This story appears in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
In the rectangular courtyard of the Umayyad Mosque, the heart of Old Damascus, women swathed in black sit and chat on the cream-colored stone floor, polished smooth by the comings and goings of generations. The sky overhead is an identical rectangle of blue. Children chase one another into shady corners, as pigeons swoop in and out, drawn, the women in black like to say, to the holiness of the place.
Within the mosque’s sturdy Roman walls, this quintessentially Damascene mix of ancient grandeur, restfulness, and quotidian bustle continues undisturbed for now, despite the rumbles of shelling in the distance—dispatches from the civil war that is ravaging the city’s ramshackle outskirts. But step out through the mosque’s towering gate, and it becomes clear that the Old City of Damascus, though mostly undamaged physically, has changed.
Beneath the remnants of a Roman colonnade, Mohammad Ali, 54, wielding a hefty Polaroid he has been carefully keeping going for a quarter century, shoots a photo of a grim-faced family taking a breather from war-torn Aleppo. His usual clients—tourists, foreign students, and well-dressed families out for a stroll—are long gone. Today many of the families browsing the bright blue Iranian pottery and bouquets of colorful shawls are Syrians forced from homes in outlying neighborhoods that have become battlefields. They live crammed into rented rooms, shop fronts, and offices in the capital’s shrinking zone of safety. In the city center, men with guns patrol the streets; they belong to the growing neighborhood militias that some residents trust and others fear. Bracing for the unknown, fearing the worst, sinking into economic hardship, the Old City hunkers behind ancient walls that are reclaiming, metaphorically for now, their original role as fortifications. Beyond the walls military checkpoints create another barrier, keeping rebels out of government-held central Damascus.
Along French colonial boulevards, in busy vegetable markets, in largely empty nightclubs, there is a sense of waiting within a bubble of provisional safety. Mortar shells land with increasing regularity in downtown Damascus, attacks that the government blames on rebels. (Most of the shelling heard in the city is outgoing—the odd spectacle of the government wrecking the suburbs of its own capital, many of which have remained in rebel hands for more than a year.) Mount Qasiyun, the city’s twinkling nighttime backdrop, was a breezy aerie where couples went to feast on fruit platters at cafés overlooking Damascus. Now it is a citadel from which government troops fire barrages of shells.
Much has already been lost. But the singular culture of Damascus, viewed for centuries in the Arab world as a beacon of refinement and civilization, offers one of the few hopes for saving Syria. Given the country’s arbitrary colonial borders and contentious modern history, Damascus, for many Syrians, comes as close as anything to embodying a shared national idea. For centuries Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, and Jews have traded, worked, and lived together here, not without conflict but with a common relish for city life and business. (Only a few Jews remain; most left after the founding of Israel, when the government began viewing them with suspicion.) Later, after 1970, waves of Alawis, a long-oppressed group from the coastal mountains, came to Damascus, drawn to new opportunities under the rule of President Bashar al Assad’s family, which hails from their sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
Those who live in Damascus and love it best stand united in their desire to preserve it. Even as a once peaceful popular movement for political rights, dignity, and justice takes on an uglier sectarian tone—deepening fears of another Sarajevo, another Baghdad—people here say they cannot imagine attacking one another. Yet Damascenes are divided on who most threatens their world. Just beneath a carapace of fear—of the rebels, of the government, of foreign intervention, of general chaos—bubble political views so divergent that it can be hard to picture how the gap might be bridged. (Small wonder that few in the city are willing to have their full names printed.)
“Every stone is a heritage—every sculpture, every roof, every fountain,” says Ghazi H., a secular Christian in his 30s who has spent much of his life in the Old City. His schoolmates of all religions used the Umayyad Mosque courtyard as a study hall. As a teenager, he explored a Muslim quarter newly opening to the outside world: Cafés proliferated, boys and girls walked together without incident—although older people looked askance at them. As an adult, he salved boredom by hunting for “hidden treasures”—a courtyard in a boarded-up mansion, a small carving on an old house. But how people define the Old City’s heritage depends on their political outlook, and it is darker and more complex than most acknowledge, Ghazi says.“Everyone uses history to make their own points.”
The Old City’s twisting alleys, where houses lean into one another and vines dangle across narrow streets, developed that way in part so that neighboring but segregated ethnic enclaves could protect their territories. “It symbolizes how these divided groups can live together even though they don’t like each other,” says Ghazi. Passing through a Shiite quarter, he notices posters on the walls commemorating fallen fighters for Assad, and he knows that some passing Sunnis from a neighboring quarter may be quietly cheering the deaths. Yet the two groups still greet each other and visit each other’s shops. “That’s what the Old City symbolizes,” Ghazi says, sitting in the courtyard of his now deserted hotel. “And if you go back in history, it has always been symbolizing this same thing. It was Christian, and when the Muslims came, they converted many churches to mosques”—the Umayyad Mosque, where a church once stood, still houses a shrine to John the Baptist—“and life has continued.”
In quieter times Assad embraced a version of the Damascene identity. He attended interfaith musical performances and took (disputed) credit for the refurbishing of the Old City, as entrepreneurs opened cafés and boutique hotels, like Ghazi’s, in traditional houses. This urban renaissance ushered in another phase of change: Large Muslim families cashed in on their increasingly valuable properties and built larger homes in suburbs now torn by war. Assad cultivated an image as an everyman by walking Old City streets en route to favorite nightspots like the Piano Bar. Supporters of the government here see him as the guardian of the city’s multiculturalism, fighting a foreign-inspired, extremist uprising bent on driving out minorities and imposing religious rule. Supporters of the rebels reject this as hateful nonsense, viewing the fighters—mostly poor Sunnis from the provinces—as ordinary Syrians who are themselves inextricably part of the cultural mosaic. Damascenes who oppose Assad say he has stoked sectarianism and, to stay in power, would be willing to lay waste to the city.
