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Welcome and Easy

The square room we're in is bleak.  Its walls are clinically white and free of any decoration.  There's one door but no windows.  A lone fluorescent tube on the ceiling sheds a harsh light.  In one corner rests a rustic wooden cabinet with a TV inside, the action of some Arabic soap opera flickering mutely on its screen.  In a nod to habitability, mattresses and cushions are piled along two of the walls, farthest from the door, and the floor is covered with intricately patterned bast-fiber spreads, well worn with age but spotlessly clean.

Despite its austere appearance, the room is filled with warmth and friendliness.  It is the main room of a rural family residence, and we are invited for lunch. Out of nowhere, we have accessed the most private quarters of people we don't even know, welcomed into their home with the hospitality and generosity that are the defining characteristics of Syrians.  In front of us, on the floor, lies a pad of rubberized black plastic that serves as a table.  Bowls and plates crowd its surface.  We're having tea, pita bread, oil and za'ater, salty stringy cheese, olives, tomatoes, and a host of other items that we can't identify.  The meal is delicious but what makes it most memorable is the rambling four-way conversation that quickly evolves between my sister and me on one side and our host, Milad, and his sister on the other.  Four languages bounce through the small room, and none of us speaks all of them.

Milad is a student of French in Aleppo; his sister studies English in Latakia.  Both are keen to put their language skills into practice and keener yet to learn about a world so far removed from their own, the world outside the confines of their isolated country.  Despite persistent oppression by a regime of meager democratic account, Syrians in the street are eager to break out and learn about what goes on beyond the borders of their home and gladly take any chance to initiate contact with strangers.  Milad didn't have to think twice before approaching us when we were loitering about our little rental car, two obvious foreigners out of their wits about how to proceed.  "You are welcome," he shouted from across the street by way of greeting before making his way to our side with a big smile in his face.  "Are you all right?"

We were not all right.  We were lost, stranded in an unnamed village in the northwest of Syria whose ancient, slush-encrusted petrol pump was its sole attraction to us.  With the tank of our car going on empty, we had momentarily given up on our search for Sergilla, one of the famed Dead Cities.  It was the sixth day out in the country, and it looked as if our road trip was coming to a premature end.

Palmyra

Our journey had started in Damascus where we picked up a small Korean compact despite the warnings of a Syrian friend.  "Do not rent a car in Syria," he pleaded, "because the driving is crazy and not safe." Things are indeed very different from Western Europe.  Aside from the red light, which commands the utmost respect, there are no rules on the road.  Everyone follows the energy of the moment, which almost always pulses fast and loose.  Conflicts between drivers and the majority of accidents are prevented by judicious use of the horn, an instinctive courtesy that underlies the chaos, and the protective hand of fate.  Inside cities, that hand is rather busy, as traffic is very dense and disorganized.  The major motorways are not much better.  Ancient lorries crawling down the right lane, fruit stands surrounded by bargaining customers on the shoulder, and suicidal pedestrians traversing the tarmac in the oddest places turn motorways into obstacle courses.  The most relaxed driving, and the adjective is used rather loosely here, can be found on country roads and out in the desert where there's not much traffic.

We headed into the sands first.  About two hundred kilometers northeast of Damascus, in the geographic centre of the country but already deep inside the mostly uninhabitable Syrian Desert, lies the glorious city of Palmyra, Syria's most popular attraction.  What is today a vast field of imposing ruins and a UNESCO World Heritage Site was a wealthy city three millennia ago.  Situated next to a large, lush oasis and at the crossroads of important caravan routes, from Mesopotamia to Phoenicia and from the Silk Road to the Arabic peninsula, Palmyra's importance was built on commerce.  But while the city grew economically, it remained weak politically.  Among other powers, the Persians and Assyrians ruled over it for long stretches of time.

By the first century AD the region had come under Roman control, just at the time when the power of the Empire was waning.  With increasing confidence, Palmyra began to assert itself, wresting degrees of independence from its distant ruler.  After triumphing over one of Rome's eastern rivals, a local lord declared himself king.  The city continued to grow and prosper and its influence spread until, under Queen Zenobia who defeated the Romans on the battlefield, the kingdom of Palmyra comprised Syria, Palestine and Egypt.  It didn't take long for Rome to focus its remaining strength and restore order.  In 272, the Palmyrene army was blown to pieces and the city squashed.

