The taxi reversed as quickly as it could, the wrong way up a busy one-way street. Cars and trucks blasted their horns and heaved out the way. The driver – who looked calm and relaxed, like a man rowing a pleasure boat – was going to get me there even if it killed us both. But backwards.
The dilapidated bucket of bolts wouldn’t have survived a drop of rain, let alone a collision with a heavy goods vehicle. But, miraculously, we arrived at Aleppo’s Baghdad Station alive.
The smooth marble floors and rough stone walls were the only things in the station that might be described as cool. The rest was sweltering chaos. Beneath huge ornate copper lanterns, a mass of people milled about. Most of them had no idea where they should be going – including the station staff. The ticket man looked at my passport like it had been issued on board the NASA International Space Station. ‘London?’ he asked, eventually. Close enough. And after much faffing about, I somehow managed to procure a ticket to Damascus.
The train was a Russian monster from the 1970s. It seemed like every window was cracked, but the seats were large and comfortable, there was plenty of room and it was cheap. Not long out of Aleppo, we passed field after field of crops. Maize, wheat, sunflowers and olive groves. Cherry orchards.
It was late afternoon, but the hot sun was streaming through the shattered panes. Bedouin goat herders stood on embankments and waved. Children in rags chased after the train, barking sheepdogs in frantic pursuit, kicking up dust. Some of the children threw stones, which explained the state of the windows. As we rattled past ancient and abandoned beehive mud huts, it felt eerily like the train was an unwelcome modern intruder to these old ancestral lands.
It was a six-hour journey to Damascus and soon it would be dark. The fertile land gave way to dry scrub, then desert with mountains on the horizon. The sun sank behind them, its dying beams skimming off the peaks and casting a spectrum of muted colours, from pale green to dusky blue.
I drew the curtain and dozed, waking as we neared Damascus. The train began to slow down and I pulled back the curtain to see silhouettes of buildings, blocks of grey against an inky sky. Between the shapes I saw a solitary bright star, perhaps Sirius, shining like a jewel. And next to it was the crescent moon, as sure and sharp as a scimitar blade, a curved sliver of light caressing its sharp edges like a tear on a canvas.
I knew as much about religious symbolism as I knew about astronomy (i.e. not very). But the star and the crescent moon made me think of the Christians and Muslims living side by side in Damascus, and how the city had played a huge role in shaping both religions.
According to the Bible, St Paul was famously converted to Christianity on the road to Damascus. When he set out on his journey he was a zealous Pharisee, a persecutor of Christians. He was on his way to the city to kick some Christian ass when he was blinded by a vision of God (don’t you just hate it when that happens) and led to the house of Judas (no, not that one) on the Street Called Straight.
There he was cured of his blindness by Ananias, and was born again. As a Christian convert he began preaching in the city, but this upset the local Jews. Fearing for his life, he had to be smuggled out of Damascus by being lowered to the ground from the city walls in a basket.
Muslims claim that the head of John the Baptist rests in a shrine in the city’s Umayyad Mosque. In fact, when Muslims first arrived in Damascus in the 7th century, the original basilica was used by both Christians and Muslims. Inevitable problems arose (perhaps they couldn’t agree on a colour scheme?), and the Muslims finally won out when the caliph Khaled ibn al-Walid decided to build the largest and most spectacular Islamic building in the world. The basilica was demolished and the mosque built in the 8th century.
Even today, it ranks only behind the mosques at Makkah, Medina and Jerusalem in spiritual importance for Muslims. Of course, this being Damascus, both Christianity and Islam are relative new kids on the block. The Romans worshipped Jupiter on this site, and before that the Aramaeans had a temple to their god Hadad.
In her book, Lady Hester: Queen of the East, Lorna Gibb describes how the British aristocrat, traveller and adventurer, Lady Hester Stanhope, arrived in Damascus in the early 19th century.
‘She sat astride a bay stallion, wearing a Turkish man’s riding costume with a Baghdad mantle. She did not wear a veil. Crowds gathered to stare but instead of reacting with the customary outrage, possibly because they were unsure if the mounted figure was male or female, they began to cheer, even saluting her with the greatest mark of respect, the scattering of coffee grounds in her wake.’
I lurched into town in a Russian locomotive, wearing a sweaty black polo shirt and a pair of Marks & Spencer cargo pants with an elasticated waist. A crowd of about fifty taxi drivers gathered at the station, who all tried to grab my luggage at once. They began to shout ‘taxi’ at me, so sure were they that I was a man in need of transport. I was. And after agreeing a far-too-high price, I stumbled into an Iranian-made vehicle that resembled a biscuit tin on wheels, which left a poisonous black fart of exhaust fumes in its wake.