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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Time Traveling in Syria

Seen from the outside, Syria has a rough veneer. Few Americans, at most, think of it as a tourist destination. But pass through its doors, wander its souks, explore its back roads, and Syria turns out to be something very different.

In many ways, Syria is like an old Damascene home, with walls that give way to an inviting courtyard. In four years of living in the Middle East, in fact, I have found traveling in Syria to be the single most pleasant surprise. It is a land of stunning variety - of geography, culture and, above all, of the relics left by those who over many centuries have battled for its control.

Nowhere else in the region, perhaps nowhere else at all, can a visitor leap so effortlessly from one era to another - from Roman ruins to Crusader castles, from Mameluke mosques to Christian churches, from Ottoman caravans to primitive, creaking waterwheels.

Today, Syria's two major centers, Damascus and Aleppo, are thriving, noisy metropolises. But at their hearts lie ancient covered markets, with serpentine alleyways, where a visitor can begin to appreciate the two places' rival claims to being the oldest continuously inhabited city.

It must be said that Syria is not always an easy place to travel. Although it is trying hard to promote tourism, the country still lacks truly modern highways and is short of first-class hotels. Obtaining a visa can be cumbersome; all applications are closely scrutinized, and because Syria remains technically at war with Israel, would-be travelers who have an Israeli stamp in their passport are bound to be turned away.

But anyone with a taste for the exotic and the old-fashioned will find Syria a wonderful antidote to the monotony brought on by globalization.

I had visited Damascus many times and twice before had journeyed well outside the capital - to the fortified storybook castle known as Crac des Chevaliers and to the ancient city of Palmyra, where Roman tombs, temples and pillars are spread out across a stark desert. But it was not until last spring, when my wife, Lisa, and I decided to venture out on a four-day trip, that I began to learn just how much Syria was hiding.

With a hired car and driver, we moved in a kind of figure eight, heading first from Damascus north toward Aleppo, through the town of Hama - famous for its waterwheels, but also infamous for a 1982 massacre of at least 10,000.

In Aleppo's Armenian quarter, we discovered old homes newly transformed into small hotels or restaurants where the cuisine, including salads of fresh herbs and salty cheese, was some of the most memorable I have tasted in the Middle East.

From Aleppo, we curved to the southwest, passing through the rugged mountains toward the Mediterranean by way of Qal'at Saladin, the remote Crusader fortress that the British archaeologist, military strategist and author Thomas E. Lawrence called "the most sensational thing in castle-building I have ever seen."

Near the port city of Latakia, we toured the Bronze Age city of Ugarit, where evidence of the world's first cuneiform alphabet was discovered on a terra-cotta tablet. Then we swung south and east, past Crac des Chevaliers and across the Syrian desert to the date-palm oasis where Palmyra lies before returning to Damascus.

The Road

to Damascus

Arriving at the Damascus Airport can confirm old prejudices. The airport has been renovated, but the first impression is left by surly soldiers who thumb through passports looking for evidence of an Israeli stamp. On the walls are posters of Syrian leader Hafez Assad, which are ubiquitous in the capital.

On the streets, drivers are eerily obedient. Much of the construction is modern and unremarkable. But plunge into Old Damascus on foot, and the senses ignite. Enter through the Hamidiyyah souk, and you may be swept like the tide through this bazaar, past merchants offering tawdry modern wares and others peddling treasures like the brocade cloth that bears the city's name.

Those who can resist shopping, at least at first, should wade farther, to the triumphal arch that marks the remains of the Temple of Jupiter, on a site that has housed sacred enclosures for more than 3,000 years. The arch guards the gate to the Umayyad Mosque, one of the most impressive in the Middle East.

Another place to wander is the Street Called Straight, a major thoroughfare since Hellenistic times, and featured in biblical tales of St. Paul's conversion to Christianity. Straight Street also marks the best route to the Bab Sharqi, in a quarter that has a cluster of good restaurants.

