that we were not allowed to get off the bus while our passports were processed. That took a good two full hours which meant we were sitting in the desert sun for the entire time. Nothing of note took place and once our passports were returned we continued on to Damascus without incident.
Upon our arrival in Damascus the bus driver informed us that we had to change to another bus to have the tour of the city, which we did. It turned out there was a really good reason for changing buses but that did not become apparent until we returned.
Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the middle east and get mentioned a number of times in the Bible including a reference to a “street called Straight.” The particular old Roman street is where Paul supposedly was converted to Christianity. For someone who grew up where cities and towns had a history dating in the hundreds of years, it was really quite remarkable being at a historic location which counted its age in the thousands of years.
The picture below is of a cathedral located in Damascus that was built by the Christians during the era of the crusades.
In later centuries the cathedral was turned into a mosque and now serves as the central mosque for Damascus. Upon entering, you are greeted by Persian rugs layered about 7 deep. They cover the entire walking surface of the mosque.
Towards the front, as seen in the above interior shot of the mosque, is an encased area where the Moslem world believes the head of John the Baptist is. It turns out, according to our guide, that he is considered one of the prime prophets of the religion. Furthermore, our guide pointed out that in Islam, places held in reverence in the Christian world is held equally as highly in Islam. These two things were eye-opening for me to say the least. And as you can see, from the above picture, the interior of the old cathedral is quite as beautiful as it ever was, maybe even more so.
I was struck by the sight of Syrian soldiers who came to the enclosure as they cried while they prayed there. After that they moved to a place next to the wall that faces Mecca and said additional prayers. It was really quite a touching scene.
For the return trip, we returned to the bus that brought us to Damascus. The two Canadian girls and I sat together but there was one problem. When I tried to push my feet beneath the seat in front of me I found there to be an obstruction. Upon inspection I found that skeins of fabric had been secreted underneath the seats to be smuggled back into Lebanon. We were now part of an international smuggling ring! Upon arrival at the border I jokingly said to my Canadian friend that we should probably report the smuggling operation. She informed me that if the Lebanese did not kill me, she would! I had no intention of saying a thing and, fortunately, the border guards did not inspect the interior of the bus so the contraband was not found. I have to admit, however, that we did have a number of anxious minutes.
I cannot say I have ever had any experience similar to this one in my life but I would not trade it for anything. Furthermore, I highly recommend visiting these areas, of course only after the conditions in Syria settle down and life returns to the routine.