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Old City is a new treat in Damascus

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As recently as a decade ago, night in the Old City of Damascus belonged to stock boys refilling the shelves of the bazaar, the occasional policeman and lots of stray cats.

These days after the sun goes down, the cobblestone streets within the ancient walls echo with the footsteps of Syrians and tourists making the rounds of a growing number of piano bars, jazz clubs and restaurants that serve Arab and European fare.Damascus - which bills itself as the oldest, continuously occupied city in the world - is undergoing a revival.

It can be seen not only in the rejuvenated night life but also in the grand old houses being bought up and refurbished and in the restoration of major monuments, such as the eighth-century Omayyad Mosque at the city's heart.

Suhail Zakkar, a professor of Islamic history at Damascus University, credits "the desire for tourism, not only from outside the country but from inside Syria."

More important, he says, is "growing awareness throughout the Arab world that we must protect our heritage, if only to teach our coming generations about our rich history."

Damascus' history is richer than most. First inhabited 7,000 years ago, it was known to the Egyptian pharaohs and rated a mention in the Old Testament's Book of Genesis.

Because it was a major trading and religious center, the list of conquerors reads like a who's who of the ancient world: Persian King Cyrus, Alexander the Great and the Arab warrior Saladin all captured the city. Angered when the city resisted, the Mongol warrior Tamerlane burned it to the ground in A.D. 1400.

Though Muslim monuments predominate, Christianity has left its mark, too. The Street Called Straight - the only road that bisects the Old City - was where St. Paul was converted. A shrine in the Omayyad Mosque marks the site where legend holds that the head of John the Baptist is entombed.

The Old City's main draw continues to be the Souk al-Hamidiya, where vendors accost visitors with shouts of "Come see my silver," "Buy my sweets," and the weary, "No charge for looking."

Stores, often no larger than a modest bedroom, overflow with silk brocade and inlaid wood boxes made in Syria, spices from India and Africa, carpets from Iran, brass pots from Central Asia.

Most of the restoration is occurring on the bazaar's fringe. Hidden behind anonymous wooden doors along the labyrinthine lanes are Ottoman-era palaces rich with hand-carved wood, marble and decorative stone inlays.

Some are private residences for prominent Syrian families. But many are being converted for other uses, such as a Danish cultural center and a hands-on laboratory for University of Damascus architecture students.

Marmar, a cabaret that opened near the eastern Touma Gate earlier this year, is housed in a section of an 18th-century caravansary, an inn surrounding a court where caravans spent the night.

A short walk away is Al-Zeitouna, which led the revival of Old City restaurants with its opening in 1995.

Set in the courtyard of a refurbished 19th-century mansion, Al-Zeitouna's walls are alternating layers of black and white stone, broken by the lush red of blooming rose bushes.

Owner Salim Nassan said he was inspired by visits to other old cities.

"Everywhere I went, there was an old town with a life. Athens, Istanbul, Montreal," he said. "I want Damascus to be like the others."

He thought a moment and added: "No, I want Damascus to be better."