The Roads from Damascus
With its crusader citadels, exquisite mosques and desolate ruins, all of Syria worth is well worth a visit. Nick Smith takes to the highways
As the sun sets over Damascus, its last rays shine their golden light along the Street Called Straight. Lined with coffee bars, trendy boutiques and antique shops, in the early evening this part of the Old Town exudes a metropolitan air. But it’s also steeped in Syria’s religious history. At every junction there’s a mosque or a church, and as the Old Town starts to come to life, my guide tells me that this Roman road – the Via Recta – is the only thoroughfare mentioned by name in the Bible. Bound up in the story of the conversion of St Paul, the Street Called Straight is where pilgrims, travelers and the curious congregate to start exploring this exhilarating city.
By the time night has fallen, I’m sitting in a restaurant high on Mount Qasioun tucking into a mezze of humus, grilled aubergines, olives and flat bread all sloshed down with Syrian sweet white wine. I’ve been given a table at a panoramic window, where the view of the world’s oldest city is breathtaking. With no modern skyscrapers or financial district to get in the way, Damascus is an unbroken sea of green lights, each denoting one of the city’s 2,000 mosques.
The most lovely of all is the Umayyad mosque, the fourth holiest site in Islam and understandably known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus. At one time the largest building in the world, it’s famous for being the resting place of John the Baptist’s head (three other sites contest this) and the place where Jesus Christ will reappear at the end of the world. There’s the tomb of Saladin, and there are exquisite golden mosaics. But for all this grandeur, as the clouds of pigeons circulate around the great open courtyard, it’s a functioning mosque, where you can walk among hundreds of Damascenes going about their normal daily prayer.
Guiding me through Syria is Amelia Stewart, who runs a desert adventure and cultural travel company, Simoon. What with all the Christian architecture, Roman ruins and other archaeological sites, she tells me there’s plenty to keep you busy. ‘But you’ve also got to take time to soak up the landscapes, try out the fabulous Syrian restaurants and sample the local wine.’ One of the best reasons for visiting Syria, Amelia explains, is because you’re often literally tumbling over ruins, even in a fortnight ‘you can really get the flavour of the place.’
From Damascus we head for the Krac des Chevaliers, a mediaeval crusader fortress once described by T E Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.’ It’s easy to see why he was so impressed. This imposing edifice once controlled the road from Antioch to Beirut, standing as sentinel to the eastern Mediterranean, from which the occupying Christians could scour the landscape for Muslim armies mustering in the valleys below.
All too quickly, we’re heading north across broken, stony terrain deep into northern Syria, where the highlight is the Church of St Simeon Stylites. Simeon was an early Christian aesthete, who in order to remove himself from the conventions of the material world sat on top of a pillar for 37 years. Not much of the pillar remains today, but the ruins of the church, set in a pine wood in these ancient rocky hillsides is one of the more important diversions en route to Aleppo. At Syria’s second city a gargantuan citadel presides over the old town, protected by ‘murder holes’, vents above the gateways through which boiling oil was poured on to its attackers.
Almost a century ago T.E. Lawrence travelled through Syria on foot, pausing to take part in archaeological digs. He stayed in Aleppo at Baron’s before famously leaving this ‘beautiful hotel’ without paying his bill. Today, with its threadbare Turkish carpets, leather club chairs and elegantly rotating brass fans, it looks as though it’s hardly changed since Lawrence’s day. But it worked its faded charm upon Agatha Christie who wrote Murder on the Orient Express while staying here, accompanying her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan on his expeditions.
No visit to Syria can be complete without visiting the desolate, haunting ruins of the ancient caravan city of Palmyra. Only partially restored, it has an apocalyptic ‘cities in dust’ atmosphere that only increases as you wander through the broken stones at night. A Unesco-listed World Heritage Site, it’s probably unique in that you can walk among the ruins unhindered. There are no fences, guards or ‘keep out’ signs – only a photographer’s paradise as the tower tombs and arcades of pillars cast their long shadows in the pale desert sunrise.
After Palmyra it’s time to complete the circle and return to Damascus, back to the Street Called Straight, the rooftop restaurants and the atmospheric late-night bars. I decide to pay a final visit to the House of Saint Ananias, where it’s claimed, St Paul was baptized. But on my way I’m stopped by a man who asks me into his trinket shop for tea. He tells me he once played the part of St Paul in a movie version of the saint’s life. We drink glasses of sweet tea and he tells me the his story and lists the places I should visit – the Armenian Church, the Jewish quarter, the shrine of Saint George. As we say goodbye, I look ruefully at the ‘traditional damascene dagger’ he’s sold me, and wonder how much of his story is true.
Way to go
1) Simoon Travel offers an 11-day ‘Highlights of Syria’ tour. Departing 5th March 2010, starting at £2695 pp. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, guides. For further information phone +44 207 622 6263, or www.simoontravel.com
2) bmi offers daily flights from Heathrow to Damascus. Return flights are from just £353 (economy) and £1168 (Business) including taxes. For further information visit www.flybmi.com