This is not a travel book, but more like an extended meditation, or as Thubron describes it in his introduction, a work of love. It takes the form of a series of vignettes of the modern city, interspersed with passages of history. And there is plenty of history to describe, much of it bloody and dramatic, for Damascus has been fought over repeatedly and its origins extend into prehistoric times. Syria has seldom been its own mistress, but has been ruled repeatedly by foreigners. starting with the Egyptians. Later there came the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Arabs, the Mongols, the Turks, and most recently the French; independence was finally gained in 1946.
Thubron lived for several months in the city in the 1960s. For much of this time he stayed with a Christian Arab family, whose members and way of life he describes with affection. Indeed, affection is the keynote of his feeling for Damascus, although he is by no means blind to its faults. He is a superb writer, whose prose rises at times to passages of lyrical intensity that almost never sound forced. To get a flavour of this, read his description of the cats of Damascus on pp. 182-3.
This is a book to savour, but it would hardly serve as a guide to modern Damascus. Even when Thubron was there the city was changing; today, it is choked with traffic and much of the place is submerged under monstrous modern office blocks. Thubron, of course, foresaw this. He wrote: "In time, a distressing logic will creep into the streets. The summers will be purged of fever… And the traveller will not wake again in a jasmine-scented night, to hear the sherbet-seller calling for him to refresh his heart."