Step in time

Syria has been making travellers feel welcome for centuries.

By Kieran Meeke
Published 29 Mar 2011, 11:06 BST, Updated 28 Jun 2021, 16:08 BST

Being asked by a pretty young woman to go for a coffee is not something that happens to me every day. When she's a headscarf-wearing Muslim woman, the surprise is even greater. And having just met outside a major mosque, some of my preconceptions are being seriously questioned.

A little later, after a chat about her science degree, life and Facebook, she insists on paying and leaves, sisters and children in tow. It's my first of many charming experiences of Syrian hospitality.

The Umayyad (Great) Mosque in Damascus, where we met, is such an enchanting place that this chance meeting was the perfect end to my visit — a reminder of Islam as the great religion of peace. The mosque's honeyed sandstone glows in the fading evening sun, the ancient stones still giving off the heat of the day. A short queue at the 'putting on special clothes room' (overlooked by the shrine of Saladin, the great Muslim warrior who drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem in 1187) provides a long grey gown to cover bare heads, arms and legs of foreign and local women before entrance.

Once inside, shoes in hand — with many exits, you can carry your footwear rather than return to the same entrance — I was surrounded by families using the vast, polished expanse of its massive medieval piazza as a living room. Some were sitting chatting or picnicking, kids kicking a football around or daring each other to approach the strange visitors. A brave soul would shyly ask "Hello-how-are-you?" before rushing back to bask in the admiration of more timid friends. A greater contrast to the hushed silence of the cathedrals of Europe — designed to intimidate with the power of the Old Testament God — could hardly be imagined.

This mosque has strong links with Christianity, however. It holds the head of John the Baptist — also a prophet in Islam — in a holy shrine while a minaret is said to be the tower at which Jesus will appear on the Day of Judgement. The happy, peaceful scenes He might see looking out on the Umayyad Mosque may be one reason He seems in no hurry to rush into those End Times.

For 3,000 years, this has been holy ground. On this spot was a pagan temple — a temple of Jupiter in Roman times
— and a Byzantine church. The mosque was built in 715AD, 83 years after the death of Mohammed when Damascus was capital of the growing Arab Empire, and is one of the largest and oldest in the world.

A few steps from the brightness and light of the mosque, you plunge into the dark shadows of the souks. The famed 'treasures of the Orient' are here to be admired and haggled over, from spices and perfumes to silks and carpets. Even earthier is some seriously skimpy women's underwear, while other shops offer more expected and restrained veils and hijabs.

Damascus is one of the world's oldest cities and the shopkeepers here have been in business for countless generations, outwitting customers all being part of the fun the day brings. Offering half the suggested price is always a good starting point but, with few tourists yet finding their way to Syria, outrageous price tags are a rarity. Wandering around are the costumed tea and pomegranate juice sellers, brass pots on backs, Arabian slippers on feet and bright patter on lips. These reminders of centuries past are a welcome burst of natural colour to contrast the cheap plastic toys and kitchenware that now fill some shops.

Shopping over, find your way through the maze of alleys to the Azem Palace, built in 1750 as residence for the Ottoman governor, restored to its original glory in the 1980s and now the Museum of Arts and Popular Traditions. You'll also stumble on bathhouses, restored houses and palaces, and the historic khans (guesthouses) that welcomed travellers of old. Or follow the crowds to an ice-cream shop, a queue out the door and good-natured scrum inside.

The road from Damascus

The next day, on the four-hour drive to Palmyra, some ice-cream would have gone down very well. The mosque and souks of Damascus bring colour to the drab centre of a city that its kindest critics would struggle to describe as lovely. Yet even its most run-down parts offer relief from endless stony desert, an arid expanse enlivened only by olive trees. Syria's now the world's fifth-largest producer of olive oil, with ambitious expansion plans.

The long drive, on good roads, had three highlights. First, a massive billboard of President Assad in the middle of nowhere. Perhaps it was my imagination that detected unease from my guide at my request for a photo stop, the trip's only hint of Syria's darker political side. A signpost pointing to Baghdad was another photo opportunity, despite the traffic howling past at speed. The temptation to take the road to Iraq, less than 100 miles away, was strong — but that's for another day and time. The closest I came was the Baghdad Café. There are several on this stretch of road — all imitations, my guide assured me, of the original we stopped at. Offering tea, coffee, snacks and Arab robes, headdresses and trinkets, its real charm was its Syrian customers. Once again, the warmth, humour and friendliness of the locals brought a dull day in transit to life.

