Originally published on April 10, 2008
Damascus has had a corner in conversions for 2,000 years, since Saul of Tarsus saw the light and metamorphosed into St Paul the Apostle. I too underwent a transformation on the road to Damascus, not Pauline exactly, but definitely opinion-changing. My revelation was Syria.
I had gone to Syria because I thought it would be difficult. It’s a country of which the West is suspicious, to say the least, and whose borders prickle with petty obstructions. I doubt if I would have obtained a visa had I admitted to being a journalist, certainly not so readily; and no one with an Israeli stamp in his passport will get farther than a Heathrow check-in desk.
It was a country of which I was not just ignorant but mildly apprehensive. But then for most of us, our vision of Arabia is the version we have been fed, not an Arabia we have ever seen for ourselves.
Perhaps this was a case where travel could bypass politics, and contact between countries made people to people could make just the tiniest contribution to international harmony. God knows, it was worth a try.
First impressions were not too promising. Syria is, of course, a dictatorship, something of which you are continually reminded by the ubiquitous, clichéd posters of the president, Bashar al-Assad. Except that in Bashar’s case he comes over not so much as glorious leader as employee of the month.
He has troubled eyebrows, maybe because there are almost as many, much wilier portraits on display of his authoritarian father who died eight years ago. The only time my guide Mahmud’s smile faltered was when I suggested that the president always looked worried.
There is also a mild feeling of being, if not on the front line, somewhere near it. Drive out of Damascus and there are road signs to Baghdad and Beirut; the war memorials have 20th century-missiles as their emblems and in the desert a squadron of tanks was on manoeuvre. On my second day in Damascus a leader of Hezbollah was killed in the city by a car bomb.
But these were the politics I had gone there to sidestep. Strip away the system and the headlines and what you find is a relaxed and welcoming people, whose innate hospitality moved me more than once, and a country whose mixture of the spontaneous and the set piece makes it hugely fulfilling for travellers.
The old cities of Damascus and Aleppo are both World Heritage sites – the country has five – and so are themselves set pieces, but I remember them as much for my unplanned experiences.
Old Damascus is a confusion of houses from the 18th century and before. They bend confidentially over a tangle of tiny streets running in dark gullies beneath overhanging rooms. Buildings are propped up with wooden poles angled like brackets. Window frames are dislocated and there are large holes in the plaster. But there are also pockets of restoration. Enough for there to be a restriction on how many old buildings can be turned into new restaurants.
This is the longest continuously inhabited spot on earth, a fact that lends it an unexpectedly soothing sense of maturity. If you have a history that has been rolling for 6,000 years, you are unlikely to find much to impress you in news that rolls for 24 hours.
The index of Damascus’s occupants includes half the alphabet of marauding tribes, zealous sects and ruthless empires that have scavenged in the Middle East – from Assyrians and Chaldeans, through Persians, Greeks, Nabateans, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Crusaders to the Mamelukes, Ottomans and French.
The city has an A-list of historical celebrities: Nebuchadnezzar, Alexander the Great, Hadrian, Saladin, Tamerlane and Lawrence of Arabia as well as St Paul.
The Great Umayyad Mosque occupies a site sacred for 3,000 years. Hadad, the Levantine rain god, was worshipped here, so, by the Romans, was Jupiter. Ruins of his temple survive. The Byzantines built a Christian cathedral to enshrine John the Baptist’s head.
His tomb stands now in the middle of the mosque’s prayer hall. Before the mosque was completed in 715, the church was shared by Christians and Muslims; it is still held that one of the minarets will be the conduit for Jesus’s descent on His return to earth.
I attended Friday mid-morning prayers. Past the sign for the “Putting on Special Clothes Room”, where foreign females are required to don full-length robes, I crossed the one-and-a-half acre marble courtyard to enter the hall. It had the air of a very large, five-star hotel foyer made even larger by the absence of furniture.
