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Norman Dannatt visits Damascus and Beirut

damascus roofscape of domes and minarets
City of minarets and domes

"The finest trip that this splendid sergeant arranged involved a complete week's leave. Those of us who were due a week off signed on to the holiday he was planning. The coach was to travel up north as far as Lake Galilee, thence to Syria and across to the Lebanon and back down the coast of the Mediterranean, eventually back to Jerusalem.

We set off early in the morning in a hired bus, reaching Lake Galilee in time for lunch (supplied as usual by our sergeant). We halted on the shores, by a beautiful beach through which bubbled a hot spring. Springs in that part of Palestine were often sulphurous and stank abominably. This one did not stink at all as it was an iodine spring. We relaxed and bathed till it was time to press on for the Syrian border. The land rose gradually and became mountainous as we went up the Golan Heights. By late afternoon we entered Damascus. It was like going into France. I particularly noticed the policemen, dressed in the uniforms such as one would see in Paris. We drove through a square, where a policeman standing on a little plinth controlled the traffic. He seemed very pleased to see us, waved to us and gave us a "Maurice Chevalier" wink of one eye. It all seemed so friendly.

the mosque's large central courtyard surrounded by collonades
The Great Ommayad Mosque

We settled in to the hotel where we were to stay for a few days. It was very cheap accommodation, several beds in each room but clean, comfortable and the food was good. Our sergeant had meticulously planned the holiday on a serviceman's budget to get the best value for the least money. The next morning, after the inveterate omelette breakfast, we set off on foot to explore Damascus. We were taken to the great Omayyad Mosque, a handsome building, highly decorated with colourful mosaics. I had always understood that the Moslems were forbidden to make pictorial representations of any living thing, flora or fauna. Only Allah can do this (not that he ever does!). This mosque must have been the exception that proved the rule. On the wall, as I remember, there were mosaic pictures of flowers and palm trees. We posed for a photo in the main courtyard. In some Islamic countries, entry to a mosque is denied to infidels like us, but the Syrians made us welcome in theirs.

The Street called Straight

Travel around the town was easy. There were plenty of trams. We soon learnt not to pay our fares. When the conductor approached us to sell us a ticket, we just said, "Churchill will pay" and he went away. We each appeared to have plenty of money. The currency was mostly in notes, even for quite small amounts. There was very little coin. We had saved our pay for several weeks prior to the leave - I had saved seven pounds. This I had changed at the frontier into a great wad of notes of various denominations. Our army uniform trousers had a huge pocket in the front of the left leg - I never knew exactly what for, probably to carry maps - and this I stuffed full of banknotes. We visited the famous "Street Called Straight" of biblical fame. Wasn't it here that St Paul saw the light? It was a long bazaar, with a very high roof and many shops of all description and was very dark. No wonder St Paul needed to see the light.

In one shop I purchased many items of Damascus silk, beautifully patterned in gorgeous colours. Another shop sold Arabic daggers, the curved ones, in heavily engraved scabbards. They were intended to be souvenirs but they could be used for other, more sinister, purposes. It is totally forbidden for daggers to be sold in Palestine. Previously I had finally persuaded an Arab dealer in Jerusalem secretly to sell me a dagger. He dug it up in his garden where he had kept it, wrapped up in oiled cloth, for fear of being caught with it. Nothing seemed to worry the Syrian dealers, they had plenty on sale, so I bought one of theirs. I also bought a whip with a long wooden handle, beautifully decorated with inlaid mother of pearl patterning. It had a secret. Unscrew the end of the handle and out came a vicious looking stiletto.

