It feels very strange to be writing about a place that might not exist by the time you read this. So far the old city of Damascus has survived the Syrian conflict because the opposition fighters have not taken the battle into its streets and alleyways – but the moment they do, the regime will respond with bombs and shells, as they have done in Aleppo where tragically, so much of the old town has been destroyed.

Damascus still exists on a wing and a prayer. But in areas not far from the old city walls there is devastation: Jobar, for instance, where one of the oldest synagogues in the world was located, has been destroyed. The synagogue was famous for its beautiful old silver torah cases; it is said that Elijah is supposed to have anointed Elisha as his successor there. A strange story appeared in an Israeli paper last year claiming that before shells finally destroyed the synagogue, Israeli commandos had gone into Syria, grabbed these and other treasures and taken them back to Israel. I have no idea whether this story is true or not.

Damascus is a city that is doubly precious: it is the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world, which means that it is really a vast unexplored archaeological site. Every time they repair a drain or a pipe in Damascus they find a Roman arch, an amphitheatre, an ancient fountain. Last time I was there, not long before the uprising began, I was shown a house where the owners, revamping the place, had just discovered that their home was really a small Greek temple with pillars and an altar!

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