Leaving an expert in various ways to tie an Arab headdress, I reached Palmyra in late afternoon and headed to see its magnificent ruins. There can be few more romantic sights for a traveller than seeing a camel train pad through these Roman remains at sunset, even if these days they more often bear tourists rather than trade goods. A colonnade of columns, the ground left as bare sand to protect the feet of the camels, points out to open desert and the centuries-old web of routes linking Persia, Syria and Lebanon.

The next day was a chance to see more of this huge former Roman city and later the rebellious but short-lived Palmyrene Empire. Its warrior-queen ruler Zenobia, said to be a descendant of Cleopatra, conquered Egypt and Arabia but was defeated and taken to Rome in golden chains in 272AD. Palmyra itself fell into ruin after an earthquake in 1089AD.

Dominating the sprawling remains is the temple of Ba'al, considered the most important religious building of the first century AD in the Middle East. What's left is awesome but a 3D jigsaw puzzle of mighty tumbled pillars hint at even greater glory. A theatre also dating to the first century, the senate house and the remnants of the Roman market, weight and measure markings and inscriptions detailing taxation, bring history to life.

Mythology also seemed to be coming to life as the sun fell again and, amid the ruins, I spied a beautiful black stallion pawing the stones, its rider sitting awhile to admire the view. Then he spurred his mount into a gallop home, a glorious streak of darkness in the falling light.

The armour-clad Knights of St. John kept such nimble Arab horsemen and warriors at bay from 1142 until 1271 in the mighty Krak des Chevaliers. With its 13 huge towers, it was the largest Crusader fortress in the Holy Land and is now a classic of medieval fortification; Lawrence of Arabia once called it "the most impressive fortress in the world". More than 2,000 men and up to 1,000 horses lived here at one time and the underground storerooms held enough grain and water to hold off besiegers almost indefinitely.

Some 25 miles west of Syria's third-largest city of Homs, close to the long border with Lebanon, this UNESCO-listed castle was only captured by a trick — a forged letter with orders to surrender. Merely climbing the long ramp to its main gate in the Syrian heat is exhausting; it's unimaginable what it must've been like to attack its walls lined with fanatical Christian defenders.

To Aleppo

Moving on, another citadel dominates the centre of Syria's largest city — Aleppo. Once the end of the 'silk road' from Asia, it vies with Damascus, and Byblos in Lebanon, for the title of the 'oldest continuously inhabited city in the world'. Despite its size it's a quiet city, sidelined by the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, since when it has undergone a slow, dignified decline. Perhaps because of this, it retains its charm, while its souks and cafes are welcome refuges from the blazing sun.

This city of 1.6 million people was once a popular tourist destination: Agatha Christie visited in the 1930s and Murder on the Orient Express opens in Aleppo station. The hotel in which she stayed, the Baron  — Syria's oldest — still displays Lawrence of Arabia's unpaid bar bill.

Aleppo's citadel is a Muslim fortress that beat off Crusader sieges in 1098 and in 1124. It sits atop a 150ft mound once coated in polished limestone slabs, some of which remain, making an attack up it a suicidal mission. The main gate's reached by a dizzying bridge and defended by a series of six sharp turns, defended by slots above from which defenders could pour down a deadly rain of arrows and blazing, hot oil.

Rumour has it that secret passages under the moat connect it to the city itself; fortunately just an entrance ticket is all that's needed to get in now. Once inside, the citadel lacks the massive scale of Krac des Chevaliers but more than makes up for it with sights such as the beautifully restored Throne Room, with its vaulted and decorated wooden ceiling.

Cool gardens and bathhouses also reflect the centuries of peace that Aleppo enjoyed once invaders such as the Crusaders and Mongols had been seen off into history.

History's never very far away in Syria. Another Old Testament figure, Abraham, is said to have milked his cattle on this hill and given the city its Arabic name, Haleb — from 'halib', meaning 'milk'.

Zachariah, father of John the Baptist, has a shrine in Aleppo's Umayyad Mosque, built, like the one in Damascus, atop the remains of a Roman temple and Byzantine church. Razed by the Mongols in 1260, its tiled courtyard is a work of art in itself.

Near the mosque, more craftwork is to be seen in the gold shops, the glittering gateway to Aleppo's 25 miles of souks. Local specialities are olive oil soap and inlaid wood in the form of boxes, chessboards or backgammon boards. Beaten copperware, kaftans, antiques and the famous Damask tablecloths also make good buys. Here, you can taste some of the best pistachio nuts you'll ever find. Shops open at 10am and shutters come down by 6pm: go early for the best prices. The souk, like everywhere else, closes on Friday, the Muslim holy day.