That is what happened in the northern city of Aleppo after the summer of 2012, when rebels entered its Old City and the government did not hesitate to shell it. Aleppo’s Umayyad Mosque was heavily damaged, along with crusader castles, Roman ruins, mosques, and churches across the country. “If they try to enter, I will be the first person to confront them,” says a Damascus shopkeeper who opposes Assad, fearing the destruction of the graceful Qasr al Azm, an Ottoman palace; the domed Khan Asad Pasha, where merchants used to unload their caravans; the Chapel of Ananias, the reputed site of the baptism of the Apostle Paul. “There is no military objective here. Freedom is needed, but not in this way.”
Yet even here violence has come to seem a necessary evil. In a shabby living room in a sagging house overlooking Street Called Straight—where the Bible says God sent Paul after striking him blind on the road to Damascus—Leena Siriani serves coffee in the brown-striped cups she has used since her marriage in 1975. She fled her home in the rebel-held city of Homs because of the fighting and shelling. Yet as she listens to the whistling of shells and the thud of their impact, she cheers them on. “May God give you power,” she says, as if to the soldiers firing them. “I hope they are hitting the terrorists and the saboteurs.”
Down a nearby alley, where shoppers peer at gold bracelets, olive soap, and mounds of cumin, a wiry spiceseller in his mid-30s whispers a different story. He comes from one of those bombarded suburbs, and most of the people he knows there have taken up arms. “All day long you hear shells coming out from here and landing there,” he says with vehemence. “Then they tell you that the threat comes from there,” he says, pointing to the suburbs. “How? Should I be afraid of my own family?” He explains that he fled to protect his daughters, leaving behind a decent job selling cars. Now he earns just seven dollars a month. He feels guilty living behind government lines, he says, not like “a real man.” Casting his eyes furtively about, he mutters, “I will join the people there sooner or later.”
Just off Straight Street, in his 400-year-old mansion encrusted with relief paintings of flowers and lined with photographs of his ancestors, Samir Naasan, 65, keeps a Kalashnikov that he vows to use if rebels come. He has taken down the crystal chandeliers, because of the explosions. He shuffles around in a Puma sweat suit and sneakers, a tuft of his hair jutting off at an angle. From an old leather trunk he pulls snapshots of heads of state, including a sitting President Richard Nixon, visiting his house. Digging deeper, he finds photos of the craft workshops that made his family rich a century ago, where Jews hammered brass, Christians tooled wood for mosaics, and Muslims wove brocade.
To him, his family—which also owns the Piano Bar, President Assad’s hangout, across the street—embodies Damascene cosmopolitanism. That makes his prescription for the crisis all the more jarring. “If I were Bashar al Assad,” he says, “in 20 days I would finish it, even if I have to kill five million Syrians.” As for the Syrian masses, he adds, “better they should die than live poor.”
Then he heads out for drinks and meze at Qasr al Kheir, a restaurant in a courtyard with patterned tiles, mosaics, and a stone fountain. Its name means “palace of goodness,” and over the speakers Edith Piaf is singing “La Vie en Rose.” The place is empty except for an engagement party. As the music shifts to thumping Arabic wedding tunes, Christian women in short skirts hold hands with Muslim women in head scarves and men twirling prayer beads, all dancing a traditional line dance, the dabke. The next song praises President Assad and the army. The dancers whoop and stomp.
This is the bargain that Damascus and Syria made: live under an iron fist in exchange for a social safety net and a space for religious and cultural, if not political, pluralism. Then Syrians took peacefully to the streets in early 2011, claiming that a family mafia oppressed not only the Sunni majority but all citizens. The government responded with overwhelming force, and its opponents turned to arms.
Now Assad’s long-standing claim—after me, Islamic extremists—has proved true in many parts of the country. How and why will be long debated. But as both sides grow exhausted, forced to face the real prospect of demolishing all they are fighting for, perhaps resolution lies somewhere in the Damascene model of coexistence. Or simply in shared love for the millennia-old city that no one wants to see die.
For now, Damascus focuses on survival. Merchants, unable to flee because their cash is tied up in inventory, tenderly fold and unfold brocade shawls that were made in now destroyed suburban workshops. For Ghazi H., comfort is found in Abu George’s cubbyhole bar. Even when shelling prompts other places on Straight Street to close early, the bar glows like a fire on a cold night. The patrons, nowadays mostly neighborhood Christians, wax nostalgic for the Muslims from the suburbs who would drop in to drink out of sight of judging neighbors. They rarely come now—they would have to cross the front lines.
For Ghazi, what is slipping away is the Old City’s special flavor. “This period, it made me lose the feeling for things,” he says. “Now I walk—I don’t look. It took the spirit from the Old City. You think, Which is more important, the people or the rocks? Losing someone close to you, or losing the minaret of the Umayyad Mosque? For sure, the people are more important.”
Sometimes he wonders if people like him will be driven out, or he even catches himself thinking a decisive battle would be worth it if it ended this period of uncertainty.
And if either of those things happens, will the ancient city of Damascus be destroyed forever? He says no. “It will change,” he says. “Like it has changed in the past.”