Syria's pariah status has put many off visiting it. Why, though, asks Ben Oliver? It's friendly, colourful and steeped in history
Our young Bedouin guide was a remarkable climber. Despite the intense desert heat and his broken plastic sandals he bounded ahead of us, pausing only to look back half-reproachfully as we lagged behind, or to allow the injured pigeon he carried to suck saliva from his mouth.
He had assumed responsibility for steering us to the top of Qalaat Ibn Ma’al, a 17th-century Arab castle perched atop a dusty brown escarpment rising hundreds of feet off the desert floor. After the trek to the top of the hill, we followed him up the sloping walls and in through a tiny opening, perhaps once a latrine. He led us through the cool, labyrinthine bowels of the castle and out into the breeze on the vertiginous ramparts.
Seen from here, the ruins of Palmyra are laid out like a skeleton half uncovered in the sand. The vast Temple of Bel forms the skull; the colonnades of the main Roman thoroughfare which leads off from it are the vertebrae of the spine, linking with the rib-like minor roads which connect theatres and market places.
Palmyra is one of the great sites of history, built on the profits of centuries of trade with east and west, and Zenobia’s capital as she extended her empire across the Middle East 1700 years ago. In any other Mediterranean country it would swarm with coach parties, but Syria is virgin territory for tourism, and there’s a sense of isolation to match the desolation of this once-great desert city.
Tourists don’t avoid Syria for lack of historical interest; Egyptians, Hittites, Greeks, Crusaders, Turks and early Arab conquerors have all left their mark on the country, whether in the towns, the fortresses they abandoned or the networks of ‘lost cities’ that pockmark the desert. Rather it’s a mistrust of modern Syria, engendered by the harshness of President Asad’s regime and its recently revised status as a state sponsoring terrorism that has prevented the country from developing its tourist potential.
The first Syrian I met was as puzzled as any European as to why I should want to visit such a harsh country. Ahmad, who had invited me to stay with his young family as soon as I arrived in Damascus, seemed as keen to leave the country as I was to see it. Later, taking an ice-cold shower in a pitch-black room during one of Syria’s interminable power cuts I came to appreciate his point of view.
But the country quickly repays any inconveniences it causes. Damascus is an excellent introduction, a synthesis of all the elements of Syria’s colourful history with a relentless modernism that belies the myth that Arabs are obsessively traditional. In the Old City it does indeed seem that little has changed in the 2000 years since the walls which ring it were built; trade continues as it has done since Biblical times in the gloomy souks, still a centre of commerce for the whole region.
The Old City has an impressively eclectic range of architecture, from the western gate of the Roman temple of Jupiter to the brilliant white marble courtyard of the eighth-century Omayyed mosque. Turkish inspired gateways of alternating black and white marble and intricately patterned lead doors open into domed backstreet workshops. Here the traditional Damascene crafts of lace and filigree are still practiced, using skills so impressive that Tamerlaine deported hundreds of Damascus artisans to his great capital, Samarkand.
The people who pack the souks are as diverse as the architecture. Traditional dress is much in evidence; Iranian Shi’ite women on pilgrimage are veiled in the full, black hejab, while local religious men wear coloured turbans and loose fitting, low-crotched trousers. Traditional Syrian men’s dress consists of long, flowing galabiyeh gowns in sky blue or cream with red or black kuffiyeh scarves, but in the cities many adopt western clothes.
Modern Damascus is a frenetically energetic place, made worse by the anarchic traffic of small, battered Japanese cars which spill across the city’s broad, dusty streets. When the oppressive heat, the fumes and the deafening din of the petrol generators during blackouts become too much, there are countless fruit juice stalls to retire to; laden with bags of melons and oranges, their colour enlivens Damascus’s otherwise drab concrete. There’s no escaping President Asad, whose sallow features dominate thousands of billboards and hoardings across the city.
Ninety minutes by bus takes you to Bosra, a small town 100km to the south of Damascus across the fertile Hauran plain. The black basalt rock gives the area a sombre air; many of the farming villages along the route are constructed from the stone. Bosra itself is the most remarkable of these.
Like Palmyra, it was an important Roman headquarters and capital which flourished on the profits of the caravan trade, later becoming a Muslim stronghold during the Crusades. The Romans left baths, colonnades and arched gates carved from the durable local stone of which townspeople have taken full advantage, making homes in and around ruins that would be museum pieces in any other country.
