In An Ancient Damascus Bazaar, A Refuge From War

Nov 2, 2016

From the outside, the Syrian war may appear to consume every corner of the country. But inside an ancient Damascus bazaar, the war can feel very far away.

The covered Hamidiyeh bazaar has always been a place filled with treasures, and it still feels like the heartbeat of the capital, with throngs of shoppers passing through its grand, gently winding thoroughfare.

The arched, black ceiling, three stories high, is pockmarked with holes from years of wear, giving the impression of a starry night sky even on a sunny day. The bazaar feels like a cathedral, with its planned lines of galleries and decorative windows the floor above. Soldiers linking arms with their significant others and old men wearing long traditional Arabic robes glide over the wide cobblestone avenue, smoothed over by centuries of wear.

In this marketplace, vendors survive and some thrive, even after five years of war.

The shops of Hamidiyeh sell the finest examples of Syrian craftsmanship — chests with drawers and chairs inlaid, flush to the polished wood, with delicately cut mother-of-pearl. Exquisite creations sit behind glass windows, and the vendors stand at attention by the door, in hopes of a serious buyer, who doesn't seem to be coming soon.

I'm based in Lebanon, and I think back to a Syrian craftsman I met there shortly after the war began in 2011. His workshop in the rebel-held eastern suburbs of Damascus, where he used to fashion elaborate furniture sets for wealthy families, had been destroyed.

The lack of work and loss of his shop forced him to leave Syria for the Lebanese city of Baalbek, where he went from being his own master to a craftsman for hire. Like him, these Hamidiyeh bazaar vendors are still trying to live by creating the stuff of elegant salons, an indulgence even in times of peace.

Across from the dazzling, empty furniture gallery is a shop lined with racks of tacky lingerie. The neon and sequined creations are displayed for all to see and business seems to be good. Further down the way, another shop is filled to the brim with high heels of all shapes and colors. A kneeling vendor, his underwear protruding above his too-tight jeans, fits a shoe on one woman while others wait their turn.

I duck into a side alley to see what gems lie out of sight. At the end of a long, dark passage is a door. I'm expecting a tiny, hole-in-the-wall shop, but instead, the door opens into another warren.

I enter a cozy treasure chest filled with mazes of handicrafts and antiques, an old gas-lit stove ready to heat the shop through the winter. Glass counters are filled with silver jewelry — from the centuries-old, armor-like necklaces with substantial hooks and locks of ages past to dainty new creations.

Among the antique necklaces is a bulky chain, from which is suspended a horizontal capsule. The elderly shop owner, Freddie Stephan, explains it was used to hold amulets.

His soft, gentle voice is hoarse. He tells us he is not feeling his best today, and that we could have recorded an interview any other time. But he warns us he closes between late morning and early afternoon because there are no tourists since the war began.

Stephan sits at the same desk his late father did. Time seems to stop here, as barely audible tunes waft from an old radio. The yellowed walls climb to a towering ceiling, and by the door, there's a gallery of glossy, large photographs of the notables and glamorous guests who visited back in the day.

Pointing to a familiar face, Stephan says, "That's my father, God rest his soul, with President Carter."

It was young Freddie who took the photograph when Jimmy Carter visited on St. Patrick's Day in 1983.

Nestled amid the photos of the shop's heyday is an Armenian church calendar, a sign of another part of Syria's mosaic, and an indication that Stephan's family may have built this business as refugees fleeing persecution a century before. I ask him if he's Armenian. He says yes, but doesn't speak much. In Arabic, he explains that his father was Syrian.

He tells me the elegant silver drop earrings I'm admiring are Armenian handwork. I hold half of the gypsy-like pair against my ear and take a quick glance in the mother-of-pearl mirror. A cash-only transaction, a "Congratulations," and I'm the customer of the day.

Or perhaps of the week.

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