Seven years ago, I entered the small shop in the ancient Hamidieh Bazaar of Old Damascus, walking beneath arches dating back to the Holy Roman Empire. Its owner, Abu Muhiddine, sold perfumes and beauty products but was then doubling as a real estate agent, as he was badly in need of additional income to feed his children.
Muhiddine was aggressively trying to sell me an old Damascene house behind the Great Umayyad Mosque, next to the Sayyida Rukiyya Shrine, the burial place of the granddaughter of Prophet Mohammad—a site revered by Shiite Muslims. Stationed nearby was a military checkpoint, manned by local affiliates of Hezbollah, guarding the shrine.
“Go ahead and buy it,” Muhiddine urged, adding: “I promise you will not regret. Look…its right next to the shrine and when this war is over, Iran will pour money into the area, increasing the value of all real estate. The price of your home will double. It might even triple!”
I looked at him and asked: “What if it loses the war—Iran, I mean?”
It took him three seconds to come up with what to him seemed like a perfectly logical answer. With a completely straight face, he replied: “Look over there—that’s the Umayyad Mosque. Its precious for Saudi Arabia. If Iran loses the war, then the Saudis will come in. They will pour even more money into the area. It’s a win-win scenario. Either way the value of your house will increase. Take my advice and buy it now, before somebody else does!”
Damascus — Dimashq in Arabic — is a mercantile city, ruled from its old bazaars and driven by the narrow interests of its business community.
That mentality—opportunistic on so many levels—explains why the city of Damascus has survived for centuries. Damascus — Dimashq in Arabic — is a mercantile city, ruled from its old bazaars and driven by the narrow interests of its business community. They don’t like war, take few risks, avoid politics, and operate on survival mode.
In 1867, celebrated American novelist Mark Twain visited Damascus – then part of the Ottoman Empire – as a young reporter for The Daily Alta California newspaper. He penned a description of the city in his 1869 bestseller “The Innocents Abroad,” saying: “Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies.”
Against all odds, that description still applies to Damascus today, the capital of war-torn Syria. When Twain visited the city, it had already been around for centuries, surviving glorious empires like the Romans and the Umayyads, and until then, 351 years of Ottoman rule (which eventually ended in 1918). In more recent history, it has survived two world wars, a famine, 20 coups, three wars with Israel, and the current conflict that started in March 2011.
Over the past decade, Damascus was much luckier than other Syrian cities like Aleppo and Deir ez-Zour, which were severely destroyed, and al-Raqqa, which was pounded to dust after a brief stint as capital of the Islamic State (ISIS).
Apart from sporadic shelling from rebels based in its countryside during the years 2012-2018, Damascus has seen nothing of the war.
Apart from sporadic shelling from rebels based in its countryside during the years 2012-2018, Damascus has seen nothing of the war. Those old enough to remember draw parallels with the civil war in neighboring Lebanon. During that civil war, much of the capital Beirut was damaged by warring militias, whose battleline was the heart of the Old City. Other Lebanese areas remained pretty much standing, including East Beirut, which only witnessed heavy fighting during the final chapter of the civil war—shelled by then Prime Minister, now President, Michel Aoun.
All of Damascus’ famed landmarks are still standing, like the Umayyad Mosque, the Bzurieh Market, and Straight Street (Via Recta, in Latin). The only difference is the misery one sees in the eyes of people walking nearby, crushed by ten years of economic hardship. The old bazaars of Damascus are still open, but the tourists are all gone. So is the purchasing power of ordinary Syrians, whose income has been reduced to substantially low levels due to the dramatic devaluation of their currency. Ten years ago, the exchange rate was 50 Syrian pounds to the US dollar. It now stands at 3,400 SYP to one US dollar.
International sanctions have also created a giant gap in Syrian society, with a razor-thin, moneyed elite perched atop the social strata, still able to afford a normal lifestyle, while the majority of people live below the poverty line. The Syrian middle class, once the backbone of Damascene society, has been annihilated. Many of Syria’s best minds have fled the country, searching for better—and safer—opportunities abroad, either in the Gulf or in Europe.
The Syrian middle class, once the backbone of Damascene society, has been annihilated.
Those who decided to stay behind or were unable to leave now stand in long queues at gas stations and bakeries, often for days on-end, awaiting basic commodities that were once subsidized by the state and are now in severe shortage. Electricity outages are at their peak, due to the exceptionally harsh winter, sometimes reaching 16-hours per day. All of that is topped with a sweeping pandemic, which has resulted in 1,000 deaths in Syria. The war has killed numerous young men and much of the older generation has died from Covid-19. Hospitals are understaffed and overcrowded, and people refuse to stay home to quell the spread of the virus, saying that they would rather die from Covid-19 than from hunger.
And yet, despite it all, parents are still sending their children to school, universities are still open, banks are still operating, and government salaries—no matter how mediocre—are still being paid. In the neighborhood of Bab Touma in Damascus, within the high walls of the Old City, pubs and restaurants are in full swing, entertaining the very few who can still afford to drink and dance. Cafes and restaurants are still open as well, offering a variety of Chinese, Italian, French—and now Russian—cuisines.
“If Damascenes are famous for their skill as merchants, they are also famous for knowing how to roll with the punches and collect themselves after a fight,” said Joshua Landis of Oklahoma University. Speaking to Inside Arabia, he added: “The Lebanonization of the Levant states will not be overcome quickly, but as it does, Damascus will be in the driver’s seat. Aleppo has been badly destroyed and its hinterlands lost. All Syrians are looking to Damascus for renewal and hope.”