“On the Road to Damascus”
The modern state of Syria has been in existence for just over 60 years. There is evidence of permanent settlement in the area dating back some 11,000 years, although it only gained its independence from France in 1946. A formidable list of world powers have ‘visited’ the country down the years; the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans and the Byzantines – in more recent times the Muslims, the Crusaders, the Ottoman Turks, the French and the British. As a result Syria has been the recipient of a rich cultural legacy from the past, all of which awaits the inquisitive visitor.
A Brief History
Around 1700 BC Syria had become part of the expansive Egyptian Empire. By the time of the reign of Pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1300 BC, the Egyptians were engaged in a bitter struggle with the other major power in the region – the Hittites – culminating in a decisive bloody encounter at Kadesh. The result was to see Syria pass into the control of the Hittites and initiate the decline of the once all-powerful Egyptian Empire. In 333 BC Alexander the Great and his Greek army stormed through Syria on their way to far greater conquests in Egypt. In 64 BC Pompey took Damascus and Syria fell under the rule of Rome. Christianity became the dominant religion in the area with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century AD, and many churches were built around this time. In the early 7th century AD the Persian army took Damascus but, by the middle of the century the whole of Syria had been overrun by the newly expanding Muslim Empire. Infighting amongst the various Muslim caliphates led to a power ‘vacuum’ and towards the end of the 10th century AD the Crusaders stepped in to fill it. Towards the close of the 12th century AD, the Crusaders tenure in the area came to an end at the hands of the Muslim warrior Saladin.
The Mongol warlord Tamerlane rampaged through the country in 1401 leaving a trail of carnage and destruction. By the early 16th century AD Syria had fallen under the influence of the Ottoman Turks who remained until Allied troops took control of the region towards the end of the First World War. It was during this time that a certain enigmatic British army officer, Colonel T E Lawrence - more popularly known as Lawrence of Arabia - put his stamp on the region. Under the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 the conquering Allied powers carved up the Middle East and Syria fell under the French Mandate. Sinking into an ever-increasing quagmire, the colonial French held onto power in Syria until finally relenting and granting the country its independence in 1946. After numerous years of political machinations, in 1966 a little known Air Force commander named Hafez- al-Assad seized power in a coup. Barely a year later Syria was to suffer a catastrophic defeat at the hands of Israel in the June 1967 conflict. Another conflict with Israel followed in October 1973.
I leave London on a cold October day and arrive in Damascus around midnight – it is still 21 degrees centigrade. After a good sleep it’s straight into the city orientation tour. The temperature is now 31 degrees, but thinking of the grim weather I have just left behind in London I guess I will just grin and bare it. The first stop on the tour is the National Museum. As far as museums go this one has plenty of the usual artifacts, bad labelling etc., and I felt uninspired. However, just across the road was something far more interesting - the Takiyyeh as–Sulaymaniyyeh Mosque. This mosque was built in 1554 by one of Ottoman Turkey’s most famous architects, Sinan. It’s built in a typical Turkish style with a central dome flanked by pencil-shaped minarets. Next, a walk through the Souq al-Hamadiyyeh (ancient bazaar), a maze of streets contained under a vaulted roof. Each street specializes in a certain commodity; jewellery, textiles, copper & brassware and spices, etc. As with most souqs, the atmosphere is pleasurable to the senses, traders announcing their wares, customers bargaining, sweet smells wafting through the air, and of course the multitude of offers to taste before you buy. At the end of the souq is the Omayyad Mosque - a large courtyard fronts the building whose interior style is somewhat closer to church architecture. Originally built at the beginning of the 8thcentury AD it has been restored and renovated down the years. In terms of aesthetic appearance it is nothing like as grand or as decorative as its Iranian counterpart. In the grounds of the mosque are the Mausoleum of Saladin and the Shrine of John the Baptist. Close by is the Azem Palace, built in 1749, it’s a peaceful haven from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding area. Currently the building houses an exhibition of The Arts and Popular Traditions of Syria.
An hour and a half drive south of Damascus is the ancient Roman town of Shahba. Founded around 244 AD by the Emperor Phillip, he was the only Arab to ascend to the elevated position of emperor. Today Shahba is mainly ruins and requires a fair amount of imagination to picture what it would have resembled in its day.
