Beit Al Mamlouka, gated beauty
Beit Al Mamlouka, gated beauty
Beit Al Mamlouka, gated beauty
Beit Al Mamlouka, gated beauty
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Beit Al Mamlouka, gated beauty

Lauren is telling us about the wonders of Damascus, the old souqs, the khan, the hammams. She interrupts our phone conversation to ask ‘kahwet sada aw wasat?’ then apologizes and tells us she was talking to a client. We are transported to a secluded garden inside a preserved traditional home now turned hotel, Beit Al Mamlouka.

Picture those traditional homes, with characteristic black and white colors woven into patterns on the floor and walls, alternating rows of light and dark stones called ‘Al-Ablaq’. When roaming the streets of the ‘oldest inhabited city in the world,’ you will keep coming across walled facades, ‘they are high for privacy you cannot see what’s behind.’ But once you open the small door of a house in old city Damascus you enter a beauty haven. To get inside Beit Al Mamlouka you cross the dahleez, a small narrow corridor, and into the courtyard which is roofed only by the sky. In the courtyard wind down to the tune of the ‘bahra’, the central fountain. Then from the iwan, a covered area protected from rain in winter and sun in summer, you can contemplate the garden filled with citrus trees, lemon, orange, kumquat, and fragrant jasmine and roses. ‘All the elements were preserved for a journey back in time’ says Lauren. The old city is dotted with these houses owned by Damascene families. In early 2000, the owner of Beit Al Mamlouka was a lady from a Syrian family doing her PHD in conservation. She renovated the house, restoring every detail and opened the boutique luxury hotel in 2005. She then sold it to the current owner Tony, a Damascene attached to his roots and keen to preserve this piece of history. The houses can have different shapes, ‘this particular shape and construction details’ Lauren tell us ‘can be traced to the 17th century,’ the Ottoman period with some elements from the Mamlouk period. In Islamic architecture this focus on private inner spaces not visible from the outside was named ‘architecture of the veil.’ The ‘Sulaiman’ suite has its own rose shaped fountain, frescoed ceilings with meticulous wooden carvings and wall paintings, and detailed marble flooring (rkham). Traditional construction techniques were used for restoration such as stones piled with leben (a mix of soil and straw).

At breakfast, the sofrat el hawadir is prepared (classic homemade preparations), with typical products of the beit shami (the Damascene home); labneh mda3bli (balls of labneh with olive oil), beid (eggs), foul (fava beans), fatte, msbsabbaha (hummus variation), zeytoun (olives), zaatar and debs al tahini. Rest by the chimney in winter or the rooftop terrace to watch the sunset, and step outside in the history loaded streets. Across the road is the Ottoman souq hammam ‘Al Bakri’ which is 500 years old, ‘it’s still a public bath’ Lauren explains. It was renovated by the hotel's owner Tony in 2020. A couple minutes away in the old city is the sister hotel Dar Al Mamlouka, ‘there are a few years difference between the two houses, starting with a ‘mourrabbaa’ (squared) entrance leading to the courtyard instead of a corridor, it’s the Islamic style whereas Beit Al Mamlouka was owned by a priest.’ The main attraction of the city is the Umayyad Mosque, ‘back ages ago it was a tribute to god Aram then to Jupiter, then became the church of St John the Baptist and is now a mosque.’ She then lists endless sites to visit; countless religious sites for different faiths, Al-Azem Palace, the house of the governor of the city now turned into the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions (founoun sha3biyya), Maktab Anbar a traditional house with three courtyards, Qalaat Damascus (the citadel) or Khan As’ad Pacha a caravan hotel along the silk road. Not to mention the souqs, Hamiddiye where you can devour an ice cream from over 200 years old Bekdache, go for the ‘madkouka bil 2achta wil festok halabi,’ Al-Buzuriyah Souq for spices, Aasrouniyye to find kitchen utensils, lining Medhat Pacha the long street which crosses from east to west. Bask in the bustle of the old city with its endless art galleries, restaurants some with home cooked style meals to eat shakriyye (meat cubes with laban and rice on the side) or labaniyyeh, hip street bars, snacks on every corner, ‘there is something different in every street,’ before coming back to the quiet in one of the beautiful historic homes.



 We made a little lexicon for getting around the old city:

Souq: a street market

Khan: a hotel for travelers with a central courtyard and ground floor stables for animals

Hammam: steam bath experience with cleansing, nourishing muds and exfoliating rituals

‘Kahwet sada/mourra aw wasat?’: coffee with a little sugar or none (black coffee)?

Al-Ablaq: an architectural technique alternating rows of light and dark stones

Dahleez: corridor

Bahra: fountain

Iwan: a covered area overlooking the traditional courtyard protected from rain in winter and sun in summer

Rkham: marble

Leben: mix of soil and straw for construction

Sofrat el hawadir: homemade preparations of the classic mezza (a selection of shared small dishes)

Beit el Shami: the Damascene home

Labneh mda3bli: balls of labneh with olive oil

Beid: eggs

Foul: fava beans cooked

Fatte: grilled Arabic bread (pita) dipped assorted with ingredients such as yoghurt, meat broth, chickpeas or meat

Msbsabbaha: hummus variation with whole chickpeas and tahini (and other ingredients such as butter, lemon juice and pistachio)

Zeytoun: olives

Zaatar: a mix of dried oregano, sumac with toasted sesame seeds (can contain other herbs)

Debs al tahini: a dip of carob molasse and tahini (tahini is made of sesame)

Mourrabbaa: square

Founoun shaabiyya: popular arts

Qalaat: citadel

Madkouka bil 2achta wil festok halabi: milky clotted ice cream prepared with orange blossom water and covered with Aleppo pistacchio

Shakriyye: a cooked dish with meat cubes, laban (yoghurt) and rice on the side

Labaniyyeh: a cooked dish with meat kibbeh (a mix of bulgur, onions and ground meat), laban (yoghurt) and rice on the side

Bab al hara: neighborhood door (there are 7 doors to the gated old city of Damascus)