South of the citadel is the largest souk in Damascus, Al-Hamadiyya. It is a large covered market in the heart of the Old City. It reminds me somewhat of Paris, of some stores, a little of an old medieval market. A set of cobbled streets with all kinds of shops and stores (from veil shops to pubs, jewellery or bridal shops). The whole iron dome is speckled with tiny holes, like dots of light, which look like small stars. These holes are bullet holes caused by the francea aviation machine guns during Syrian nationalist rebellion in 1925! A fun place to walk through, although to buy crafts the historic shops are better. It is usually crowded, so it is advisable to take it easy and enjoy the unhurried atmosphere and with a smile ready for all the stepping on your feet. This souk, along with the Umayyad Mosque, is the main point of reference for orientation in this wonderful city with no street names.
Damascus is a beautiful city but unfortunately, like the rest of Syria is very restricted with its communication by various economic blockades and censorship. This means that not only won't we find ATMs in Syria and Aleppo, for example, it also means that throughout the historic center of Damascus you can only find one cybercafe in good condition. The Café not only has Spotnet headphones and microphones to talk on Skype, it also has several "tracks" open for consultation of most Google services (such as Wordpress). But due to government censorship it's impossible to access Facebook and Youtube. It comes out to about a euro for each hour (standard price across Syria) and although it isn't the fastest connection I can assure you that it's the best you'll be able to find in this country.
The best part of Ma'loula is undoubtedly the landscape surrounding this village. Located on a steep cliff, Ma'loula offers wonderful views of the village that can be seen from the Monastery of Santa Tecla. The houses rise out of the rocks, as if by magic, and there you'll find old men relaxing in the afternoon and children playing. The ocher earth seems to speak Aramaic, the language of this people, the language of Jesus, and one of the oldest in the world. You can't not visit it, especially at sunset.
If you continue to the end of Souq al-Hamidiyya, you will return to the light of day. The western gate is reminiscent to the late Roman Jupiter temple and was where today we find the Umayyad Mosque. In my opinion, these ruins are so great because they aren't isolated into a "showcase" or a museum, but instead they have life in them, around them ... Its stones are the walls of many of the food stalls, fresh juices and Qur'an vendors in the area. It's a place full of life at any hour of the day. A good idea is to sit awhile on the entrance steps and just observe ... Or talk to the Syrians that surely will come to ask you (first in Arabic and then in English) where you are from and if you're studying in college (most of the tourists are actually Arabic students).
The souk of Damascus, one of the largest in Asia, is a sight worth seeing: It's an explosion of colors and scents where you can find almost anything: spices, jewelery, leather work, metal ... I especially recommend sitting and enjoying a hookah pipe while watching the many people pass by. Of course, haggling is a must!
The village of MaalulaA lies half hour from Damascus and is an interesting little town where the tan and blue painted houses hang from the steep cliff walls. Although the Monastery of Santa Tecla is the only real point of interest, it is a perfectly lovely place to just stroll through the streets of Maalula. This village is one of the few places where Aramaic, the language of Jesus and one of the oldest living languages in the world, is still spoken. It has similarities with Arabic and Hebrew. Ma'loula makes for a perfect day trip from Damascus and gives you a chance to see how quiet life in rural Syria is and enjoy a stroll and a chat (jabbering away in Arabic or English) with friendly locals.
This beautiful station dates back to 1917 and was for many years the station for pilgrims going to Mecca. Highlights include its beautiful ceiling and stained glass windows. The station is now closed and the fate of the building is being decided. The hall, though, can be visited and and is quite worthwhile.
At first glance, the modern orthodox convent of Our Lady could be mistaken for a crusader castle, especially if you see it at night. However, it is the site of one of the Middle East's most important Christian pilgrimages since a portrait of the Virgin Mary supposedly painted by St. Luke is hidden within its walls. At the time of the Crusades, Seidnayya was considered the second most important Christian city in the region, after Jerusalem. The worship of this icon continues today, and attracts both Christians and Muslims pilgrims. The shrine containing the relic is located in a dark room, which reminded me of similar mysterious rooms I'd seen in other parts of the world, namely South America. The whole place has the aroma like incense, faith and myth. You must enter quietly wit your head covered. It's one of the most mystical places in all of Syria.
After visiting the monastery chapel of Seidnayya, it is interesting to wander through the courtyards and climb up to the roof, from where you can see a wonderful view of the city. The building of the monastery, as well as being inhabited by a community of nuns, is a place of passage and coexistence for all people. You have to walk around the area with respect and without too much fuss. Keep in mind that the rooms of the monastery are home to many people!
The convent of Santa Tecla is the only place of interest around Ma'loula. To get there, it is necessary to climb a steep path that goes behind the cliff. The convent is built around the shrine of St. Thecla, one of St. Paul's disciples regarded as one of the first martyrs in Christendom. Legend has it that she was persecuted and condemned because of her faith and when cornered against the face of the cliff, he prayed that God help him and then suddenly a crack opened in the wall, letting him escape. The convent is a rather ugly and modern building which in and of itself is not of much interest, except for the legendary escape route. This is an narrow opening through which filtered water flows which reminded me of Petra but in miniature. Throughout the gorge, there are graves have been exhumed, crevices, and several areas perfect for picnic or just a rest. The Monastery of St. Sergius is also nearby and in the same style. I think visiting this small town is justified because it helps to understand the diversity of attitudes and religions found in Syria. It helps you understand that, despite superficial differences, we all spring from the same roots.
It is definitely the most beautiful market around Damascus. It is located in a former madrassa (or Koranic school), in fact, the mosque is still in use. Here you can buy very unique antiques, Bedouin jewellery that is two centuries old. Prices may not be as cheap as in places near the Umayyad Mosque, but the quality is outstanding. I especially recommend looking at the silver jewelry - works of art. The price is decided by weight or antiquity. You can buy a silver necklace with silver beads and turquoise for about 20-25 euros. Old pieces are much more expensive, but absolutely wonderful. Even if you don't buy anything - it is still worth having a look around!