After working as a reporter in Cairo, Theodore May wanted to know more about the history, culture, and people of the Middle East. So he decided to explore it, and use one of history’s conquerors as his guide. For the next eight months he’ll be following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, tracing the 2,000-mile path Alexander forged through the modern Middle East. Theo will be writing about his experiences for The Global Post, and you can be follow him on Twitter at @Theodore_May. He’ll be contributing glimpses from his journeys here at Intelligent Travel.
I’m glad I’ve left Damascus. A few more days there and I probably would have put right back on the weight I’ve shed over three weeks of hiking. There are no two ways about it: Damascus is a foodie’s paradise.
It’s true that Damascus doesn’t have the range of international offerings you might find in Beirut because of its European ties or in Cairo because of its sheer size. But for a Middle Eastern feast, few places offer menus and settings as appealing as Syria’s capital city.
On my last full day in Damascus, I headed to a restaurant called Beit Jabri, just a couple of hundred yards from the city’s spice market. When I approached the entrance, I saw a small doorway with the faded name of the restaurant scrawled above it, barely tall enough for my six-foot frame.
This must be a real dive, I thought.
When I walked through the door, though, I was taken aback by the scene that confronted me. Tucked in the cramped alleys of the old city, Beit Jabri boasted a massive, airy courtyard, shaded by trees and marked by the classic Syrian striped walls. It was the kind of place you could see yourself lingering for hours over a glass of arak, the anise-based classic drink of Lebanon and Syria.
The crowd at Beit Jabri looked mostly Syrian, though a number of foreigners dotted the place.
As I sat down, I told the waiter I’d like a grape-flavored waterpipe (“nargileh”) and tea. I then began to peruse the menu.
Any good Levantine meal is best shared with friends. That’s because of the communal mezze culture. Sitting by myself at Beit Jabri, I felt slightly disappointed in not having friends there with me to order eight or 10 dishes so I could try a bite of each.
The menu boasted all the usual suspects: hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, etc. It also offered dishes less known to Westerners. Kibbeh, the Arab equivalent of the meatball; raw kibbeh, like steak tartar; and manakish, a pizza like dough, baked with thyme or meat.
Having plowed through each of these offerings over my recent weeks in the Middle East, I opted instead for an artichoke salad and classic Levantine fatta, which was fantastic. A mixture of yogurt, soaked bread, chickpeas, olive oil, and lamb chunks, the fatta was the kind of dish that makes your heart balk at the very mention.
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I munched on it for a while, quitting about a third of the way through the bowl. It was just too rich for me to do it any more damage, so I declined the opportunity for dessert, figuring I’d pick up some of the country’s famous sweets later.
There are a handful of restaurants in Damascus’ old city just like Beit Jabri, where a small door befitting the cramped nature of the old city gives way to an old Syrian courtyard and plates of classic Damascene fare. These restaurants’ vast offerings could keep a foreigner occupied for weeks. But you may want to move on sooner, before you begin finding it difficult to fit through Beit Jabri’s little doorway.
Visit National Geographic’s Travel Guide to Syria for more information on Damascus. Follow along with Theo’s journey at Global Post, and on Twitter @Theodore_May.
Photo: Above, the open courtyard at the Beit Jabri restaurant in Damascus; Below, an order of artichoke salad and fatta.