The Road to Damascus, Syria
A journey through Syria, calling at open air souks, Crusader castles and desert ruins.
The mighty Crac de Chavaliers, a former Crusader castle in Syria.
"Mohamed Ahmed! Mohamed Ahmed!"
The passengers in the shed-like arrival area of Aleppo International Airport mill about in robes, jeans and dresses. They take up the cry as a man pushes through the crowd. A uniformed guard pushes his passport through a glass partition, and it passes from hand to hand until it's finally secured. He sighs with relief and drags his bag through to the outside world. Everyone else settles back to wait, including the rare Western tourist.
Arriving at this unlikely airport in Syria's northernmost city is a surprising but fitting way to start a visit to the Arab world, introducing the traveller to the bustle and bureaucracy that characterise the region. If you want to see the exotic and unusual features that we associate with the East, Aleppo is a good place to start.
Aleppo (Halab to the locals) has all the air of intrigue appropriate to the Arab world's northernmost city. Claimed to be the oldest settlement in the world, it has been part of every empire in the Middle East. Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks and French have all ruled here at one time or other, creating layers of history.
More recent factors such as Syria's friendship with the former Soviet Union and its geographic location have added to the mystique. Traders from the former Soviet Union pack out Aleppo's seedier hotels, hoping to barter goods to take back to Baku, Erevan, Tbilisi or farther afield. Some shop signs are in Russian, contrasting oddly with the vendors selling French pastries early in the morning to the smell of Turkish coffee.
European architecture nestles beside classic Arabian styles and discordant Soviet-style concrete structures. Devout Muslim women here wear not the headscarf, but a thin black cloth which encompasses the head and looks eerily like a bag. Add all this to the bustle of an Arab city and you have a place with a fascinating, slightly sinister atmosphere.
One of Aleppo's gems is the Baron Hotel. It once hosted Agatha Christie, as all grand hotels in the Middle East seem to have done. The front bar still has all the old fittings and in the lounge is a framed copy of TE Lawrence's bill. On the more traditional side of town is a magnificent covered souq leading upwards to the Citadel.
Cloth is Aleppo's specialty, but a stroll through the meat section reveals more uses for animal parts than you might ever have thought possible. There are also pistachios, called fustuq in Arabic. Aleppo is famous for them and almost every pastry includes the green nuts as a vital element amongst the honey, nuts and wheat.
Aleppo's other attraction is its closeness to a number of ancient ruins in the beautiful countryside near the Turkish border. One of the most impressive is the former Basilica of St Simeon, now known as Qala'at Samaan. St Simeon was an early Christian monk who decided to renounce the world and live atop a series of lone pillars.
His final pillar, where he spent the last decades of his life, became a place of pilgrimage and an enormous, graceful basilica was constructed around it. Today the pillar is just a boulder on a pedestal, but much of the original walls remain. Tourism in Syria is still light and there are few visitors to the site. Those who do get there walk among the pillars and marvel at the tranquility and stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
Further south from Aleppo, a minibus ride from the city of Homs, lies the Crac des Chevaliers. This magnificent Crusader Castle would be a renowned tourist drawcard in Western Europe, but like other Syrian tourist sites it is not overcrowded and costs a pittance to enter. The sprawling structure, 800 years old, is in excellent condition and sits atop a hill with an impressive view of Lebanon's distant mountains.
The castle has survived earthquakes and invasions over the centuries and as a result the visitor gains an accurate picture of how it must have looked in its heyday. Clambering up to the ramparts, unfenced and open to all, you feel how much more immediate tourism is in this part of the world. Through a lack of finances or safety precautions, it's often possible to get right up close to the things you've come to see.
The ancient city of Palmyra also has this up-close feel. Situated in the Syrian desert, the ruins of this Roman-era city are surprisingly extensive and accessible. It's a place with an interesting past: the capital of an ever-expanding desert kingdom, until it went too far and challenged the might of the neighbouring Roman Empire. Zenobia, its warrior queen, put up a memorable fight before the forces of the Emperor Aurelian defeated her. If you believe the legends, the Emperor paraded her through Rome in golden chains as a result.
Whatever the truth, the remains of Palmyra linger and are certainly worth seeing. Temples, roads, arches and buildings cover a wide area and offer plenty to see. As many tourists see Palmyra as a day trip from Damascus in the middle of the day, it's quite possible to have the ruins to yourself if you go earlier or later. Sometimes the only other people you'll see in the ruins will be locals selling camel rides or coins found among the pillars.
The townsite next to the ruins is Tadmor, Palmyra's pre-Roman name. A cluster of inexpensive hotels and restaurants forms the tourist area on the road through town. This road also runs through the ruins, causing concern about vehicle vibrations affecting the ancient structures.
The tourist area is pleasantly low-key and relaxing. The locals are friendly and interested in talking to tourists, and all the restaurants in town supply free tea with meals. You can easily spend an afternoon just sipping tea or coffee outside a restaurant in the town, soaking up its peculiarly laid-back atmosphere.
Damascus is different. Although mass tourism is still undeveloped in Syria, what there is of it has hit the capital. It has the most expensive prices (still reasonable by Western standards) and the most awareness of tourists and their ways. Still, Damascus is worth seeing. Although its New City could be any place in Eastern Europe with its Soviet-style concrete architecture, the Old City is purely traditional.
A citadel with a statue of Salah el-Din (Saladin) abuts a bustling covered souq which is the entrance most visitors favour. This leads on to remnants of a Roman temple and the vast and graceful Omayyad Mosque. Built at the height of Damascus' reign as capital of the Islamic Empire, it dominates the Old City and is a fine example of a Muslim place of worship.
Unusually, it has three minarets, one called the Minaret of Jesus. Local legend has it that Christ, the prophet Esa to Muslims, will appear at this point on Judgement Day. Inside the mosque, standing out from the symmetrical design, is a small covered shrine to John the Baptist, retained from the church which once occupied the site.
The Syrian capital has other eastern delights, including its Turkish Baths. Those in the Old City lie within buildings which go back centuries. Turkish bathing is a male-dominated activity in Damascus, unfortunately, but with a little investigation you can find a bathhouse which is open to women for a limited number of hours on certain days. For women travellers, the experience is an interesting way to see Syrian women relaxing outside the usual limitations imposed by a traditional, male-dominated society. For travellers in general, the Turkish baths are an interesting cultural experience.
Near the southern border with Jordan is Bosra, like Palmyra the ruins of an important Roman-era town but with some intriguing differences. The town's heavily fortified citadel was originally a Roman amphitheatre, and has now been restored to its original state. Imposing stone watchtowers enclose one of the largest intact Roman theatres, with rows of seats so high and steep that they cause dizziness.
Another major difference is that people live in and around the ruins. Cows wander past broken classical pillars, children play among the stones of the old Roman baths and ancient walls and lintels support modern houses. The effect is curious and disorientating but charming all the same. Although the mix of old and new should jar, it somehow works as a whole.
Syria itself is like Bosra, a mixture of pieces from different times and places. The result is a fascinating blend which keeps the jaded traveller's senses alive with interest.
on 27 February 2008.
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