Mirror To Damascus by Colin Thubron

4 out of 5 stars

Damascus has a lot of history. There are traces of settlements dating back to 6300bc and earlier in certain areas. By the time of the 11th-century bc, there was a city there, formed by the Aramaeans who stopped being nomads and formed larger tribes. It is possible to find the city mentioned in all the major historical periods, Greek, Roman, early Islam and all the way through to the Ottomans. It could rightly justify calling itself the oldest city in the world.

It is this city with its layers and layers of history that Thubron arrives at in the mid-1960s. The book opens with him climbing Mount Kaassioun, it afforded a good view of the city. He could see the streets that are contorted and crushed against each other, each betraying their age if you knew what to look for. He had been joined on the climb by a local who had many questions. Mostly he wanted to know where he was going after he had passed through the city. Thubron replies saying that he intends to stay several months and the man looks on in disbelief.

Sitting at a café planning where he wants to go he gets talking to two brothers. The local busses won’t take him to the orchard that he wants to see, so he suggests a horse to them, they recommend a bike which he tends to think is a better idea and they head off to a street with the strange name of Straight. With their help, he hires a bike for a tiny amount of money for a month. It is not a bad bike provided that you don’t worry about the brakes. Cycling around the city was going to be a frequently life-changing event.

He spends days moving around the city, passing along twisting passageways that he can touch both sides of. The ancient city is around fifteen feet below the surface, but if you know what you are looking for Roman pillars can be spotted as they have been absorbed into the modern city. The walls twist around places that are no longer there, just hints of what once was. It was an easy place to get lost in. Standing on a corner with various folded pages and maps of where to go would draw people to him to help. Everyone had an opinion on which direction the place he was looking for, was and he sometimes found it easier to slip away down the labyrinthine back streets.

This is not so much of a travel book, he, after all, stays in Damascus for an extended period of time. Rather this is a full immersion into the city. He reads stories and its histories, and there is a lot about the history of this ancient city and then heads out onto the streets to find where it happened to unpick the history from the myths. He grows to love the city, flaws and all and knows that it will continue to change as it has done over the past thousands of years. Thubron is one of my favourite travel writers who has a wonderful and evocative way of writing. Worth reading for a vivid image of a city that will never be this way again.

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  1. Liz Dexter

    Although I find him quite miserable, this does sound really good.

    • Paul

      Now that you have said that he can be miserable, I can see what you mean! I do like his writing style though. I have only read the travel books and not his fiction

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