Beneath the high eau de nil ceiling and a glittering line of chandeliers, men sat around on the luxurious red carpet, propped against pillars, chatting or reading. Some snoozed. Children played with electronic games. They and the women were confined to their own bit of carpet. Shoes were strewn along the walls and piled against the colossal square columns under the dome.
Yesterday the Hezbollah leader had been assassinated. I wondered if it would figure in the imam’s sermon. Instead, he spoke about the importance of love. Yes, he had taken his text from events of the previous day: it had been St Valentine’s Day.
Never once was I made to feel uncomfortable about the West’s policy in Iraq or anywhere else. Other misgivings were eroded, too. You don’t get pestered in the streets. You can eat well, if without much variety, on very fresh, Lebanese-style mezes, salads and grills. Most restaurants serve alcohol. At one lunchtime six locals polished off a bottle of J&B scotch.
There are some hotels of real character. I especially liked the Talisman in Damascus, despite its being painted a ferocious ruby red. Built around two courtyards of a former house in the old Jewish quarter, it has spacious bedrooms, antique furniture puddled with mother of pearl inlay, and oodles of intricate Arab style without the usual Arab clutter.
As for Syria’s monuments, they are magnificent. If they were better known they would be leaping on to those “wonders to see before you die” lists.
Palmyra, 150 miles from Damascus, is the skeleton of the great desert city the Romans built. A staging post for caravans bringing silk, spices and slaves from the east, it has a grand, colonnaded, dorsal street that was left unpaved for the sake of the camels. The desert is still spiny with its beige columns and strange towers containing tombs.
Apamea, nearer the coast, may not share the sandy spectacle of Palmyra, but it is four times the size. At Apamea more than 400 pillars of silvery stone lining its mile-long Grand Colonnade have been restored. Antony and Cleopatra once walked in their shade. Today men on motorcycles zoom around the ruins flogging fake antiques.
Then there is Krac des Chevaliers, a mighty Crusaders’ castle as formidable, and almost as intact, as it was in the 12th century. Its massive fortification defines the word stronghold. It mesmerised TE Lawrence.
The so-called Dead Cities, centres of huge wealth from olive oil in the Byzantine age, reach their apotheosis in the 5th century basilica of St Simeon. Constructed on the spot where, on and off for 36 years, the saint sought solitude standing on top of a 55-foot pillar, it was for centuries the largest and most important church in the world.
Those were the set pieces. The spontaneity came from the people. In a hammam, in one of the thrilling and glimmering tunnels of the Damascus souk, itself as big as a village, I was the only Westerner. But I was ushered patiently through the ritual of sauna, steam room, scrub and massage by my fellow bathers.
I was invited to a ceremony of condolence for the family of a man who had died the day before. In a long, brightly lit room with purple curtains, a cross between a ballroom and chapel of rest, male relatives of the deceased stood in line to receive the mourners.
They too were men. The sight of so many men in dark suits ritually embracing was a bit like a scene from The Godfather. Tomorrow a similar event would be held for women.
We were given small cups of strong coffee and glasses of hot lemon water and sat for a respectful few minutes on chairs in facing rows on either side of the room. At the far end a muezzin intermittently intoned verses from the Koran through an amplifier with the echo turned up.
On the way to Palmyra, in the desert subfusc, stripped of everything but shadow and shape, Abu Ahmed, a Bedouin shepherd, made tea for me in his tent. Prolonged drought was making a hard life even tougher. I asked how he managed in winter’s icy nights. “It would be warmer with two wives,” he quipped. He refused to accept anything for the tea.
Syria was a revelation.
Peter Hughes travelled with Steppes Travel (01285 880980, www.steppestravel.co.uk). Recommended guidebook: Syria & Lebanon (Lonely Planet, £13.99).
Current travel advice (as of January 21, 2014)
The Foreign Office advises against all travel to Syria. “British nationals in Syria should leave now by any practical means”, it says. “The FCO is not able to provide consular services, and won’t be able to help your evacuation from the country.” See https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/syria
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