One surprising sight is an entire alleyway of Argentine bombilla, the decorative gourds with a silver straw used for drinking 'mate' tea — a legacy of Syrian immigrants to Latin America who brought the custom home with them. Syria is the biggest importer of yerba mate tea in the world, and packets of the tea stand next to gourds decorated in Arabic designs rather than the more familiar scenes of the pampas.

Another surprise is the large Christian population. In both Aleppo and Damascus, their neighbourhoods are the place to look for a bar serving alcohol or a nightclub. Yet nightlife in Syria is more about enjoying leisurely meals in the cool of the evening with the conversation of good friends. Course after course of delicious meze are followed by grilled lamb and chicken kebabs, while bottles of Lebanese wine (I can't recommend the Syrian wine, I'm afraid) and strong coffee or mint tea bring the evening to a close with an almost inevitable session puffing reflectively on a water pipe.

Such worldly pleasures would not have moved one of the Aleppo region's most famous residents. St. Simeon was an ascetic fifth-century monk who lived atop a stone pillar for nearly 40 years. His feat, oddly enough, is acknowledged by the Guinness World Records as the book's longest-standing record.

A Byzantine church, one of the oldest in the world, was built around his place of self-imposed hardship soon after death in 459AD. Named Qalaat Semaan after him, this is one of several hundred late-Roman and Byzantine sites around Aleppo collectively known as the Dead Cities.

It's said that Simeon banned any woman from coming near his pillar, including his mother. However, I wonder how long he could have resisted the charms of the young woman who invited me to coffee?


Getting there
BMI and Syrianair fly direct from Heathrow to Damascus. BMI offers flights from other UK cities.

Average flight time: 5h 30m.

Getting around
Syria has good roads and an efficient intercity Pullman bus network; keep your passport to hand for frequent checkpoints. Damascus to Palmyra is 130 miles; Palmyra to Aleppo is 216 miles; Damascus to Aleppo is 220 miles.

Shorter trips use 20-seat minibuses, which depart when full. Knowledge of Arabic is vital to read destinations and women sit separately from men.
Hire cars, including Budget, Sixt, Europcar and Hertz, are found at Damascus Airport or through major hotels.

Taxis are plentiful, cheap and honest, linking Damascus to Beirut, Lebanon, Amman and Jordan, and fares are reasonable if you share.

Syrianair flies between Damascus and Aleppo. 

When to go
Hot and humid in summer (April to September), averaging 40C, and mild with some rain in winter (October to March). In the desert, winters can be cold. Temperatures reach 48C with the Khamsin winds of summer.

Need to know
Visas: UK passport holders require a visa (costing £30 and taking a week to issue), available from the Syrian Embassy in London. Passports should not have any Israeli stamps, including those from other countries' land borders with Israel.
Currency: Syrian pound (SYP).
£1 = SYP77.
Health: A yellow fever certificate is required if arriving from an infected area. Hepatitis A and typhoid immunisation are recommended.
International dial code: 00 963
Time difference: GMT +2h.
Friday and Saturday is the official weekend.

Places mentioned
Tche Tche coffee shop lounge, Madhat Basah Street, Damascus.T: 00 963 11 221 4329.
Azem Palace, Al-Buzuriyya Souk, Damascus.
Bakdash ice cream, Al-Hamidiyah Souk, Damascus.
Baghdad Café. E:
Baron Hotel, Baron Street, Aleppo. T: 00 963 21 210 880.
Laterna bar-restaurant, Sharia May 29, Damascus. T: 00 963 232 3185.

Where to stay:
Dar Al Yasmin Hotel, Bab Touma, Damascus.
Tetrapylon Hotel, Palmyra.
Hotel Coral Julia Dumna, Al Sabee Bahrat, Aleppo. 

More info
Syrian Embassy, London.
Syria Ministry of Tourism.
Bradt's Syria. RRP: £15.99.

How to do it
Cox & Kings has a Syria: Ancient Civilisations tour led by archaeologist Chris Bradley from 15-24 November 2011. This 10-day tour includes international flights with BMI and costs from £1,945 per person. It takes in Damascus, Bosra, Shahba, Krak des Chevaliers, Palmyra, Aleppo and the 'dead cities', including St. Simeon, among other historic sites. 

Exodus offers an eight-day itinerary including international flights with BMI, accommodation, some meals and guides priced from £1,099 per person. The Week in Syria itinerary includes Damascus, Aleppo, Krak des Chevaliers and Palmyra. 

Published in the May/June 2011 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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