It never recovered.  For a while Palmyra remained on the map as a minor military outpost but the desert wind eventually engulfed and entombed it.  For a good thousand years, no one heard a word of it until it was rediscovered in the 17th century.  Serious excavations started in the early 20th century and haven't ended yet.  It's easy to see why.  The ruins of temples and buildings, the crumbling remainders of columns and walls, and the clusters of funerary towers rise from a vast expanse of sand that undulates with the promise of archaeological discoveries.

The best-preserved structures date from Roman times and are mostly found in the area encircled by the remnants of a defensive wall.  Here, the footprints of temples, an amphitheatre, residences, businesses, and public open spaces have been reclaimed from the sand.  The ruins include the sixteen columns of the lofty Tetrapylon and a few palaces with walls towering overhead; it doesn't take much imagination to reconstruct the rest in the mind's eye.  Walking along the wide, column-lined avenue that formed the central axis of the city one can almost hear the noise of horse-drawn carts and the shouts of merchants.

tetrapylonrows of columns

Ruins of Palmyra

Entrance to the site is free; fees are only charged for a small number of outstanding monuments like the Temple of Bal and the rebuilt amphitheatre.  Locals try to benefit from visitors by offering their services as guides, by pitching camel rides through the ruins, or by hawking anything from fine Bedouin jewelry made from silver and gemstones to cheap trinkets made in China.  Dozens of peddlers shrouded in ashen gowns and dappled headscarves comb the expanse of the site on crackling motorcycles that spew toxic blue fumes, bouncing over half-submerged walls and slaloming through reerected Corinthian columns in search of tourists and a deal.

water mains

Antique water mains

One must not blame them.  Tadmor, the modern town that has grown on the fringes of its historic sister, is a drab place.  There isn't much to it, as the view from the majestically restored Ibn Maan castle on a hill beyond Palmyra shows.  The grey concrete of the buildings does nothing to distract from the barren desert around.  The few palms are covered in the pale ochre of the desert, and the streets are dusty and rutted.  Were it not for the large oasis that has been the lifeblood of the city since ancient times, Tadmor would be bleak.  The locals get by on agriculture and trade, but the bright lights of international tourism that twinkle just across the street seem curiously out of reach.

Most visitors arrive on coaches from Damascus and either return at the end of an exhausting day or stay in the large hotels that are not locally owned.  Groups bring their own guide, eat in hotel restaurants and shop in the hotel gift shop.  Only a fraction of the money benefits the community.  The unpretentious hotels, restaurants and shops around the Sharia al-Quwatli could be major sources of income for Tadmoris, but they do not attract package tourists.  So while the numbers of individual travelers are rising, they are still too low to sustain variety and choice.

sandstone carvings

Carving skills preserved forever

On our first night in Palmyra, we went to the busiest restaurant on the main drag, a happening place with a large terrace full of chattering customers.  The restaurant was ominously called The Pancake House.  It had a colorful menu in many languages and all the signs of a tourist trap.  In perpetual search of authentic cuisine and natural hospitality we wouldn't normally go near such a place.  But it was late, we were hungry, and we didn't know our way around.  We ordered a tableful of starters and Mansaf, the traditional Bedouin dish.  Surrounded by the voices of the world, we had a mediocre tourist's dinner.

The next night, we set out earlier, determined to find something more in tune with the locality and respectful of the traditions of the region.  We spent nearly two hours roaming increasingly desolate side streets, getting ever more desperate as night fell.  We found all of two restaurants.  While either one looked much nicer than The Pancake House, both were utterly deserted, and we resigned ourselves to another poor imitation of Bedouin cooking and the realization that if the tourists don't come to the locals, the locals have to come to them.  This is the basis of the flourishing pocket trade among the ruins, sputtering motorcycles, biting exhaust fumes and all.

The noise and smells can be avoided early in the morning.  Fleeting moments of almost mystical tranquility define the hour before sunrise, when the first light of the day begins to fill the sky.  At first, the handful of visitors is lost in the obscurity of this huge sandpit, blending into columns and walls.  There is not much light and no sound.  The quiet is profound and the developing visual spectacle sublime.  From near-complete darkness structures are etched in delicate pink.  Then the limestone brightens and assumes a hue of rose that slowly changes to golden.  It is still silent, as if the veil of history stifles all sound.  But now increasing numbers of early risers somnambulate over from the big hotels and the town.  Once critical mass is reached, the explosion of the first motorcycle engine marks the beginning of the new day.  Five minutes later, the sun acknowledges this, rising over the horizon beyond the oasis and chasing away the chill of the morning and the warmth of the colors.  Fifteen hours of parched solar brutality lie ahead, until dusk sets it and the stones are once again infused with the magic glow of low light, the long shadows imparting volume and substance on the ruins.

