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Built in 1936, using the gate of the desert castle of Qasr al-Heir al-Gharbi, near Palmyra, as its entrance, the museum has collections ranging from prehistoric to Ottoman and includes Roman and Byzantine artefacts. Its singular prize is a tablet from Ugarit in northwest Syria inscribed with the world’s first known alphabet. Another surprise is provided by frescoes from the Dura-Europos synagogue, a rare survival of Jewish narrative religious art. However, many artefacts have been taken away for safe keeping during the Civil War.
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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