Suweida is an uninspiring town, but it does house the Mosaic Museum. The ornate floor mosaics were found at Shahba. Of particular note, is the panel of Orpheus surrounded by animals and wild beasts. The intricate design and wonderful natural colours are magnificent. Onto the stunning theatre at Bosra - this was one of my main reasons for visiting Syria – I was not disappointed. Bosra, is arguably, the best preserved of any of the Roman theatres. Its seating capacity could accommodate 15,000 people. The stage is backed by rows of Corinthian columns and originally would have had a wooden roof. The remainder of the theatre would have been covered by silk awnings, providing the audience with some shade. The rest of the site is considerable and includes a mosque, bath houses, a citadel, a cathedral, and some Roman roads.
Next day I visited the small village of Zabadani, which is at the foot of the picturesque Anti-Lebanon Mountains. It was a pleasant stroll in beautiful weather, making a refreshing break from the grind of the tour. The afternoon was spent back in Damascus exploring the Christian Quarter of the city. Late afternoon and it was time to visit the Hammam (Turkish bath). Inside a wonderfully grand old building I indulged in the ‘complete works’: a sauna; a full massage; bath and scrub down - then I was wrapped from head to toe in towels and served endless cups of sweet tea. All this cost just under £10 and left me feeling completely relaxed. Leaving the Hammam my return route to the hotel took me back via the Omayyad Mosque. It was now evening and the illuminated mosque made for quite an atmosphere. The faithful were at prayer and families enjoyed a relaxing break from the pressure of the day. There was a serene calmness that surrounds the mosque like a calm oasis amidst the flurry of activity of the world outside.
Today meant a long journey on the road - almost 12 hours travelling. On the way we paused at the Greek Orthodox convent at Saydnaya. This church looks more like a castle and contains an icon to which many miracles have been attributed down the centuries. In a beautiful valley setting at the foot of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains is the village of Maalula. Most of the residents here are Greek Catholics and the ancient language of Aramaic is still spoken in the local church service. Aramaic dates from the 1st millennium BC and was the language spoken by Jesus. Our next stop was the Crusader castle of Crac Des Chevaliers - one of Syria’s most spectacular monuments. Building began around 1150, and when completed it could house a garrison of around 4000 soldiers. Because of its position - situated on a rocky outcrop that dominates the only break in the mountains between Turkey and Lebanon – the castle was almost impossible to attack. The views from the top were astonishing, commanding 360 degree views as far as the eye can see.
Our overnight stop was the port city of Lattakia. Most of Syria’s imports and exports come through here and there is nothing of particular interest to interest a curious tourist. Like many other growing cities in the country there is a vast amount of construction in progress. Block after block of unfinished apartment buildings line the streets and not much work appears to going on. A short distance outside of Lattakia is the ancient city of Ugarit - famous as the site where the world’s most ancient alphabet was discovered. At its peak in the 16th century BC Ugarit was the most important city on the Mediterranean coast - trading with all the major powers of the day. Today the forlorn ruins that remain are in a sad state of disrepair. The journey between Ugarit and Aleppo is along a massive road building project – it’s a “works in progress” project - ongoing for the past 20 years with no actual end in sight.
Unexpectedly, we drive through some lush green areas of countryside, all the more surprising as two thirds of Syria is desert. Olive trees grow everywhere and Syria is the world’s third largest producer of olive oil. Other Syrian crops include oranges, lemons, and walnuts. Mid-afternoon we arrive in the city of Aleppo; Syria’s second largest city. Settlement can be traced back some 8000 years and visitors have included Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Muslims, the Mongols, and the Ottoman Turks. Aleppo’s Citadel is a massive fortress complex. Built atop a spectacular viewpoint, it dominates the skyline and in days-gone-by was the heart of the city’s defences. The original parts of the structure date back to the 12th century with various additions being added down the years. In essence this structure is a massive fortified castle surrounded by a 20 metre deep moat. The interior of the Citadel boasts an armoury, several mosques, a royal palace, and a throne room. Aleppo’s Grand Mosque dates originally from the 11th century and the 47 metre high minaret is the mosque’s most outstanding feature. Returning to visit the mosque again in the evening there is a marked difference in atmosphere - the evening being a more social and family orientated affair - it was a great way to just wind down from a hard day’s touring.
A short distance outside Aleppo is Qala’at Samaan, the Basilica of St Simeon. This wonderfully atmospheric and picturesque ruin of what was once the largest church in the world. In the year 423 the ascetic monk who was to become St Simeon retreated to the barren hills and then spent the next 36 years sitting atop an 18 metre high pillar. From the top of this pillar the ‘holy man’ would celebrate mass and preach to the pilgrims who came from far and wide to see him. After his death in 459 a church was built on the site and it is the remains of this edifice that are visible today. The actual pillar remains merely as a stump as down the centuries pilgrims and souvenir hunters have consistently chipped away at it.