Heavily laden donkeys still trek along the colonnaded Roman street, past houses whose corrugated iron roofs clash with the ancient inscriptions carved in their centuries-old walls. Bosra is far removed from the fossilized Roman ruins we are used to.
At the centre of the town is possibly the best preserved amphitheatre anywhere in the world. The free-standing, 15,000 seat auditorium looks down onto a broad stage backed by a row of sandstone columns, the whole construction almost entirely as it was built nearly 2000 years ago. In other countries, this alone would turn Bosra into a major tourist attraction, but most days visitors have the place to themselves.
Local people are still surprised by the sight of Westerners and each feels personally responsible for welcoming you to his village. Yaseem, a local farmer, brought me back to his house, a series of rooms arranged around a courtyard, all built below ground level.
As in many conservative households, the women remained out of sight, but Yaseem and his father and brother entertained me for nearly three hours in their sky-blue, vaulted sitting room, and produced a meal of lamb and potatoes which we scooped from the pot with strips of pitta bread. After sweet tea and cardamom-spiced coffee we reluctantly parted company; Arab hospitality is written about by every visitor to the Middle East, but the unalloyed generosity which prompts it is hard to capture, and has to be experienced first-hand.
The Orontes river flows along Syria’s fertile coastal strip, which runs north-south between the Mediterranean and the desert. At its centre is Hama, a large, quiet, conservative town that seems to be cooled by the river at its heart. Hama is an antidote to the heat and hustle of other Syrian towns; more traditional than most, it shuts down entirely on Fridays, and more women wear the rough, colourful local veils here than elsewhere. Parks and tea gardens line the river, on whose banks churn giant wooden norias, or waterwheels, built centuries ago to provide running water for the town.
The old quarter is dominated by the Azem Palace, the early 18th century home of the Ottoman governor. Deep, shady porticoes supported by high arches of striped marble surround the several courtyards, each with its own fountain. It’s now a museum, but the building itself records events the Syrian government would rather forget about.
In 1982, after an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Syrian army sealed Hama off. Aircraft bombed houses lining the narrow streets to allow tanks to enter, and soldiers raided homes across the city looking for rebels and arms. It seems certain that there were mass executions and indiscriminate killings by President Asad’s forces; between 10,000 and 25,000 lost their lives. The Azem Palace was at the centre of the fighting, and bears the scars; whole sections are closed off, gutted by bombs, and the walls are pockmarked with bullet holes.
It’s in Hama that the oppressive nature of dictatorship really becomes apparent, not just in the physical evidence but also in the attitudes of the usually forthcoming Syrians. Even in his own home one man felt unable to tell us directly that his elderly parents had been killed during those two weeks; fear of the omniscient Syrian security services made him refer allusively to the massacre, but we understood. I remembered Ahmad’s puzzlement at why I should want to visit such a harsh country; but travelling is as much about experiencing the difficulties people live under now as the legacy of their history.
In the souks of Aleppo, it’s difficult to disengage history from the present. There’s nothing more typically Middle Eastern, but the souks of Jerusalem and Istanbul have had their old life edged out by the more profitable tourist trade which kills off what it seeks to celebrate. In Aleppo, as in Damascus, the labyrinth of covered markets still fulfils the purpose for which it was built; a centre for the commerce of a region.
Each crowded lane sells one type of product. One section sells the rugs and cushions Arabs use to cover their floors; whole families come here from outlying villages to furnish new homes. Another is given over to spices, vendors sitting back in their alcoves, presiding over heaped trays of cardamom and other pungent flavourings popular here.
The noise of the souk is deafening, particularly when the trademark generators come on during a blackout, but on every lane a tea house offers shelter and refreshment. One of the strangest sights is the butchers’ section, where lambs hang from the huge, blood-soaked wooden doors of the souk, intact apart from their skins and their hearts and livers, which hang beside them. As the day continues they are slowly cut up and sold; come back in the afternoon and there will be little left, the poor creatures’ constituent body parts having been dispersed across the city.
I left Syria shortly after visiting Aleppo’s souks, negotiating with corrupt Turkish border guards to return to Istanbul. The contrast between the two countries is marked; beside Turkey, Syria’s tourist industry is non-existent, but this has advantages beyond the emptiness of its great sites. The lack of tourist infrastructure forces you to take Syria on its own terms, and because it’s not a country lost in contemplation of its own considerable history, the realities of its modern-day life are easier to access.