Palmyra at dawn

Palmyra before most get out of bed

Homs

East of Palmyra begin the vast sands of Mesopotamia.  Two roads lead straight to the dawn of civilization and into the void of history, to ruined towns that were old when nothing else existed.  The highway in the opposite direction crosses a less-forbidding stretch of desert.  The fertile valley of the Orontes River is only a two-hour drive away.  Beyond that, the road climbs over the Coastal Mountains and drops down to the laziness of the Mediterranean Sea.  We daydreamt of sipping our afternoon coffee on a terrace by the beach, but in the sea of ochre dust just a few miles outside of Tadmor, a hitchhiking Bedouin had other plans.

She stood by the side of the road as if waiting for the bus, calmly convinced it would stop for her.  She was about fifty and dressed in a featureless grey coat and the loosely fitting scarf of necessity, a checkered cloth of red and white that protected her head from sand and sun.  From underneath her scarf, red hair sprouted wildly, flaming like freshly burnt bricks.  Syria abounds in this legacy of Crusader occupation, but each individual stands out like a bizarre eccentricity among the coal-black hair of the majority.

We invited her into our car and she gladly accepted, greeting and thanking us profusely in an Arabic that didn't sound like anything that's taught in beginners' classes.  After an initial struggle, we understood that she wanted to go to Homs, two thirds on the way to the sea and not at all out of our way.  From the sparkle in her eyes and the elfish smile on her freckled face, we guessed that she enjoyed the ride, though our linguistic incompatibility forfended any meaningful conversation.  Having safely made it to Homs, she gave us a bag of cookies that were still warm, baked the very same morning in all probability, and waddled away in the direction of the souq.

We parked the car and followed her example, making our way into the maze of crooked alleys that comprise the commercial district.  The cavernous souq is protected from the winds blowing in from the furnace of the desert by a heavy ceiling made from dried-mud bricks.  Small, colorful shops specialize in scarves and dresses, most of them bright, sequined and beset with golden jingles and sparkling baubles.  In defiance of their glitzy appearance, the dresses were most decorously cut and obviously compliant with the strictly codified rules of modesty.

At the far end of the souq and a bit out of the way was the groceries section.  In the coolness of the vaulted passages sellers praised their eggs, milk and cheese.  Beyond that, out in the sun, started the fruit market, packed with customers and produce.  Colorful piles of grapes and eggplants and heaps of stacked bananas grew precariously high against the walls of crumbling tenements to the left and the right and made the narrow alleys nearly impassable.  Patrons brushed close to each other, avoiding collisions only at the last moment.  Every now and then, surreally, a small car of Iranian make puttered by, missing melons and pumpkins by mere inches.  Pedestrians had to squeeze into the victuals to make way but didn't seem to mind.  The atmosphere was very relaxed.  We soaked up the smells of the fruits and the fragrances from the spice stalls and wandered aimlessly.  We needed nothing and engaged in no bargaining, but our way back to the car was weighed down by two plastic bags heavy with grapes and pears that stall holders had handed us with big smiles and gregarious ahlan-wa-sahlans, ignoring our attempts to pay.  Welcome and easy indeed.

Krak des Chevaliers

The Coastal Mountains, just to the north of Lebanon, are a Syrian oddity.  The vivid green color and lush vegetation come as a welcome change after days of sand and dust.  A breeze from the Mediterranean keeps the air pleasantly fresh, even in the heat of summer, and flowering shrubs and trees keep the air fragrant.  It's a lovely area, but not close enough to Damascus to be totally overrun by wealthy residents trying to avoid the furnace of their city in summer.  Still, second-home money has flowed into the area and smart villages and booming towns dot the hills and slopes.  The roads are almost Alpine in their sinuousness, and the villages look Italian.  Inviting cafes dominate small plazas, and olive groves spread into the distance.

