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The finest Ottoman building in Damascus was built for Asaad Pasha al-Azem, who was appointed governor of the city in 1742. It has a typical Damascene ablaq facade of alternate courses of limestone and basalt. Inside is the Museum of Popular Traditions, where appropriately dressed manequins go about their tasks of weaving, cooking and eating in the appropriate rooms. One wing is contains the harem and family room, the other the formal reception rooms of the salamlik, where there are courtyards and fountains.
I can pinpoint the moment my passion began – it was the first time I went inside one of the great courtyard houses of the old city. The house was Bait Mujallid and I was completely unprepared for what I was going to see, and utterly overwhelmed by its magnificence. Then, when I realised what a poor state the building was in, I was filled with anxiety and rushed back to try to persuade my husband that we should sell our home in England and rescue a Damascene palace instead. Luckily, someone else stepped in to save Bait Mujallid, and I decided to concentrate my efforts on writing this book instead – in the hope that it will convince others of the uniqueness of old Damascus and the necessity to preserve it.
A traditional way of life continues in the narrow alleyways and crowded souks within the ancient walls. Heating oil is delivered by horses in beaded bridles and ostrich feathers; earnest small boys weave through the crowds carrying trays of food from restaurants for their employers; men wheel carts loaded with plants growing in old tins – damask roses, vines – to tempt the owners of the courtyard houses…
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