by Rania Kataf
Whether you were entering the old city from the eastern Roman gate of Bab Sharqi, down the longest remaining historical street in Old Damascus known as “The Straight Street”, or taking the Midhat Basha route by foot from the west through the Bab al-Jabiya gate; or coming from al-Bab as-Saghir, the smallest gate of Damascus’s seven ancient gates; you will find that all roads lead to Suq al-Buzuriyya.
One cannot but feel enchanted by the magnificence of the covered suq crowded with people who seek these stone-paved roads daily to visit the famous Suq al-Buzuriyya. The suq has been a trade center for centuries, also known in the past as Suq al-Kameh (the Wheat Suq) and Suq al-Attarin (the Perfumery). It got its present-day name from the word ‘buzur’, referring to seeds, and the infinite variety of spices, herbal remedies, and other local products sold in its shops and khans.
Finding Suq al-Buzuriyya does not really need a map, your senses often lead the way: you are attracted by the combination of aromas and colors, voices of women bargaining and laughing, and men advertising their products. Your eyes capture and follow the light shining at the end of the covered street, which many describe as a walk towards heaven’s door. All these sensual experiences indicate that you have finally arrived to the suq. One cannot walk down that suq without visualizing how fine goods entered the suq in caravans in ancient times through the Silk Road, with every breath of spicy Damascene fresh air invading their lungs. All the details you hear, feel, see, taste, and smell are what distinguish this particular suq from the rest of the old city’s suqs in Syria. Being the grand hub for food, it is the ‘buzur’ or seed of all branched markets in the old city – the heart that pumps life into them all.
If you are a Damascene, you will realize that many aspects and stages of your life are somehow connected to this spot. You will remember that your grandfather bought you candy from the al-Buzuriyya and waited in front of your school gate to greet you with a smile, holding all the colors and flavors of sweets an old man can carry in his hands. You may also recognize the months and seasons by the fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds displayed outside the shops, or the products sold by traditionally dressed rural women, selling whatever their land has gifted them at that time of the year. You will realize that there is a wedding coming up somewhere in the neighborhood when you find the candy shop owner decorating handmade ornamented stools called Sabat al-‘Aroos (the bride’s basket) with candles and candy for the bride to keep during her honeymoon. This is a tradition that has been practiced for decades by the Damascene community, specifically by the bride’s side of the family, to wish the couple a lifetime of happiness and flavored joy.
The timelessness that exists in every ongoing activity inside that suq is a creation of that place altogether, beyond man and architecture. “The most unique characteristic about Suq al-Buzuriyya is the fact that it has not changed ever since it was established. Most shops still belong to the original family of merchants, something you do not find elsewhere in Damascus today”, says Ahmad Nael al-Haffar, a factory owner in Suq al-Buzuriyya. On the contrary, just a couple of stores away, Abu Muhammad Soubhi al-Sadat has a totally different opinion on that: “Many things have changed, I really wish they had not. We are producing less of the products that originally gave their name to this part of the suq: The perfumery”. Soubhi´s profession is rose pressing, the process of extracting rose oil to create natural perfumes and scents, which used to be the master craft associated with Damascus as a city worldwide. Today this craft is on the verge of extinction.
The first time I wrote about the suq, I started by saying: “If Eid was a perfume, it would be Suq al-Buzuriyya.” I cannot remember one time I walked in the Old City without passing by that suq, and it was never for the sake of doing grocery shopping, but for the pleasure of that meeting. Places and moments we experience awaken and revive memories from old times – this is exactly what Suq al-Buzuriyya does to me. At a time of loss and questioning of identity and the future, being able to sense the past in every fine element of that suq was truly a message of continuity to me – as if the memories of those who have existed in this exact space have been distilled and preserved in this suq, just like a scent in a perfume bottle.
Rania Kataf is a Damascus-based visual artist working on documenting the city’s memory through stories and photographs. With her Facebook community group “Humans of Damascus” she tries to engage Damascenes into this process online.