Al-Hamidiyah Souk, main Damascus shopping centre
Damascus - Abu Adnan sat on the wooden chair outside his oriental antiques shop, sipping coffee and screening passers-by in the bustling al-Hamidiyah Souk in the heart of Damascus’s walled city. Abu Adnan could not spot a single foreigner. Tourists have stayed away from the oldest inhabited city in the world because of almost five years of war that wreaked havoc and destruction across Syria.
“Al-Hamidiyah Souk is not only the place where I work and gain a living; it has become a part of my soul and my heart. When I watch the news and see the destruction inflicted throughout the country, I pray that not a single stone in this place bears the scars of war,” he said.
Every morning the 50-year-old merchant opens his shop with the hope of selling some of its exquisite antique pieces of oriental art, including copper-ware and wooden items encrusted with mother of pearl, a Damascene tradition. But for several days, not a single client entered his shop.
“I long for the clients who could only speak English or any other foreign language. Prior to the war, buyers were multinational and differed from one season to another,” Abu Adnan said.
“In the first month of the year, it was usually Italian and Spanish tourists, whereas in February and March, the majority of visitors were German and British. Arab Gulf tourists used to come mostly in April and in the summer.”
The famous 600-metre-long souk, built along the axis of the original Roman route to Jupiter’s Temple and smaller adjacent markets, is among the few remaining popular shopping places in Damascus, following the destruction of markets in Ain Turma and Yarmouk camp.
Covered with a corrugated iron roof, al-Hamidiyah is a cross between a Parisian passage, a department store and a Middle Eastern bazaar. Its main thoroughfare is lined with clothes emporiums and handicraft shops, while its narrow side streets are crowded with stalls selling everything from spices and dried fruits to cheap shoes and children’s toys.
In addition to being an outlet for shoppers, the place has become an entertainment spot for the capital’s embattled residents, where they can stroll around, spend time in cafés and forget for a while about the battles raging a short distance from Damascus.
Social researcher Ghassan Kallas noted that al-Hamidiyah Souk pre-dates the modern-day shopping mall by more than 150 years.
“There are more than 21 shopping outlets adjacent to Hamidiyah, which have become famous for selling specific goods and were named after the merchandise they offer,” Kallas said.
“For instance, al-Bouzouria (seeds) Souk sells all kinds of spices and food items, especially grains and cereals. The Tailors’ Souk is the place where fabrics are sold and could be tailored. The Souk of Gold for jewellery. The Souk of Wool and the Cotton Souk offer only wool and cotton cloth. And the Abaya Souk selling the long embroidered robes for which Damascus is famous,” Kallas added.
Strolling through al-Hamidiyah’s large walkway leading to the beautiful Umayyad Mosque, one comes across the renowned Bekdash Ice Cream shop. Planted in the centre of the 18th-century souk, the modest shop is mobbed from morning to night. It is the favourite destination of ice cream lovers of all classes and has been visited by world leaders and famous artists, including former US president Bill Clinton, Jordan’s King Abdullah and Arab diva Oum Kalthoum.
“I have been working in this place for the past 75 years during which nothing has changed, be it the recipe or the traditional method of preparing bouza (Arabic for ice cream),” said Abu Mowafak Bekdash.
“The only modern item that was introduced is the refrigerator. Early on, when there was no electricity, we used to collect ice in winter from Jabal Qasioun (the high mountain overlooking Damascus) and store it in caves for the making and preserving of the ice cream,” Bekdash explained.
The war, however, has left its trace on the shop’s walls, which used to be covered with photos of famous people who had a taste of its pistachio-clad ice cream. Pictures of now “hostile” leaders, including King Abdullah and the Turkish president, were removed.
Built in 1780 under the rule of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid, the souk is named “al-Hamidiyah”. It was expanded in 1884 and its walkway was later enclosed with an ornate iron cover that is still there.
However, more than four years of warfare, destruction, displacement and sanctions have shattered the Syrian economy. The currency has fallen from 55-60 Syrian pounds to almost 400 to the US dollar. The unemployment rate is estimated to be 60%.
“The devaluation of the pound has reduced dramatically the purchasing power of the people and that was clearly obvious in the slow market activity which preceded Eid al-Adha,” said Mohamad Kheir, a salesman in a cloth shop. “Before the war, people took advantage of the sales season preceding the Eid to buy several pieces of cloth. Today, they save the money to buy food. Clothing has become secondary, a luxury.”
Hajj Marwan, who owns a bridal shop, said, “The war has deprived Syria of its joy and destroyed everything that is pretty.
“During the feast holiday, my shop used to be packed with brides-to-be preparing for the big day. Today marriages are taking place discreetly because there is always someone in the family either missing, kidnapped or killed.
“When I watch the destruction of historic souks in Aleppo and Palmyra, I look at the shops in Hamidiyah and ask myself, would it survive as it did for more than 150 years… I do hope so, for our grandchildren to have something left for them of our beautiful heritage.”