Foreign visitors have not discovered these mountains yet.  The trails in the hills offer great walking, and the steep roads would be perfect for ambitious cyclists, were it not for trench-like potholes and sandy hairpins.  But bikers don't grind up passes and hikers don't venture to the cliffs, and in the villages it's only locals that have tea and chat.  Outside the holiday season, the area feels eerily deserted, with most of its homes, just finished or still under construction, quiet as if abandoned.

The sun set gently on a pastoral valley, the dim light creating an effect of extraordinary spaciousness.  We had stopped for the night at a small crumbling hotel by the roadside.  The owner welcomed us like friends he hadn't seen in years and served us tea and biscuits and tall tales of fortunes lost and made again.  He had returned from the US where many of his cousins and brothers still live and now runs the hotel that his father had built.  This valley was his love, and he spoke glowingly about the economic boom driven by Damascene and foreign investment.  But money wasn't everything for him – it had to come from Christian purses.  Our host insisted that neither he nor any other local would sell to a Muslim; he was adamant that the community would ostracize the traitor.  Becoming increasingly agitated, the hotel owner tried to convince us that he didn't have anything against Islam, all the while ridiculing its beliefs and traditions.  Oddly, his main objection to the presence of Muslims was the noise of the muezzin's call to prayer.  His discourse ended with the categorical declaration that "there will be no mosque in this valley".

This kind of narrow-mindedness reveals conflict smoldering underneath the shiny surface of religious tolerance that is officially promoted.  Islam dominates over all aspects of society but is supposed to do so magnanimously.  A mind-boggling number of Christian denominations exist, from Catholic over various Orthodox faiths to the Assyrian Church of the East.  Mosques are everywhere but churches and crosses are also common sights.  There are monasteries and convents at sites holy to Muslims and Christians alike.  However, while the number of mosques is growing, that of churches has been in a long decline.  More Christians than Muslims have emigrated in the last fifty years, and those staying behind feel increasingly overwhelmed and ignored.  Jews, the third religious group of historic significance in the region, have nearly all left.

fresco at the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssian

900-year-old fresco at the Monastery of St. Moses the Abyssian

The country is thus being slowly homogenized religiously.  Whether it also turns more conservative is hard to tell.  Women with uncovered hair are rare outside Christian quarters, and some mosques go to great lengths to making visitors stand out and feel uncomfortable.  However, people in the streets are as open and curious as possible.  Early during our trip we were sitting on an alabaster ledge inside the Great Mosque of Damascus, tracing with our eyes the shuffling of the faithful across the vast courtyard of blinding marble, when two kids approached us, hand in hand like best friends.  They wanted to know our names and where we were from and spoke proudly of the beauty of the mosque.  Then they taught us to write their names and ours.  Like these two boys, other Muslims we spoke to never talked religion.  It's inherent in their lives and doesn't seem to merit discussion. 

When we got up the next morning, the valley floor was still dim with the shadows that remained of the night, but the mountains were drenched in light.  High above our heads towered a structure we had missed on our arrival the night before.  The limestone walls of a mighty fortress glowed golden in the morning light.  At the time of the Crusades, fortresses were essential to controlling the contested land, and dozens were built in the Fertile Crescent and on Cyprus.  As the area lay for centuries in a dull shadow of history, many have survived largely intact.  The greatest and most impressive is the Krak des Chevaliers, and it now glowered over our breakfast terrace from the safety of its hilltop bastion.

Krak des Chevaliers

The mother of all castles

Like most Crusader castles, the Krak des Chevaliers was initially built by a local emir at the turn of the previous millennium but captured by Christian forces soon thereafter.  The knights decked it out with state-of-the-art defensive technology, adding a massive outer wall and bulging towers, fortifying the ramparts, and sharpening the battlements.  They also expanded it to garrison several thousand soldiers and their horses.  By virtue of its strength and powerful design, the Krak withstood all sieges over a period of nearly two centuries until the Crusaders were expelled from the region.  The last defenders left in 1271 after negotiating free passage in return for giving up their fight.

view over the fortress

A view like the fortress commander

Today, the Krak des Chevaliers looks largely as it must have done 800 years ago.  Walls, towers and the internal architecture are magnificently preserved, and only few structural features are obviously missing.  What heightens the sensation of stepping back in time is the complete lack of handrails, signs, prescribed footpaths, and rules to obey.  In a carefree approach that borders on the negligent, visitors are simply asked to watch their step while exploring and discovering the fortress.  You wouldn't want to let kids run freely, but adults benefit inordinately from the system.

