Thursday, February 22, 2007

The once mighty Barada

The modern traveler often wonders why Damascus, one of the oldest cities on earth, is where it is. Framed by brown mountains on one side and brown fields at the others, the city is dry eight months out of the year, save for a trickle of water, known as the Barada River, which runs through the city center.

The Barada was once worthy of being called a river, swelling during winter rains and flowing year round, supporting vast orchards just outside the city. In ancient times it was like an oasis; The prophet Mohammad is said to have refused entry, explaining that one can only enter paradise once.

Today, most of the river's waters are siphoned at their source, a spring in the mountains northwest of the city, and used for public drinking water. The remainder makes its way down a trash-strewn concrete canal, picking up raw sewage along the way. The stench is particularly strong just west of the old city, as it passes the old horse bridle market.

Occasionally, work crews wade through the water with rakes, collecting the garbage. The next day, it always seems to return. Syria has a poor environmental record, as the non-governmental organizations here to help clean it up will attest, and the Barada is a constant reminder.