Alwaght- If you look up you might just think that the twinkling lights are stars brightening the night’s dark sky for a split second when in fact you would be walking under an iron ceiling in broad day light. An iron vault shelters the street. Only shafts of sunlight penetrate the arched roof that almost looks like a painting of a starry night thanks to the bullet holes that were pierced by the machine-gun fire of French planes in 1925. Under this roof is al-Hamidiyah souk, the largest market in Syria that stretches from al-Thawra Street to the Ummayad Mosque plaza, and just south of the Citadel.
To your right and left are two long rows of stores comprising the long covered market that leads into the heart of Old Damascus.
The souk is a hybrid as it appears similar to some Western passages but maintains its Middle Eastern identity. The main way is usually bustling with visitors and tourists who scavenge for bargains in the clothes emporiums and handicrafts shops.
Colorful fabrics decorate the souk while the aroma of sweets and spices fill the air with a distinct scent. You can find almost anything that can come to your mind when you think about Syrian culture.
The street dates back to Roman times but has undergone drastic changes since then, especially near the end of the 19th century. The souk’s name is derived from the Ottonman Sultan Hamid II who visited Syria in 1897 and in his honor the street was renovated. In 2002, the bazar underwent another transformation. Today, it is one of the few surviving historical souks in the war-torn country.
“Hamidiyah souk is one of the first places that I recall growing up, the scent of spices, the mosaic of people mingling around together, and the enchanting feeling of everyone that ever laid foot in this remarkable place, something always drew me there, maybe it was my love for the impeccable collection of Levantine delights that are always on display there!” says Tamer, a Syrian who was raised in Damascus.
After he moved out of the country, the memory of al-Hamidiya remained vivid enough to leave a bittersweet sentiment: nostalgia.
“The long, covered market left an empty void in my heart when I left Syria, back in 2012, in some sense I felt that its road, which leads to the heart of my hometown Old Damascus, will never end, along with my journey to find the best sweets,” he yearningly admits.
He also says that tourists don’t get to experience the best of the souk which, as a kid, he was able to look at from a different perspective and discover its endless divisions.
“Normal tourists usually can’t get a grasp of how big the Souk is, but growing up there, and having my journey to school every day going side-ways with its magical gates, I’ve known since I was a kid that this souk represents the world in its diversity.”
Mohammad, on the other hand, a Lebanese who has frequented the traditional market is reminded of the Syrian hospitality at the mention of al-Hamidiya.
“I remember in the year 2000, I went there with my family and I got lost in the waves of people shopping there, I still remember a Syrian sweets shop owner kept me near him and yelled my name in the middle of the market so my parents would find me; he even gave some Barazeks,” he relates.
Again, good memories of the past mingle with the heart-breaking present in which the souk has had its share of grief.
“The last time I was there was during the parliamentary elections in March 2016, and I teared up from the sight of destruction on one end of the market.”
From the beginning to the end of the 150-year-old al-Hamidiya souk, there are roughly 600 meters. From the beginning to the end of the market, there are thousands of stories and millions of passers-by who have somehow left their mark there. From beginning to end, there are countless joys to the senses but there are also sorrows attached to the place as they are affixed to the country. Yet the market itself is a tunnel that leads from darkness to light.