view over the fortress

On the roof of the Krak

Circumnavigating the outer ramparts gives a first impression of the size of the castle, the largest of its kind in the Middle East.  The outer wall and the inner fortresses extend over five levels, each with its own set of rooms, towers, terraces, and countless defensive functions.  All these features can be explored; everything is accessible to visitors.  No guide is needed, only a torch and the curiosity to forge ahead.  With every level one ascends, the design and purpose of the parts becomes clearer.  Long before reaching the top of the Grand Master's tower, the highest spot of the fortress and the only one benefiting from a banister, the parts click together like pieces of a puzzle, and history becomes alive.  Missing are but knights in chinking armour and fair ladies in wafting robes.

The Dead Cities

History is also said to come alive in the countryside fifty miles southwest of Aleppo.  There, the dry desert air has preserved a sprinkling of ghost towns that once formed a bustling conurbation, comprising hundreds of settlements and surrounding agricultural land.  For reasons unknown all were abandoned 15 centuries ago.  Despite being among Syria's major attractions, the Dead Cities are difficult to reach without a guide.  Maps of the country are reminiscent of modern art with their minimal detail and uncomplicated presentation but don't describe the geography of the land accurately.  They are all but useless when traveling the back roads.  And while all the main highways are clearly indicated in Arabic and English, the intersections of country roads are only ever accorded fading signs of hand-drawn squiggles that are indecipherable to the untrained eye.  Even when the letters can be pieced together, there is often no correspondence with the transliterations in the maps.

When we left the comfort of the Damascus–Aleppo highway, the sun was still low in the sky and our talk half full.  As we approached the Dead Cities, the road became narrower and the area more forlorn.  Soon, a lunar landscape of reddish boulders and settled dust spread around us.  The road tapered into a lane and started wiggling along the flanks of a hill.  Every now and then a low separating wall of stacked rubble betrayed human activity, and on occasion squat houses rose beside what had become a choppy track.  The dwellings' age was impossible to tell.  They could have dated back to when the Dead Cities were still alive, but they were not what we were after.  Near every residence were people, glazing after us questioningly but without alarm.

The alarm was ours.  After crossing the fifth hamlet placidly nestled in a time capsule of ancient rock and undisturbed locals, we had not seen a hint of tourist infrastructure.  We stopped, rolled the window down and shouted a few names from the guidebook at the inquisitive faces that had quickly gathered around us.  Our mangled Arabic was only slowly understood but did result in a surge of gesticulations that broadly indicated the direction of the path we were on.  Not much reassured and slowly running out of petrol, we continued, only to hit a major road after the next bend.  In the distance on the left was what looked like a larger village.  We drove into it and stopped in front of a derelict service station that was illuminated by the bright but transient glow of our unjustified hope.  The only pump turned out to be decommissioned, and there was no attendant in sight.  But then Milad shouted the magic words of Arabic welcome, Ahlan wa sahlan, from across the street, and our odyssey was over.

Our lunch took much longer than the story just told.  Heartfelt hospitality knows no time and feels no rush.  After a few hours, we were sitting together like old friends, exchanging tales from our youth.  Our little teacups were refilled, and the conversation drifted in yet another unexplored direction.  We could have stayed forever, but at some point there was no denying it anymore:  We had to depart.  Milad's sister offered to show us around Sergilla, but it was already too late for that.  We had only two hours left until the car needed to be in Aleppo, the final stop of our journey through this wonderful country.

Epilogue

Syria is not an easy country to travel.  The infrastructure is poor, map coverage is patchy, and the language presents a formidable challenge.  It takes a certain amount of boldness to go forth and explore, but people are extremely welcoming and helpful, and there are hotels and restaurants in every town.  Flexible minibus services and affordable taxis unlock most of the country for those reluctant to drive in the anarchic traffic.  Off the roads, Syria is exceedingly safe, though the intransigent government with its diplomatic antics doesn't do much to communicate this fact to the world.

The rewards for being adventurous are tremendous:  Spectacular historic monuments visited by trickles of people that would be surging streams in any other country.  The opportunity to explore and see a country before it is spoiled by mass tourism, without having to resort to camping and freeze-dried food.  And lastly unforgettable encounters with warm, open locals like Milad – even if that means missing an attraction or two because meal and conversation take too long.

Spring 2010