It is here that old Damascene houses may be most easily glimpsed, along the street leading to the Chapel of St. Ananias, on a site where Paul reputedly took shelter. Visitors are free to peer into many courtyards, and in some houses, small shops offer Damascus' most famous wares, including its brocade and inlaid wooden boxes.

There is much more to see in old Damascus, but after three days we were glad to get on the road.

Massacre at Hama

Our first stop, Hama, lies on the Orontes River, about two hours north of Damascus. Those who follow the politics of the Middle East may remember the city for the killing that took place there in 1982, when Assad sent his army into the city to suppress an uprising by the outlawed Moslem Brotherhood.

The government later flattened much of the large area where the fighting took place, but as we wandered through the narrow alleys near the local museum, we found walls still pockmarked with innumerable bullet holes.

When I asked one man what had happened there, he jerked a finger across his neck. That lent a somber mood to our morning. But not in Hama, nor anywhere else in Syria, did I feel a sense of threat. The Syrian government's record is far from clean when it comes to terrorism, but even the U.S. State Department, perhaps its biggest critic, says the government has not been tied to an act of terrorism since 1986.

These days, as for centuries, the sound of Hama is the creaking of waterwheels being turned slowly by the river's flow.

We pushed on, first to the Roman ruins at Apamea, another 90 minutes or so away, along a narrow road that wound through lush countryside. The ancient city, founded in the fifth century B.C. had a long and glorious history, its visitors including Cleopatra and Mark Antony.

Its central avenue, about 2 kilometers long, was lined by 1,200 columns, some 200 of which have been righted again.

Aleppo, two hours north, was disappointing at first, crowded with cars and noisy with the honking of horns. But a glimpse of the ancient citadel served as a reminder that this was no ordinary city. And nearby, in the ancient stone-covered souk, a maze of alleys crowded with craftsmen, merchants and donkey carts, we reveled in finding a market that is utterly authentic.

Temples in the Desert

By design, we had saved Syria's best-known sites for last, and both Crac des Chevaliers and Palmyra were worth the wait. The Crac, set amid green rolling hills, may be the paragon of castles, the one in the mind of any child who sets out with a bucket and shovel.

Taken over and improved by the Knights Hospitaler beginning in 1144, it was among the last of the Crusader fortresses to be built in the region and the most formidable, not conquered until the mid-13th century. During a few hours of wandering, we saw that the happiest visitors appeared to be the children, exploring the vast dungeon, stables and towers that offered a commanding view.

To reach our final stop, Palmyra, required a 2 1/2 hour drive across the desert, where Bedouin shepherds watched their herds. On our arrival, the sight of Roman temples and columns rising so incongruously from the sands drove home the role that Palmyra played in its heyday, some 400 years beginning in the first century B.C.

Made viable by a spring that still feeds the oasis, the city straddled the main trading route between the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean, as well as the Silk Road, and the taxes it imposed provided vast wealth.

Throughout most of the year, the fierceness of the desert sun can make midday explorations uncomfortable at best, and the flat light can render even the most impressive of the ruins unremarkable. But palm-shaded courtyards of several outdoor restaurants are good places to take breaks, while sunset is the time to explore the Arab castle, atop a steep hill.

On the final morning of our trip, we set our alarms very early. Soon we were outside, shivering in the darkness, picking and stumbling our way across the rock y soil toward shapes we could barely discern. Bit by bit, the sky began to lighten and the sun's first pink rays shot across the desert to illuminate ancient marble and, as it has for millenniums, bring Palmyra to life.

Getting Around

Rama Travel and Tourism, Fardoos Street, Damascus, arranged for the car, driver and hotels for our trip. A car and driver for a journey outside Damascus runs about $100 a day, at the rate of 43 Syrian pounds to the dollar. Tel. (963-11) 222-7076.

Nahas Travel and Tourism, Fardoos Street, also offers good service and rates. Tel. (963-11) 223-2000.