Leaving Aleppo today our first stop was the citadel fortress of Qala’at Ja’abar. This brick-built Mesopotamian style structure commands a hilltop position. It dominates the surrounding area and has been subject to substantial renovations undertaken to the rampart walls. After lunch we took a relaxing boat trip on Lake Assad - to say that it was hot was an understatement - we later found out that the temperature had peaked at over 36 degrees. Our next stop was the walled city of Rasafeh - the earliest settlements on this site date back to the 3rd century AD. The enclosure covers an area of over 2 sq kms and as you enter through the main gate you are confronted with the enormity of the site. Very little excavation has been undertaken and the only buildings of any substance are three churches dating from the 6th century. Overall, it’s the size and atmosphere of the place that’s impressive - despite the sparsity of restored buildings. The late afternoon light was wonderful and bathed the whole scene in a soft orange glow. Our overnight stay was in Deir Ez-Zur, a pleasant little town on the banks of the Euphrates River.
The desert oasis of Palmyra is famed for its Roman ruins. It’s one the world’s great historical sites and is Syria’s premier tourist attraction. It’s spread over a vast area and has been subject to substantial renovation. The extensive Roman ruins cover an area of some 5 sq kms and date from the 2nd century AD. In 212 AD the city was declared a Roman colony - great buildings were erected and the city prospered. Much of Palmyra’s prosperity was generated from levying tolls on the caravans that used to ply their trade along the ancient Great Silk Road from China to Europe. The city was an important link on this ancient trade route. Upon entering the site you immediately notice the Grand Colonnade. This column lined street was the artery of the town and runs for some 800 metres. Other notable attractions are the Nabo Temple built in the 1st century BC, the beautifully restored theatre, the Forum, the Funerary Temple dating from the 3rd century, and the Temple of Bel-Shamin. Just outside the city walls is an area now known as the Valley of the Tombs. Scattered around are tombs of various ages and in varying states of disrepair. The best preserved are the Tombs of Yemliko & Elahbel and these are square-based towers standing up to five storeys high. Built at the start of the 2ndcentury AD, each tower could accommodate up to 300 sarcophagi. A timed group booking has to be made to visit these towers and as a consequence when you arrive the site is teeming with coach loads of tourists all pretty much booked in at the same time. Then it’s a matter of fighting your way up the narrow staircase inside the tower - having done that you’re rewarded with a gorgeous view of the Palmyra complex. By mid-afternoon when the rest of the group had reached temple overload, I headed off on my own to explore. Everywhere was lovely and quiet, all the tour groups had left and there was a wonderful serenity about the place. Also the light for photography at this time of day is perfect. For me, this is the time when I can breathe in the atmosphere and hopefully take that ‘perfect’ photograph. Palmyra is an enormous site, far bigger than say Persepolis in Iran, and there are far more intact buildings. An assortment of jumbled pieces of masonry are everywhere awaiting reconstruction - the site is a bit like a giant jigsaw puzzle awaiting completion.
Our evening meal was something quite special and was served in a Bedouin tent where beautiful rugs adorned the floors and walls. The meal included lamb, chicken, rice, salad and enough food to feed an army - hubbly bubbly pipes puffed aromatic smoke into the air. All of this took place to the accompaniment of traditional music, dancers and a singer. Of course there was something of the tourist element to this evening, but that aside, it was an infinitely more enjoyable experience than an ordinary restaurant or bland hotel meal.
Today we completed our circuit and arrived back in Damascus. I couldn’t resist a return to the souq for some last minute shopping. Then off to visit a few more mosques - the most interesting of which was the Saida Ruqqaya Mosque. This was a modern Shiite mosque funded by Iran and built in the typical flamboyant and colourful Iranian style. The mirrored mosaics and beautiful blue patterned tile work are vastly different from the rather bland Syrian style of architecture.
Tourism in Syria is still somewhat stifled by the continuing uncertainty that shrouds the Middle East and the attractions are fairly free of bustling crowds of camera happy tourists. Overall, Syria is a fascinating country to visit with an eclectic mix of ubiquitous mosques, Christian churches, Crusader castles, and Roman monuments. Add to that mix, delicious cuisine and delightfully friendly people and you have a destination well worth visiting.