“I have cheap and nasty.” “Oh, No!” he said, smacking his forehead and actually blushing. I mean “cheap and nice.” “So sorry — my English — I have just learnt.”
This friendly and amusing exchange with a shawl seller in the museum souks of Aleppo was typical of my recent visit to Syria. I was there by invitation of the Ministry for Tourism who are anxious to put right the West’s perception of visiting the Middle East and to lay to rest some of the misconceptions about travelling in the region. I found a friendly and laid-back country, minimal in its extremism and rich with a cultural heritage stretching back over the centuries to several thousand years BC — truly a cradle of civilisation.
Arriving in Damascus at dusk, as the calls to prayer echoed over the city, I was excited about beginning what was to be an extraordinary journey through some of the most well-known ancient biblical sites. I visited the Omayyade Mosque at sunset, mingling with the crowds comfortably enrobed in my a’abyeha which must be worn by all ladies. I was entranced by the soaring ceilings, sparkling chandeliers and majestic back-lit minarets casting shadows of green and pink over the pomegranate sellers at the gates. Walking back through the covered souq of the old city to emerge into the warm night was a wonderfully evocative experience. Silks, brassware, glass and gold stalls stood shoulder-to-shoulder with those offering nuts and spices, inlay and mosaics and tiny cafes crammed with locals drinking tea and smoking ‘argileh’ or water pipes where charcoal burns on tobacco scented with apple or strawberry.
Heading east across the desert, Palmyra rose from the sand; majestic Roman columns and triumphal arches, tower tombs and underground vaults. Here one can buy sweet sticky dates and thick dark honey — specialities of the region.
I was most excited to see Aleppo in the northern part of the country, some four hours’ drive from Damascus, and Syria’s second city, dominated by the enormous 12th century citadel. They say it was never conquered and I could see why — the solid ramparts and series of ingenious devices to repel invaders. As I wandered through the museum souqs, famous for their oriental atmosphere, a massive storm broke out and lightning cracked all round, illuminating the wet cobblestones and clearing the air which had become quite thick with dust over the previous 24 hours and left a brown hue over the city.
Driving north-west out of Aleppo up towards the Turkish border, the scenery becomes quite picturesque, rocky hillsides of olive groves and pine trees, and from the sanctuary of St Simeon, a ruined church, one can see right down into the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon.
Returning to Damascus, I stopped at Hama and saw the great wooden water-wheels which have been used continuously for the last 1300 years and, in another spectacular thunderstorm, I scaled the impressive bastions of Crac des Chevaliers, the world’s best preserved crusader castle and a perfect example of a military castle.
On my last day I went south to Bosra, an entire Roman city built of basalt which houses the impressive 9,000-seat theatre, considered to be the most complete in the world.
My visit over, there was just time for a visit to a traditional hammam or Turkish steam bath in the old city, where I collected my threadbare towel and wooden clogs and spent an unforgettable hour or so being scrubbed and massaged and chatting in broken English to a friendly group of Syrian ladies, finally leaving with tingling skin and a feeling of utter relaxation.
Syria is a friendly and accommodating country with a treasure trove of architectural and cultural sights. A memorable stay would be in one of the old Damasin and Allepian houses now being converted into stunning boutique hotels. Set around a central courtyard beautifully laid out with intricate fountains, they feature hand-painted rooms, rich with mosaics, silks and tapestries and hung with delicate chandeliers and enchanting beaded lanterns.
Returning home to winter in England I felt privileged to have completed another piece of the jigsaw of countries that link to form the ancient caravanserai corridors of the silk route. Syria combines extremely well with Jordan and I would highly recommend a visit.”