My sister Gladys had always wanted a pair of antique earrings. The Arab silversmiths are experts at silver filigree jewellery. Their silver always came from the same source - Maria Theresa dollars. Maria Theresa and her kingdom had faded away into History centuries before but her large silver dollars (thalers) were still the most sought after coins throughout the Arabic countries, to the extent that they were still being minted in, I believe, Austria. Loads of them were being transported and continually traded by camel caravans throughout the Middle East. They had the reputation of being made of the purest silver that could be melted and drawn out to the finest of filigree wires. One Damascus silversmith had a pair of beautifully worked earrings that, I was sure, would suit Gladys. However it was for pierced ears and hers were not. I asked the silversmith if he had a similar pair for unpierced ears. He didn't but that did not stop him from making a sale. He didn't bat an eyelid but quickly clipped the hooks from the earrings and soldered a pair of screw fittings on instead. Silver has to be soldered in an oxygen free atmosphere, which he achieved by placing the earrings onto a block of charcoal and blowing a hot gas flame on to it by means of a blowpipe he held in his mouth.

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I then asked him if he could make the bright new silver filigree look more antique. Nonplussed, he calmly held the earrings in the yellow gas flame till they were covered with soot. This he almost rubbed off till they just looked dirty. I began to get worried. I need not have done as he dipped the earrings in hot beeswax and quickly withdrew them. Then he polished the beeswax to a glowing sheen. Lo and behold, there, before my very eyes, were Gladys's genuine antique earrings. I posted them off to her and later received a letter from her expressing her complete delight with them.

Baalbek

Our stay in Damascus soon passed and we were on the road again. The bus climbed the mountainous road till we reached Baalbek in Lebanon. We could see the spectacular pillars of Baalbek sticking up far off on the horizon long before we reached them. As we drew near they gradually took shape until, on arriving at the site, they were revealed in all their Corinthian splendour. Even though they were ruins, they were still sufficiently intact to show what a resplendent sight they must have been when they were first built. I wandered around taking photographs and admiring the beauty of stonework carved all those centuries ago.

Our well-organised sergeant had, as usual, brought a packed lunch each, that we sat and ate on great fallen blocks of white stone. Then, from somewhere, he produced an Arab who spoke perfect English and gave us an excellent guided tour of the site, explaining to us in the most interesting way, all about the history of Baalbek and the all of the different techniques of each of the carvings on the stone and their significance. The frequently to be seen symbolic pattern of what we were led to believe was 'egg and arrow' he told us was, in fact, vagina and penis. We live and learn!

We set off up the mountain road till we reached the snow level. We could see the patches of white long before we reached the snow but when we finally arrived at the first large patch, the bus stopped and we all descended. Then, as might be expected, we got out and indulged in a stupid snow ball fight. Then, all feeling slightly damp, we got back in the bus and in some discomfort continued on our way to Beirut.

Beirut Square

In the late afternoon we entered that beautiful city and were taken to our hotel. There was a meal awaiting our arrival, we were introduced to our bedrooms and we cleaned ourselves up and went out on the town. Together with several friends, I went to the cinema to see the film, Gone with the Wind. I say, 'See Gone with the Wind' as that is about all we were able to do. Although the sound was in English, the local inhabitants, who read the subtitles out loud, drowned it out as the film proceeded. The next day we explored the city and strolled along the picturesque promenade. That evening we had the amusing sight of a group of very drunk Australians who stripped off and bathed in one of the fountains in a city square. They were cheered on by laughing locals and half their police force. Eventually the police arrested the revellers and led them off to the jail, still laughing heartily at them.

Racetrack

The splendid sergeant, ever enterprising, laid on a trip to the Beirut Races for us. The jockeys paraded their smart little Arab steeds before the vast audience of race-goers including the RAPC men. We could choose the horse we fancied to win the race. I did not know much about racing but I did know something about horses. I chose one that had sturdy legs but was not too heavy in the body. I told my comrade that that was the one to back. They all paid out their money and the horse came in first. They were delighted to have won so much money. I'm not a betting man so I won not a penny but the eternal gratitude of my friends. I was much more interested in a group of local musicians playing near the track.

Our holiday was drawing to an end. We set off south following the Mediterranean coast, passing through the historical towns of Tyre and Sidon and, all too soon, arrived back in Jerusalem."

Source: The War (I did it my way), Norman Dannatt.

All black and white photos, other than the first, are from the Matson Collection

The two paintings are from James Freemantle's 'Psalms of David' which is extensively illustrated with his own paintings. They are mostly of Indian subjects but he was with the army in the Middle East before WWII and also drew on those memories.